The Reality of How the Pirates and Cardinals Build Their Teams

The St. Louis Cardinals were busy this week. On Friday they traded David Freese for Peter Bourjos, which should set off a chain of roster shuffling that will result in St. Louis upgrading their defense at three different spots. Last night, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN reported that the Cardinals were closing in on a deal with shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Jon Morosi reported that it is expected to be a four-year deal.

Peralta fills the shortstop hole for the Cardinals, while also further upgrading the infield defense. St. Louis had one of the worst UZR numbers in 2013, and in the last few days they have upgraded four spots on the field defensively, with three of those spots coming in the infield.  If the deal with Peralta gets finalized, then it will be hard to see where they have a weakness.

The Cardinals got a lot of praise during their playoff run over doing things the right way — specifically how successful they were in drafts. More specifically, how successful the 2009 draft has been. That’s definitely deserved. However, what gets lost here is that the Cardinals aren’t built on the draft. It’s true that guys like Allen Craig, Matt Carpenter, and Matt Adams were great finds, but that’s not what fueled St. Louis. The Cardinals are competitors in large part because of Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, and Adam Wainwright.

All four of those guys are high salary players who the Cardinals can afford to keep around. Beltran isn’t going to be returning next year, but his high salary looks like it is being replaced by Peralta. The playoff run was filled with this idea that the Cardinals were some small market team winning because of their drafting. I made the comment then that this was the equivalent to “Moneyball”, and the high salaried players were Tim Hudson/Mark Mulder/Barry Zito — guys who played huge roles and barely got mentioned in the storyline.

The truth is that the Cardinals can afford to do things that teams like the Pirates can’t. The Pirates can’t afford $17 M per year over seven years on a guy like Matt Holliday. They can’t afford to keep a star catcher around like Yadier Molina once he’s eligible for free agency. They can’t afford Adam Wainwright for almost $20 M per year. You might be able to argue that they could afford one of those salaries, but certainly not all three of them plus a guy like Beltran or Peralta.

What the Cardinals have is a dangerous combination. They’re a team that drafts well. They’re not afraid to give young players a chance. And on top of that, they have the money to consistently have one of the top ten payrolls, allowing them to keep their players once they reach free agency.

The Pirates can draft well. They can give young players a chance. But the reality is that they’ll never be able to spend what the Cardinals spend. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have no chance against the Cardinals. They won the season series against St. Louis last year, and took them to game five in the NLDS. The Cardinals had the good drafting and a lot of high paid players, but the Pirates were evenly matched. The spending by the Cardinals does mean that they have one advantage over the Pirates: they have more room for error. The ability to spend money means the Cardinals can hide their weaknesses, and it also means they don’t need to rely on the drafted players to carry the team. It’s the opposite with the Pirates. They need to build through their farm system and support those players with free agents.

One thing that’s interesting with the Cardinals is their approach outside of the big spending. They’re adding Jhonny Peralta this off-season, but look at their approach with other positions. They look to be going with prospect Kolten Wong at second base. They’re moving on from Carlos Beltran, and going with internal options who cost less. They added Peter Bourjos for center field. That’s not a flashy move, but it upgrades a big team weakness in an under-rated way.

The Pirates should take this same approach for their off-season needs, and probably will take this approach. For all of the emerging panic over the Pirates being quiet this off-season, the reality is that they will add players and they will spend money. They can’t make a big splash like St. Louis, but they can make lower key upgrades by going with internal options, bounce back candidates, and not-so-flashy guys like James Loney who get the job done. The Cardinals get their impact through free agency, or they re-sign the impact players they develop. The Pirates have to rely on developing impact players, as well as taking risks on bounce back candidates.

The Cardinals have a great situation with their ability to spend and their ability to find talent in the draft. The Pirates also have a great situation with their drafting and development skills, plus their ability to find bargains on the free agent market, and their acceptance of unconventional strategies like defensive shifts. What we can learn from this is that there’s no one way to build a contender. The two teams were evenly matched in 2013, and they’ll both be contenders again in 2014. If both teams continue the approaches that make them successful, then we could see them battling at the top of a very competitive NL Central division for the next several years.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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