There are about six or seven reasonable answers to the question, "Which team is the best in baseball", and a hundred different ways to arrive at those answers. Do you use runs scored/allowed? Do you weight pitching more than hitting, or vice versa? Do you adjust for how good you think the players should be, you arrogant twit? (I do!)
But this hypothetical question isn't quite the same thing. The best-team part can follow, but it doesn't always. Here goes:
Which baseball organization is run the best?
Or, if every front office were a free agent this offseason, which one would you want your team to sign? And "organization" includes everyone making decisions, from the GM to the scouting director to the cross-checkers to the roving hitting instructors. Not the managers, necessarily, but you're talking about the people who hired those managers … so, okay, fine, bring the managers.
Not going to lie, I had the answer first and looked for a way to frame the question. So I won't put you through a list of teams and pretend I'm still making my mind up. It's hard to choose a team other than the Rays and A's, who consistently do more with less money. And maybe on another day, I'd argue strenuously for one of them.
But here's what I've been thinking about all year: a 13th-round pick who doesn't play his first professional game until he's almost 24. He was a third baseman, but scouts weren't sure if he could stick at the position. When he was 26, he reached the majors for good, and he switched to second base because that's where the organization had a need. Now he's one of the most valuable second basemen in the game.
If Matt Carpenter is with any organization other than the Cardinals, does he make it out of Double-A? Maybe. Does he realize his potential worth at an up-the-middle defensive position. Possibly. Does he turn into one of the most valuable players in baseball?
I don't think that's a very controversial opinion, either. Look at the odd career paths of the Cardinals' hitters:
- Yadier Molina - Questionable-to-bad hitter until his mid-20s, perennial MVP candidate thereafter
- Allen Craig - Semi-prospect who was old for his league at most of his stops, current destroyer of pitchers
- Jon Jay - Second-round pick who's put up better numbers in the majors than minors at a valuable position
- Matt Adams - Husky feller who's hit everywhere he's played
- David Freese - Pilfered semi-prospect acquired for the husk of Jim Edmonds
- Matt Carpenter - See above
That's before you get to the part where they've augmented these (mostly) homegrown players with smart free-agent signings. Yep, the Cardinals sure know what they're doing with hitters.
Except that's not where the story ends. For the last several years, the Cardinals have had to deal with all sorts of adversity in the starting rotation. Chris Carpenter in, Adam Wainwright out. Wainwright out, Carpenter in. Kyle Lohse in, Kyle Lohse out. Edwin Jackson here, Edwin Jackson there. Jaime Garcia in, Jaime Garcia hurt.
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And they always have an answer. Every time. Now, that answer might not be good enough to win a World Series or a division or a playoff spot every time. But that's not what you should look for when picking the best-run organization. No team in the history of baseball is going to be six, seven, or eight pitchers deep, year after year, without any noticeable decline in quality.
But the Cardinals always have an answer that's better than "I dunno, Kyle Davies?" In 2008, it was Todd Wellemeyer. In 2009, it was Joel Pineiro, they had Jake Westbrook and the actual Jeff Suppan in 2010, Kyle Lohse emerged in 2011, and in 2012, Joe Kelly came out of nowhere. In 2013, the Cardinals could call on Kelly, John Gast, Michael Wacha, and Tyler Lyons when pitchers started melting. It's not like all of those guys were great. But they were reasonable options.
The Cardinals grow reasonable options like sea monkeys. And that's just the rotation. What's a Kevin Siegrist, and why has it allowed 10 hits in 32 innings? Edward Mujica isn't homegrown, but he's suddenly one of the greatest control artists in baseball history. Trevor Rosenthal not only throws fastballs through brick walls, but he's also figuring out his command on the fly. Why not? If he were with the Royals, he'd be walking four batters every nine innings, and he'd have a 5.49 ERA. I have no proof to back up that assertion, except for what's already in your heart, gentle reader.
There can be missteps. Pete Kozma has yet to take to the Cardinal magic, and the collective defense after Molina is kind of a mess. They aren't the perfect franchise. Just the one that seems to be run the best.
So that's my answer, and I'm sticking with it. Apologies to the Braves (who have a similar pipeline going on with the pitching), Rays, A's, Rangers, and Tigers, but the Cardinals are my first pick in the front-office fantasy draft. They have the secret of hitting. They have the secret of reasonable pitching options. Teach us, Cardinals. Teach us your ways.