It's time for the world to stop its over-the-top praise for the Cardinals. A big part of the narrative is that the Cards are unbelievably effective at drafting and developing, implying that they're able to do more with less compared to other contending clubs. So let's begin by looking at the team's performance in the National League relative to their payroll, starting with their first (recent) championship season seven years ago.
Year Payroll Record
2006 - 7th 5th
2007 4th 10th
2008 5th 6th
2009 7th 4th
2010 6th 6th
2011 5th 4th
2012 4th 5th
Average Payroll Rank: 5.4
Average Record Rank: 5.7
The Cardinals are getting roughly what they pay for, certainly no more. They won the division twice during those seven seasons, finishing an average of 7.7 games back in the other five (in other words, slightly further back than the Royals finished in the AL Central this season).
But the big payoff has come in the postseason, of course. Despite only twice finishing with as high as the fourth-best record in the NL since 2006, the Cards managed to make the playoffs in four of the seven seasons. Twice they benefited from a weak division, and twice they got in as a Wild Card. Fittingly, the first time the league gave the fifth-best team a playoff berth, you guessed it -- the Cards finished with the fifth-best record. And the reason we're even talking about this team in the first place is that, twice, they went on to win the World Series. It's up to you to decide whether that success represents landing on the fortunate side of variance, or is instead attributable to unmatched team culture and the discovery of a way to draft and develop specifically for October.
A look at that incredible drafting and development ...
There's no question that, after failing to win as many as 90 games even once during the '90s, "drafting" played a huge role in the success of the club in the 2000s, after they drafted Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft. As a 7-plus WAR player pretty much every year, Pujols represented the difference between contending and mediocrity for most of those 78-91 win teams we talked about above.
Who else played a key role in the last decade? Carpenter? Came up with Toronto. Wainwright? He was a Brave up through AA. Lohse? He was a Twin until the Cards gave him his free agent payday. Westbrook? Came up with Cleveland. Jim Edmonds? Angels. Scott Rolen? Phillies. Larry Walker? Expos. Jeff Suppan, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders? All D & D'd elsewhere. The gritty performances from guys like Eckstein, Freese and Schumaker that have fed the "Cardinal Way" narrative happen on .500 teams without those guys.
It's really the emergence of Craig and Carpenter, and recent contributions from Wacha, Kelly, Rosenthal, Miller, Martinez and Siegrist that have gotten all this D & D talk heated up. And hey, that's great -- other teams would love to have homegrown players contributing at the big league level. But guess what? Other teams DO have that! Most just stream them up year after year instead of having seven or eight major holes to fill all at once.
Long story short, I'm tired of the Cardinals. Not because they're so good, but because the media hasn't yet noticed that they're just a slightly more timely version of any other above-average baseball club with a top-10, nine-figure payroll. And I can't wait for the Pirates to run them off the diamond next year.