Birdhouse Interview Series with Jeff Luhnow
Part Four: Player Evaluation and More
By Brian Walton
This is the final installment of my interview series with Jeff Luhnow, Vice President, Baseball Development for the Cardinals. This section turned out to be longer than the other three, because of the wealth of information that Jeff shared about the workings of the team and its plans going forward.
Today: Player Evaluation and More
BW: How much time will you spend on players in the system, in the developmental pipeline, versus your players in the majors versus ones on other teams versus high school and college prospects?
JL: It sort of depends on what the next major event is on the calendar. Right now, our team for 2004 season is fairly well set, of course, there’s an opportunity that players may come available in the spring. Who knows what’s going to happen with injuries? We’ve already heard some reports about Woody maybe not being 100%. As we get into the season, there will clearly be the need to evaluate potential moves that we could make to improve our ball club. That’s always going to be a high priority. It has been since the day I joined here. And the day I got here was the beginning of the free agent season and there was a lot of work around that. And that continues to this day. And once you get into the season, you have the trading deadline and so forth. So it’s always going to be a high priority because that is the best way to improve your club at the major league level quickly.
BW: How about the draft?
JL: The other thing that drives our work is the amateur draft, which will be coming up in June. The scouting season has already started. We had scouts out last weekend at a college series watching some of the better teams, Rice and Texas, and so forth. I, myself, am going to be going to California to another tournament that is going to be out there in San Diego opening up the new Petco Park, which I am excited about. The amateur draft has a timeline associated with it. There’s a lot of work that’s going to go into that, both high school and college. I think everybody agrees that you can use college statistics to a certain extent. In high school, you can look at them, but they are a lot less useful than they are for college. So that drives it. There’s the international arena, which doesn’t necessarily have a calendar associated with it the same way the amateur draft does. But there are players being signed every day in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela; all over Latin America. I would say this year, there have been 80-90 players signed from Latin America. So, that pipeline of players continues to be an important source for many, many teams, including us going forward and that’s important.
BW: That’s a bit of a change for the Cardinals, isn’t it?
JL: We’ve signed players from Venezuela and from the Dominican Republic and several of those players are going to be in the regular camp, as well as in extended spring training. So, it has yielded some fruit. I would say that, by and large, we have not been as aggressive as most other teams. In recent years, we have pulled back our investment in both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. It is expensive, especially if you’re not getting out of it what you need.
BW: Is there going to be a change in this going forward?
JL: We are just starting to look at it. I went to the Dominican Republic for the Caribbean Series a couple of weeks ago. It was a fabulous experience. I met a lot of people over there. I grew up in Mexico and I speak Spanish fluently. I have a passion about baseball in Latin America. I think that for the Cardinals, not having some kind of presence for signing and developing Latin American players would be a missed opportunity. We want be active in that market, but the question is how can you be active in that market in a way that makes sense? We know that there are teams that are going to outspend us. The Yankees and the Dodgers and some other teams are always going to be there and sign the top players for the most amount of money. And we may not have that opportunity. So, how can we be successful in that arena, knowing that we don’t have the deepest pockets? That’s a challenge that a lot of teams face. However, if you look at the facts, there are teams with much more restrained budgets that have done very, very well. They find a way to do it. That’s one of the things that I will be looking into closely in the future.
BW: And elsewhere?
JL: We may consider exploring the frontier of where baseball players are coming from. They’re coming from Australia. They’re coming from Korea and Taiwan. The Cardinals have not traditionally recruited in those areas. We need to understand how important that channel is going to be going forward. If we feel it’s going to be important for major league baseball and for the Cardinals, then we need to get involved in a way, again, that makes sense. They way I am looking at this is very similar to the way that I look at any business that I have worked in the past. Let’s look at the facts, let’s figure out what the objective is, what we want to get out of it, and let’s figure out how to allocate the resources that we have available to our team to get what we need out of it. Just throwing resources at the issue is not the way to win. You need to figure out a way to do it smarter, faster, better than anybody else.
BW: Since 2000, across MLB, 25% fewer high school players were drafted than before. Does the organization have a preference between high school and college players?
JL: I don’t think we have a stated public point of view on that. In any environment like that, similar to international, if you decide to eliminate a channel of talent all together, you are going to lose opportunity to get benefit from that channel. If a team decided they were no longer going to scout and draft high school pitchers that would mean, if you take a look at the number of high school pitchers that are drafted and the ones who have made it to the major leagues, that means they would be missing the opportunity to get some of those players. The challenge with high school is that it takes a lot more resources to do proper evaluation since you don’t have the reliable statistics. You don’t really know how to compare a player in high school to a player in the major leagues because you age-wise and talent-wise, they are so different. So, actually, you have to go see them in person. And it requires an army of scouts to see them enough times to make an informed decision. I don’t think we are going to eliminate any channels as a channel and just say that we’re not going to look at high school pitchers or we’re not going to look at college position players or whatever it is. But, we need to figure what our strategy is against each of those channels and how we can, with the resources we have, be effective recruiting from each channel. If it takes more resources to be effective, then we’ll have to get those resources, if we can prove an ROI (return on investment). Then perhaps we will do something. This gets down to looking at the history, looking at other clubs have done, what we have done, to get all the facts before making an investment decision as we go forward.
