Typically when executives from across Major League Baseball gather for the annual Winter Meetings trades and deals are struck galore. But this year there was considerable activity beforehand as teams have tried to strengthen their ballclub so that when they meet with management from other franchises they are operating from a position of power. Currently, no general manager has put himself in a better position than the Cardinals’ John Mozeliak.
The Cardinals have already addressed two of their weaker positions from 2013, shortstop and center field, while also decreasing their payroll. Of course, all of this was made possible from years of terrific scouting, drafting, and player development which gave the Cards a horde of young players that in turn made many of their older players more expendable.
Since taking over as the Cardinals GM in 2008, Mozeliak has put an emphasis on player development utilizing young, cost-controlled players on the big league stage. The strategy has paid off to the tune of four playoff appearances, two division titles, two National League pennants and one world championship in those six seasons.
When Mozeliak took over, he was replacing his former boss Walt Jocketty who had been very successful in his 13 years as the Cardinals GM. While Mozeliak learned a lot under Jocketty, he has already made his own legacy. Mozeliak stresses the development of the farm system and then lets those young players breakout in the majors rather than simply using them as trade bait for proven veterans as Jocketty so often did. Jocketty has gone on to take the GM post with the division rival Reds, and while he has done a fine job, the results over the past six years heavily favor his pupil in St. Louis.
Mozeliak has also taken his own path when it comes to scouting. He has overseen a re-energized effort to scouting internationally in the Caribbean, specifically in the Dominican. Mozeliak has also bought into the analysis of sabermetric statistics and held it as a principle way of evaluating players. While he is not linked to the sabermetric philosophy as much as others such as Athletics’ GM Billy Beane of Moneyball fame, Mozeliak has certainly found a way to utilize such analysis to his advantage.
Over the past few years Mozeliak has pushed all the right buttons for the Cardinals in a way that no other current GM has. Considering the promise of the farm system, the health of the club’s finances, and power of the big league team, the Cardinals are sitting as pretty as any baseball franchise.
But in an industry that is often attempted to be boiled down to a science, Mozeliak’s moves have not seemed formulaic, at least not to outsiders, but rather something closer to an art. Just when it appears Mozeliak will zig, he zags.
The first trade Mozeliak made as GM of the Cardinals was to trade playoff hero and All-Star Jim Edmonds, 37 at the time, for a little-known minor league third baseman named David Freese. It may have seemed like a small move, but it was the signature move in turning the Cardinals over from an aging team into a contender again.
Perhaps Mozeliak’s most unique move was when he felt the need to shuffle the deck during the 2011 season when the Cards were in a rough patch. The Cardinals traded outfielder Colby Rasmus, just 24 at the time and a top-notch prospect, for Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, and Corey Patterson. All four of the players the Cards got in return were older than Rasmus and none were seen as the kind of impact player Rasmus was supposed to be. But the added bullpen help from Dotel and Rzepczynski were just what the doctor ordered and the Cards celebrated with a World Series victory because of that trade.
The most recent example was the signing of shortstop Jhonny Peralta, much maligned for his suspension in 2013 for using performance enhancing drugs. The narrative amongst the national media as the Cardinals were busy winning the National League was that they were a team that played the “right way.” So it came as a surprise to many when Peralta and his baggage signed with the Cardinals, but Mozeliak stated that the team was a not in the position of being “morality police”. It was a bold move, but one that could pay off as the Cardinals pursue another championship. Given Mozeliak’s track record, it probably will.