On the heels of suffering a rare three-game sweep, the St. Louis Cardinals still enter the last week of June with the best record in baseball. They continue to lead the most top-heavy division in the sport and have garnered universal respect and acclaim from insiders, scouts and fans who follow America's pastime the closest.
At the risk of hyperbole, the Cardinals can be considered the best franchise in Major League Baseball. They have earned that moniker on the back of a philosophy that should be the talk of the entire professional sporting landscape.
Through a combination of continuity through change, marrying one of baseball's greatest debates, efficient use of resources, roster familiarity and prioritizing the franchise above all else, St. Louis has become the organization which all young front office minds will emulate over the next decade.
As pointed out by Bill Baer for ESPN, the Cardinals have had just one below-.500 season in the 21st century. Without context, that is impressive, but when taking into account the seismic shift forced to take place during the end of general manger Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa's departures respectively, it becomes amazing.
Jocketty, now heading up the front office for the highly successful Cincinnati Reds, helped build seven National League Central Division championship teams from 1994-2007. That run includes a World Series title in 2006.
La Russa, one of the best managers in MLB history, retired in the aftermath of the team's 2011 World Series win. He left still on the top of his game in the midst of guiding an underdog group from the depths of failure to a remarkable run in to and through October.
Replacing a possible Hall of Famer (Jocketty) and a shoe-in for Cooperstown (La Russa) is an arduous task for any ownership group in sports. If finding the correct replacement took multiple attempts and a period of failure, management likely would have been given a pass.
Instead, the successors chosen—John Mozeliak as general manager and Mike Matheny as manager—have thrived, keeping the team in the championship hunt on a yearly basis.
As the years have passed since Mozeliak's hiring in 2007, his philosophy to team-building has had enough success to serve as the tipping point for a marriage that was immortalized in the book and eventual big-screen adaptation of Moneyball.
In other words, Mozeliak, who started his career in St. Louis as an assistant within the scouting department, found a way to make the marriage between sabermetrics and scouting work.
Some old-school fans scoff at the notion of using numbers and math to define value, as they side with scouts and the "eye test" for evaluating players. The Cardinals, however, accept information no matter the source.
By having a former scouting assistant running the organization, both the scouts and analytical department can believe their work is validated and opinions elicited in an honest and gregarious manner. It helps that Mozeliak looks at WAR and doesn't necessarily think ERA tells the whole story of a pitcher.
Outside of the headline-grabbing trades executed during his tenure—Jim Edmonds for a young San Diego Padres third baseman named David Freese and the 2011 trade deadline bullpen shuffle that saw Colby Rasmus leave—the Cardinals have excelled under Mozeliak's watch by infusing the roster with homegrown, dynamic players from the minor league system. In fact, the Cardinals produced nine big league players from the 2006 draft alone.
That kind of young, cost-friendly talent has allowed St. Louis to achieve something that so many other big-market teams have failed at: spending wisely.
With a payroll in excess of $100 million, the Cardinals aren't the Oakland A's of the early 2000s or the Tampa Bay Rays of recent memory, but rather, a big-market team that has resources and won't make big mistakes that they will have to cover up.
The ability to promote, play and watch young, pre-arbitration eligible players like Freese, Matt Carpenter, Jon Jay and Matt Adams perform over the past few seasons has afforded the front office many luxuries. Among them are the resources to carry Matt Holiday's salary, sign productive veteran hitters like Carlos Beltran and Lance Berkman and award franchise anchors Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright long-term, lucrative extensions.
Of course, the payroll flexibility would not have been there for some of those moves had the organization not hearkened back to one of its core roots during the 2011-12 offseason: The name on the back of the jersey matters far less than the name on the front.
In other words, St. Louis was not going to break its back for an aging, declining icon named Albert Pujols to sell jerseys and seats or warm the hearts of Midwesterners yearning for the days of the superstar that would only suit up for one franchise.
For this organization, Pujols was worth a lucrative dollar figure, but not one that would make him the highest paid player per year or cripple the Cardinals' ability to re-sign other major pieces on their roster.
When Pujols took his services and future Hall of Fame bat to Los Angeles, the Cardinals remained steadfast, replaced him with younger options that weren't less productive and still won baseball games.
Part of the reason that St. Louis let Pujols leave was the knowledge of its own system, players like Allen Craig and Matt Adams and the belief in a group of athletes that grew up together in the lower levels of their minor league system.
Mozeliak and his team have had the convictions to make the right baseball moves because of a strong sense of confidence in the players they've cultivated through their system over the years, many of which starred together long before arriving in St. Louis.
The 2013 NL Central race is shaping up to be one of the best pennant chases of the summer, but good luck if you're betting against the Cardinals.
You may not understand the decisions, names or pedigree of their best players, but it's hard to disagree with the results.
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