BW: The team was active in the Rule 5 draft this year, picking up a couple of middle infielders. Did you come in with the intent to focus your selections there or was it a matter of taking the best athletes available when it was your turn to pick?
JL: It was really a combination. If there was a tie between two players and one was a middle infielder, that’s who would take. At the time, we hadn’t signed Marlon Anderson yet and thought we might need some depth at middle infield. We had looked at some pitchers very closely. We had looked at outfielders very closely. I think when it comes to Rule 5, the most important consideration at the major league level is, can you keep this player on your roster all year long? Because otherwise, you’re just throwing money away. In Luna’s case, we felt that he had the raw skills to potentially stay up all year. We’ll see. But, last year, he was selected in Rule 5 and had to be returned. There’s no guarantees. We feel that he is the type of player worth taking the gamble on.
BW: What about the lower levels?
JL: The same philosophy applies as you go further down the line and look at the Triple-A and Double-A guys. If you think you can keep them on the roster all year, again you have to look at what the opportunity cost is. Because that means you have a player who you’re not going to be able to keep on the roster, and if you’re going to have to slow their development, and keep them down a level because you have to keep this player, that may not be the best move. You have to look at your own development system and where you’re stacked and where you’re not and act accordingly. Rule 5 is going to continue to be something we will be looking at closely every year. It’s a channel that some teams have had some success in. I think, by and large, when you look at the overall statistics, most players get returned. Also, there are some arguments about stunting the development of the players if they have to spend a year at a level too high.
BW: It’s been stated publicly a number of times that the organization’s strategy is to build by using the minors as trade bait to improve the major league club. Will that change in the future?
JL: I think the minor leagues are important source of talent for us at the major league level. We need to think about it that way and I think Walt would agree to that statement. One of the ways you need to measure your success in the minor leagues is how many players you’ve developed that either you’ve been able to bring up to the major league club or have been able to trade that have an impact on your major league club. I think that both pieces of the puzzle are equally important. If you have an opportunity to go out and trade a player in an area where you need the talent and you can get someone that can help your club right away, this year, for the pennant stretch, that’s something you have to take the opportunity to go ahead and do.
BW: Will that work indefinitely?
JL: That strategy, if you take it too far, can be dangerous. An example would be the Yankees right now. They have five starters, sure. And, they’re all five excellent starters. However, the chances of all five of those starters staying healthy all year are probably slim, in most people’s opinion. If one of their starters goes down, they don’t really have the system; they don’t have someone ready, to step in. So, that’s the risk you take when you’re trading away someone like (pitcher Brandon) Claussen and you’re trading away a lot of your top-notch prospects. For us, it’s a balance. It’s a balancing act between having enough talent to help us at the major league level, and pitching-wise, I think we are in really good shape for the next couple of years. Everybody would love to see some of our young pitchers in our rotation this year, next year and the rest of the decade. That will help the payroll situation quite a bit and give us more flexibility to go out and sign some of the free agents and sign some of our players to long term contracts and extensions and so forth. If you have to go out and build a pitching staff based on free agents, it becomes very expensive. That’s really a challenge. You need really a combination of both. You look back and you evaluate how your minor league draft went and how your development system is doing. You need to take both of those into account.
BW: Given the current strength in the pitching in the minors, will we see a greater focus on drafting positional players?
JL: I think the Cardinals’ philosophy, and I think it’s probably the right philosophy, has been to draft the best available player. If you have some pitchers at Double-A and Triple-A that are ready to contribute in the next couple of years; if we draft a young pitcher that is three or four years away, that is ok, too. So, I think we would go for the best available player and not trade down to a lesser-quality player just because he played a position that wasn’t pitcher. I think that is probably the best way to go. Look at your system and evaluate where you have holes and where you have strengths. Certainly, if we are evaluating two players and one is at a position where we don’t have a lot of depth in, then the tie would go toward that. It is a factor, but I don’t think we would downgrade the quality of the player we would draft, just to fill our system with leftfielders or second basemen or whatever it is.
BW: Will you also look for players others have given up on, like a Jason Ryan, and at six-year free agents?
JL: That is one of the times during the year that we will rely on Ron (Shandler) as well as our internal resources to evaluate those who are available out there.
BW: You mentioned that Walt Jocketty is involving you in all major player decisions. What role did you play in preparation for the Pujols arbitration hearing?
