The New York Yankees may be thought of as Major League Baseball's model franchise, but here's the worst-kept secret in the sport: They're not. These days, that title belongs to the St. Louis Cardinals.
With the two teams facing off for a three-game series in St. Louis, now is as good a time as any not only to explain why, but also to point out what the mighty Yankees can—and should—learn from the Cardinals.
To be clear, the Yankees have baseball's best resume, thanks to all sorts of accomplishments, like 27 World Series titles, and their lofty status as the game's most recognizable and valuable franchise with a long and storied history. The Yankees are a perennial power, one that has made it to the postseason practically every year for the past two decades (17 out of 19 seasons, to be exact). There's no denying or debating this. It is fact.
The Cardinals' recent run of success, however, merits that they be mentioned as a part of—if not as the lead in to—any discussion of baseball's most well-run organization. While the Yankees and Cardinals have reached October 11 times and nine times, respectively, since the first season of the 21st century (2001), St. Louis actually has won more playoff games (56 to 51) and, most importantly, more championships (two to one) over that time.
Two incredibly successful franchises, and yet two very different paths to said success. The difference lies not in their on-field achievements but in their behind-the-scenes methods, primarily their draft-day decision making and organizational player development process.
If the Yankees and Cardinals were subjected to an examination on the show How It's Made, the methods of manufacturing all their success over the past decade-plus would look drastically different.
For instance, take a look at the cumulative wins above replacement (WAR) totaled by draft picks while they were a part of each team, according to Baseball Reference:
|WAR by Draftees Playing for Yankees and Cardinals (2001-2014)|
While not overwhelmingly so, the difference in total WAR over this span is pretty stark. And there are a few quick takeaways that put the numbers into context better—and serve to widen the gap.
First, the Yankees have had only two fruitful drafts (WAR of 10.0 or higher) in their past 13, while the Cardinals have had four. Obviously, it's a bit early to be gauging any of the last few drafts, but safe to say that youngsters like Michael Wacha and Kolten Wong already look like they're ready to create even more distance in the WAR tally—especially since not a single Yankees selection from the past three Junes has made it to the majors yet.
Secondly, the majority of New York's draft WAR accrued as Yankees comes from Brett Gardner (21.0 WAR) and David Robertson (10.2). Those two were drafted all the way back in 2005 (third round) and 2006 (17th round), respectively, by the way.
Think about this for a second: Gardner is the last player drafted and developed by the Yankees who has reached even 200 career at-bats while wearing pinstripes.
General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged as much to Wallace Matthews and Andrew Marchand of ESPN New York this past February:
It's not as good as we need it to be in terms of results. There are a number of reasons behind that. At the end of the day, we've had some misses, without a doubt. We've had some guys who didn't make their projections, who failed to cross the finish line. So basically it's fair to criticize where we're currently sitting.
And while picking late in the draft year after year doesn't make things easy for the Yankees, that argument is moot in this case because the Cardinals have had the same fate most years.
Meanwhile, so much of the Yankees' ability to sustain their success over the past decade has been tied to the simple fact that they've spent more money than any other team in the sport. New York was usurped by the Los Angeles Dodgers this year for the top spot in payroll, and that marked the first time since 1998—15 years ago—that the Yankees won't be No. 1 in that regard.
Of course, the Yankees' roster still checked in at $204 million, according to calculations. It's not as if they suddenly stopped splurging.
In fact, it was just the opposite, as they spent about half a billion—yes, with a "b"—to bring in free agents Masahiro Tanaka ($155 million), Jacoby Ellsbury ($153 million), Brian McCann ($85 million) and Carlos Beltran ($45 million), among others.
The Cardinals' biggest move of the winter? Inking Jhonny Peralta to a $53 million deal to help solidify a shortstop position that has been a black hole in St. Louis for years.
This past offseason more or less symbolizes the difference in approaches between the Yankees and Cardinals, who have consistently ranked on the fringes of the top 10 in payrolls since the turn of the century, according to USA Today's database—but never anywhere near New York.
That's because St. Louis has shown an ability to get the most out of its draft picks, both early selections like Wacha (Round 1, 2012), Shelby Miller (Round 1, 2009) and Lance Lynn (Supplemental Round, 2008) and later ones like Allen Craig (Round 8, 2006), Matt Carpenter (Round 13, 2009), Trevor Rosenthal (Round 21, 2009) and Matt Adams (Round 23, 2009).
Because the Yankees have failed to make the right choices most every June for the past decade and then didn't help themselves in the development process, they've been forced to spend in free agency to obtain talent.
That tends to lead to a roster full of older players, which is why the Yankees' pitchers rank as the 10th-oldest in baseball at 29.3 years on average and their hitters check in as the oldest—by a large margin—at 32.7.
The Cardinals have worked the opposite way: choosing wisely and cultivating young talent along the way, then supplementing with a key free-agent acquisition or two. St. Louis' average ages, by the way, are 26.6 for pitchers (second-youngest) and 28.9 for hitters (16th-youngest).
Monday night's game between these two clubs is a perfect example of this dichotomy. In what turned out to be an extra-inning affair that went 12 frames, the Yankees and Cardinals both used exactly 17 players.
Whereas the Cardinals' lineup featured 12 players who were originally drafted or signed by the team, the Yankees could say the same about only eight.
And of those eight, Alfonso Soriano's career actually began in Japan, and he only just returned to New York in a trade last July; while captain Derek Jeter is the longest-tenured Yankee, having been drafted in 1992 and debuting in 1995. And don't forget: This is Jeter's last season, as everyone is more than well aware.
The Yankees may have won Monday's game 6-4, but old man Jeter's looming retirement is but another reminder that although the Cardinals have become baseball's model organization, the Yankees' model, while far from broken, is clearly showing its age. And more than a few cracks.
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