For the Cubs, it all comes back to the Cardinals

For the Cubs, it all comes back to the Cardinals
March 13, 2014, 1:00 pm
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Tony Andracki

The general consensus around the Twittersphere is that "The Cardinal Way" storyline is getting old. But whatever you want to call it, you can't argue with the way they’ve built it in St. Louis.

After another World Series appearance last season — their second in the last three years and fourth in the last decade — every team in baseball wants to be like the Cardinals. The hope is matching the sustained success of the big-league club with a budding farm system capable of continuously churning out impact players.

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"They are a team that everyone is shooting for," said Joe Bohringer, Cubs director of professional scouting. "We are one of the teams that are trying to do it better than them.

"Anybody from a scouting or player development standpoint, what you're trying to do is be better than the other 29 clubs. You're trying to be the last team standing.

"Sometimes the ball needs to bounce your way to make that happen, but you can do the right things to put yourself in a position to let the ball bounce your way. That's what we're trying to do here."

The Cubs have made zero playoff appearances in the last five seasons, with a combined 137-190 record (.419 winning percentage) against the National League Central since the start of 2009.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, have six straight winning seasons and earned a trip to the postseason in four of the last five years, including three NLCS appearances and a World Series title in 2011.

Last year, while veterans like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran carried the lineup, a herd of young, hard-throwing pitchers emerged in the big leagues in one wave. Trevor Rosenthal, Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez played vital parts in the a World Series run.

St. Louis was actually so good in the postseason that it didn't even need Miller — who won 15 games and put up a 3.06 ERA in 31 regular-season starts — to pitch in the postseason, as the righty accounted for just one inning in October.

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This group of young pitchers figures to take another step forward while the team infuses talented young hitters into the lineup like second baseman Kolten Wong, first baseman Matt Adams and outfielder Oscar Taveras.

"You always try to model what other organizations do really well," said Jason McLeod, Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development. "I think on their side, it's a two-pronged approach. They've always been known as a player-development organization, going back 50, 60 years.

"The proof is in the pudding of what they've been able to do.

“They're our big rival, obviously. They're very, very good and, certainly, we want to find out what it is they're doing and start doing those things better ourselves."

The losing ways in Chicago led to a regime change and the results haven't paid off in the majors yet — with 197 losses across the last two seasons — despite building a top-five farm system.

But the Cardinals have been able to sustain their success at the big-league level — with eight 90-win seasons since 2000 — while also boasting one of the best farm systems in the game.

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After winning the World Series in 2011, they lost Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, franchise icon Albert Pujols and legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan. But they didn't miss a beat, getting to the NLCS in 2012 with rookie manager Mike Matheny at the helm.

"There's a lot of continuity," Bohringer said. "They have a lot of people that have been there for a while. They have systems in place that they've stuck with. And they know what they do well and they've done it over and over and over again."

Bohringer pointed to the Cardinals' excellent drafts over the last couple decades that has produced homegrown talent like first-round picks Wacha (2012), Miller (2009) and Colby Rasmus (2005).

But they've also hit on picks in the later rounds like 2009 13th-round selection Matt Carpenter, who led the NL in hits, runs and doubles in 2013, and Rosenthal, who was taken in the 21st round that season. And, of course, you can throw Pujols (13th round in 1999) into that mix as well.

McLeod credits the Cardinals' ability to teach fundamentals to players coming up through the system, altering a player's swing or arm action to make the absolute most out of every player.

The Cardinals aren't reinventing the wheel. They're just simply doing it all better than everybody else.

"One thing they do well is think outside the box and try to find a niche or a thing that you can find that might give you an advantage," said Jaron Madison, Cubs director of player development. "Some of it's luck, to be honest with you. Some of the guys they brought in were not expected to develop into the players they have [become]. That's how they were able to get some guys like Matt Adams and Trevor Rosenthal so deep in the draft.

"They have a system in place. The funny thing about it is they pattern a lot of their scouting systems off of what Theo [Epstein], Jed [Hoyer] and Jason [McLeod] did in Boston. I feel real good about the system that we have in place here in Chicago. The future is really bright here."

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The Cubs will have to figure out a way to beat their division rivals if they want to end the 105-year championship drought.

So how can the Cubs catch the Cardinals?

Theo Epstein was asked the same question last September as he stood outside the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium and spoke with a few Chicago writers before Game 160 of a 96-loss season.

"There are small things we can do each day to make ourselves a healthier organization," Epstein said. "It's a goal every day — whether it's a personnel move, player move, a process — to make the organization healthier, more effective. And, ultimately, that leads to better players, betters contracts, more flexibility in the organization.

"That puts us in a better position [with] things we can do moving forward. You do that, you gain on your competition, regardless of what they're doing.

"You can't game-plan to beat one organization or contend in this division. We have a long way to go to get truly healthy as an organization. Look at big-picture pieces and I think we've gotten a lot healthier."

Either way, it will always come back to the Cardinals. All roads lead through St. Louis in the NL.