JL: I didn’t play much of a role in that. I think it is difficult to argue that Pujols is anything except an incredibly outstanding, gifted, once-in-a-generation type of player. And I didn’t want to spend a lot of my time or my group’s time trying to figure out where Pujols’ holes are, because I don’t there are any, really, at the end of the day. I think the main arguments in arbitration with a player of that caliber are comparing him to other three-year players. It’s the reason why Gagne didn’t get his award. You look historically at three-year players and service time does matter. And I think that ultimately is what affected Gagne’s arbitration. It may or maybe not have had impact in Pujols’ arbitration. We’ll never know, thank goodness. Those are some of the things that are considered for sure, but we have excellent people that work on arbitration cases and I was aware of what was happening, but I was not involved with that process.
BW: It was reported elsewhere that the team recently investigated Pujols’ age thoroughly and found nothing out of order. Can the issue of his age now be put to rest once and for all?
JL: We don’t have a concern about Pujols’ age. There is no reason to believe he is anything other than what we know he is. He’s going to be in a Cardinal uniform until 2010 at a minimum, more likely 2011, and hopefully beyond that. He’s a wonderful ballplayer so I don’t think age is a concern. There’s a record of players from Latin America coming out and admitting that they are older than we thought. That tends to happen, I believe (I haven’t researched this in particular) more with players that came straight from Latin America to the US, as opposed to Albert, who played here and went to college here. I don’t think it is that much of a concern. The other factor is that even if there is a year or two discrepancy, Albert is still very young and will be wearing a Cardinal uniform for a long time. That’s what we are counting on; for him to perform like we know he is capable of doing.
BW: Are the significantly-deeper power alleys in the new ballpark figuring into your thinking about the future makeup of the club?
JL: Not yet and I’m not sure to what extent it will, because even when you know the dimensions of a ballpark, there are so many other factors that go into what a ballpark plays like. We won’t really know the impact of the new ballpark until we’ve had a couple of seasons in there. Now, I think as we get closer to Opening Day 2006, we’ll probably to start to look at that a little bit more closely. But, we’re certainly not making any decisions today based off the dimensions that are going to be in our new ballpark. We’re just excited to have it in the works and while it’s a little difficult with all the construction going on around the stadium, it should be all cleaned up and ready for the fans on Opening Day. The plans are just amazing. It’s going to be a beautiful, beautiful ballpark.
BW: You have taken it upon yourself to become accessible to the fans. Was that part of your strategy coming in?
JL: I didn’t until just recently. I don’t think the Cardinals necessarily want to go around publicizing a lot of what we are doing because we do consider it a core competency that we are building and don’t necessarily want to have books written about it or anything like that. But, at the same time, I think it is always important to maintain a connection with the fans. What has struck me, just about more than anything about my experience with the Cardinals, is the intensity and intelligence of the Cardinal fans. I find a lot of these websites have incredibly insightful commentary, good debate, healthy debate, and both positive and negative things to say about the front office and what the Cardinals are doing. I think it is very important for the Cardinals to be aware of what is happening, to participate in these debates in some way and to leverage the intelligence and enthusiasm of our fans. Because I do think that the Cardinals fans are the best in the nation, as other publications and so forth have proven.
BW: So, you are out there?
JL: I am reading the websites. I am reading the discussion forums. I am observing all the chatter. I’ve started to participate to an extent – a limited extent. There will be a lot of things that I can’t talk about. But, nonetheless, I think the fans deserve some forum to get questions answered. That has traditionally been through the media with radio interviews with Walt and so forth. I think there is a whole cyber-community out there of Cardinal fans online every day discussing the Cardinals. I want to give them the opportunity to get some of their questions answered, as well. It’s sort of a win-win for both sides. I get to read and hear opinions that evaluate the Cardinals and I’ll answer some questions, as well.
BW: Obviously, that is what you are doing here today and I appreciate it. There’s a lot of positive change going on with the team and people should feel really good about that.
JL: I think that’s right. The Dodgers changed their leadership, changed hats sort of the same way they did in Boston; just replace their organization. We decided that we need to keep the best of both worlds. So, how do you change and evolve, keeping the strengths in the people you have and just adding to it, rather than saying that it hasn’t worked when the team has been in the playoffs three times in the last four years? We have a great fan base and a great team. So, how do you keep that and maintain the assets that brought you there, but complement them, because the world is changing. We need to build new skills and capabilities. And that’s really being driven by the ownership group and their vision and ability to see things changing around them and figuring out how to make the best of it.
BW: The implication of this is that the DeWitts are very active in setting the strategy behind how the team operates…
JL: At the end of the day, Walt is running the team and making the decisions. But, he is accountable to the ownership group and the ownership group is driven primarily by Bill. I work for Walt. Walt interviewed me and Walt hired me. So, we are a team on this.
BW: Again, I appreciate the time and the insightful answers.
JL: Thank you.