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The Cardinals exemplary 2009 draft class: An oral history

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The 2013 St. Louis Cardinals won 97 games during the regular season, then eliminated the Pirates and Dodgers before finally losing to the Red Sox in a six-game World Series. It was a tremendous season, capped by the franchise’s 19th National League pennant. And perhaps the most amazing thing about that season is this: Five of the Cardinals' best players were drafted just four years earlier — three of those players drafted well after the top prospects were off the board. Overall, seven players from the Cardinals' 2009 draft class have reached the majors, leading MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo to anoint the class as the best of the last 10 years: that is, No. 1 of 300 drafts.

Nearly five years later, I spoke to some of the key figures in that phenomenally successful draft, beginning with Jeff Luhnow. Now the Houston Astros’ general manager, Luhnow took over as the Cardinals’ director of scouting in 2005. In Luhnow’s first three drafts, the Cardinals drafted 31 eventual major leaguers. The 2008 draft didn’t go as well, with Lance Lynn the only productive major leaguer produced (so far).

In 2009, the Cardinals owned the 19th pick in the first round of the Rule 4 amateur draft.

Jeff Luhnow: We assumed all along that Shelby Miller would go around 10th, but he kept falling, just a combination of different clubs seeing things differently and signability issues. So we started getting excited. We thought the Rangers would take him at 14, but they took the other Texas high-school pitcher. I thought the Marlins would take Miller, just before us. But as soon as they took Chad James, I knew we were taking Miller. He checked every box that we want checked for a high-school pitcher: size, stuff, command of his stuff, and delivery. In our opinion, Shelby was a safe bet relative to his category.

Miller reached the majors in 2012 and won 15 games for the Cardinals in 2013.

The “other Texas high-school pitcher” was Matt Purke, who spurned the Rangers’ contract offer, went to college, signed with the Nationals two years later as a third-round draft pick, and is currently struggling terribly in the minors. Chad James did sign with the Marlins in 2009, but never escaped Class A and is currently pitching in the independent Frontier League. Pitching is hard.

With their second pick, the 67th overall, the Cardinals chose USC catcher Robert Stock. After an excellent couple of months in Rookie ball, Stock stopped hitting. In 2012, he became a relief pitcher; this season in Class A, Stock has walked 26 batters in 24 innings.

With their next pick, the 98th overall, the Cardinals grabbed Joe Kelly, a right-handed pitcher from the University of California, Riverside. Kelly had pitched well as a freshman, but racked up a 7.04 ERA over his sophomore and junior seasons.

Luhnow: There was quite a bit of debate about Joe Kelly in the draft room. I’d seen him pitch two innings, and we all knew he had a big arm. He threw mid-90s and had a good feel for the breaking ball. But we had a split opinion, starter vs. reliever, and a lot of the credit for the final decision goes to Tim Leveque. Because Kelly didn’t have much support from analytics. He was a pure scouting pick.

Tim Leveque: Jeff Ishii was our area scout. My responsibility was to collect and evaluate video, mostly of the top draft prospects. Looking at Joe, there was noticeable, sheer athleticism in his delivery, which we thought would work well with what we teach.

I was also the pitching coach with Batavia that summer, when he reported after signing. I remember his first bullpen like it was yesterday. He didn’t actually pitch that well in that first season. But I had him again the next year with Quad Cities, and then you could really see it.

Like Miller, Joe Kelly debuted in the majors in 2012. In 2013, he went 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA. This season he posted a 0.59 ERA in three starts before going on the disabled list with a hamstring injury.

Back in 2009, the fourth through twelfth rounds rolled along; among the players drafted by the Cardinals in those rounds, only Ryan Jackson has since reached the majors; he’s now with the Padres, his third organization. But in the 13th round, the Cardinals hit the jackpot with the 399th overall pick.

Luhnow: The thrust behind taking Matt Carpenter was the analytics, all of which pointed toward this guy being pretty special. But that also came down to the area scout educating us, and he did.

That area scout was Aaron Krawiec, then covering the Mountain West Conference, which included Carpenter’s Texas Christian University Horned Frogs. In 2013, Krawiec told Kary Booher that Carpenter “made a lot of consistent, hard contact. A lot of guys make contact. But consistent, hard contact is a different story… It was the 13th round and they said, ‘We need a bat.’ ”

They got their bat. Less than two years after being drafted, Carpenter debuted with the big club. In 2013, Carpenter played in the All-Star Game, then finished fourth in the National League’s Most Valuable Player balloting.

Shortly after Luhnow took over as the Cardinals’ scouting director, he hired an engineer named Sig Mejdal, whose baseball experience consisted of a few baseball articles published in SABR journals and Bill James Handbooks. When Luhnow joined the Astros after the 2011 season, Mejdal went with him.

Sig Mejdal: Anytime you’re talking about a thousand-dollar senior sign in the later rounds, it is safe to say there wasn’t a frenzy over him in the scouting community. Of course, no player ever has all his attributes pointing in the same direction, and Matt Carpenter was a great example of that. The performance, the tools, the age, and the upside were all much discussed. Thankfully, our processes were a big help in making sense of the sometimes contradictory information. And much to Aaron Krawiec’s credit, he appreciated this seemingly “low upside” player. I’m just thankful that we didn’t miss him.

In the 21st round, the Cardinals chose an ex-shortstop named Trevor Rosenthal who had impressed another scout for about three seconds.

Luhnow: Rosenthal was a position player at Cowley County Community College. Our area scout was Aaron Looper, who we hired because we thought he would show a good eye for pitchers. And he has. Because Rosenthal wasn’t throwing 99 then. When you get to the 21st round, you really have to trust your scouts.

Aaron Looper: So this is kind of a cool story. Trevor didn’t start pitching until late in the season. I heard through the grapevine there was this kid, but I didn’t see him until a regional tournament, maybe three weeks before the draft.

I had seen him the previous fall, actually, but he didn’t stand out as a professional prospect. When I saw him in the spring, he had a frame that you knew was going to fill out, and he was a decent athlete. He did have good velocity, but what stood out to me was his demeanor on the mound, how he just went after guys even with his limited experience. He did get his fastball up to 94, which is good.

The Cardinals have always invited their scouts to the draft, and this was my third. At the draft, we all get three “gut feel” stickers, and even though I’d seen Rosenthal pitch just one inning, I had that feeling. So I used one of my stickers on him; “Yeah,” I said, “the kid from Cowley County. Rosenthal.” I didn’t know if he could throw a breaking ball, but I knew he could throw strikes.

Rosenthal reached the majors in 2012. Since then, he has pitched 20-1/3 postseason innings without allowing a single run.

In the 23rd round, the Cardinals used the 699th pick in the draft on catcher Matt Adams, who played at Division II Slippery Rock University. Despite batting .495 with power and being named Division II National Player of the Year, Adams wasn’t high on anyone’s draft list. He certainly hadn’t been forgotten, though. Not by the St. Louis Cardinals.

Jeff Luhnow: With the Cardinals, we had a great interaction between scouting and player development. [Cardinals chairman and CEO] Bill DeWitt’s responsible for that; it’s his vision. My first charter was to coordinate between different silos – there was a scouting silo, a player-development silo; it happens – so I took everyone on an international trip. Eventually there was a process in place. Analytics, scouting, medical, mechanics: Ultimately everything has to come together in a ranking. It’s not absolute, but a guide. Partly art, partly science.

Sig Mejdal: Since I started with Jeff, we’ve tried to arrive at a process that boils down the draft prospects to one number, and we respect that number, but we also respect the passion of the scout. Matt Adams checked both boxes – and yes, it was the 23rd round – but the majority of the reason we got him in the 23rd round was the passion of the scout.

That scout was Brian Hopkins, then the Cardinals’ Great Lakes area scout. Today, Hopkins is the Cardinals’ Northeast cross-checker. He’s got a cool story, too...

Brian Hopkins: The first time I saw Matt Adams was in the fall of 2008, when Slippery Rock and Mercyhurst put together a combined scout day; colleges have scout days in the fall to showcase their kids for the draft. I saw Matt there, and that was the first time he really stood out with the bat. The next spring, Slippery Rock was down in Florida, and I saw Matt play in a doubleheader. I was in the airport and I called Sig.

Sig Mejdal: It was funny. Our messages had crossed. Brian was asking about our process, how we might quantify a guy who might be able to catch. He was asking about Matt Adams. He said he loved this kid at Slippery Rock, who might be able to catch.

In my mind at the time, I’m thinking the system will take care of itself.

When I started working in baseball back in 2005, getting college data was different and I didn’t have a ton of help. We had a pretty good source for Division 1 numbers, but we had to “scrape” D-2 data ourselves, which was difficult. With so few guys coming from D-2 or D-3, we had to allocate our resources. But in ’09 we added another programmer, Chris Correa, who helped us scrape more D-2 and D-3 schools, so then we were getting a majority of them.

Jeff Luhnow: Our scout very much liked Matt Adams. And that was the first time we had done any real work on D-2 statistics. We had obviously looked at raw numbers, but that was the first time we tried to correlate with D-1 and rookie-ball stats. Of course Sig was responsible for all of this.

Sig Mejdal: We couldn’t treat those guys the same as D-1 players, but we had some ways of adjusting. Adams was one of just three or four of the most interesting non-D-1 guys. (J.D. Martinez was one of the others.)

So a few days later, I shot Brian an e-mail and said, “Hey, we found this guy at Slippery Rock in the system, his statistical performance is extraordinary. Will you get a chance to see him?”

He e-mailed back: “Sig, that’s the guy I called you about last week!”

And I thought, a-ha, our chance of getting this guy just went up a lot. Later we had him at a workout, and it became clear his chance of catching was unlikely. We still liked his bat, though.

Brian Hopkins: I was smiling ear to ear when we got him in the 23rd round, because I didn’t think he would last that long. And that was a fun phone call to make, for sure. One of the things that hasn’t been talked about, is how he just worked so hard to get better and better. It’s our responsibility to get to know players as much was we can. I got to know Jeff Messer, the Slippery Rock coach, and I talked to Jeff about Matt and what he might do, down the road.

Jeff Messer: Matt went to a bunch of pre-draft workouts, and we heard he would go in the fifth round, or the 10th, or the 12th. And when he lasted until the 23rd, we knew why. A lot of teams will still say, “We don’t have anybody that big in our organization, nobody with that size. He’s just too big to survive in the minor leagues, let alone the majors." So his size definitely hurt him in the draft.

Now I hear it all the time from scouts: “We really missed the boat on that one.” Probably the Pirates, right down the road from here, get harassed the most. But it really was a no-brainer for me.

Adams reached the majors less than three years after being drafted, played a key role for the Cardinals in 2013, and took over as the club’s everyday first baseman this season.

It’s not always so easy. In 2010, the Cardinals drafted three players who have since reached the majors; none of those three have performed well. The Cardinals’ top three picks, all among the first 100 players drafted, have all stalled out in the minors. On the other hand, in 2011 the Cardinals drafted Kolten Wong in the first round and stole Seth Maness in the 11th round; both reached the majors in 2013.

There’s no formula for consistent success in the Rule 4 draft. All you can do is put together a healthy process. And of course there’s always the team that might have drafted the player you wanted, or the player you might have drafted instead. As Luhnow told me, “We were excited about Shelby Miller. The backup plan was Mike Trout.”

Drafting is hard.

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