Cover Inspired by Iconic 1968 SI Cover
The St. Louis Cardinals are the most consistent franchise in baseball due to an organizational philosophy dedicated to measured and constant evolution, writes Ben Reiter in this week’s Sports Illustrated. At the forefront of their sustained success is diverse and dominant starting pitching, made up this season by a rotation of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Jamie Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook—all of whom appear on SI’s cover. The cover is inspired by the iconic October 7, 1968, SI cover that featured Roger Maris, Tim McCarver, Bob Gibson, Mike Shannon and Lou Brock.
“When we think of the Cardinals, we think of a distinct organizational culture: Anodyne, diligent, supportive, resolute,” says Reiter. “Mostly, we think of consistency. Their 11 championships have been well distributed. No son or daughter of St Louis born since 1902 has reached the age of 25 without having lived through at least one victory parade.” (PAGE 64)
At week’s end the Cardinals sit atop the National League with just nine players from their 2012 championship team. They are there, in large measure, because of a starting rotation that has been historically good. “The Cardinals have ended up with such a rotation by doing what they’ve always done, and what any team or corporation ought to do if it seeks success in the long term. Which is to ceaselessly, though judiciously, innovate,” says Reiter. (PAGE 64)
When the game had become power crazy, former longtime St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan worked with the team’s pitchers to mix in ground ball inducing two-seam fastballs since he believed most pitchers only stood a chance by keeping their deliveries down in the strike zone. Wainwright busted on the scene as a closer late in the Cardinals 2006 title run throwing the two-seamer, and continues to use it now as the rotation’s ace and leader.
However, when John Mozeliak was promoted to G.M., in 2007, Duncan began to lobby him to add power pitchers to the mix, especially since home runs were on the decline. “We decided to emphasize not just pitchers who were throwing hard, but guys we thought might throw harder in the future,” says Mozeliak. (PAGE 67) Within three years they drafted Lynn, Miller and also added Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez, each of whom throw around 100 mph from the bullpen and could be future starters—perhaps very soon since Garcia and Westbrook both recently were placed on the disabled list.
The Cardinals have evolved financially, too, as they made the difficult choice to not re-sign Albert Pujols before last season. “Losing an iconic player was not easy—it was jolting,” says Mozeliak. “From a very simplistic standpoint, [once we let him go] we knew we had resources to deploy elsewhere.” (PAGE 67) The flexibility led to extensions for Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina.
“While an overriding ethos—the Cardinal way—has developed over the years, it is flexible enough to allow the team to capitalize on the game’s changing realities better than any other,” says Reiter (PAGE 65)
The money-conscious Oakland Athletics, a team that had one of the league’s lowest payrolls—$53 million in 2012, shelled out $9 million a year for a Cuban slugger no other team would touch at that price. Now, Yoenis Cespedes is drawing comparisons to Bo Jackson and Willie Mays—and proving yet again that the A’s know a baseball bargain when they see one. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, staff writer Ben Reiter writes on how Cespedes, whose nickname is La Potencia (The Power), has emerged into Oakland’s most important player.
In 147 games for the A’s, Cespedes has batted .284, with 28 home runs, 98 RBI’s and 16 stolen bases. The A’s have gone 96-51 with him in their lineup and 16-31 with him in their dugout. Scouts who once linked Cespedes to Raul Mondesi last spring are now comparing him to all-time greats. But how did Oakland, the definitive Moneyball team, decide Cespedes was worth the risk?
Reiter found that the A’s believed they had gone far beyond what other teams had done to evaluate him. Their scouts traveled the world—to Europe, to Japan, to Mexico, to Taiwan—so they wouldn’t miss a single at bat in more than 20 games. Also, the A’s were helped by the fact that Cespedes hit the market relatively late in the off-season when many franchises had already exhausted their budgets.
“You can spend your money on a guy like this, who’s risky but has a chance to really be a star, or you can spend three-times-seven or four-times-eight on a big leaguer who is a more certain thing but isn’t really going to swing the fate of your franchise much either way,” says Farhan Zaidi, Oakland’s director of baseball operations (PAGE 65).
Former Oakland pitcher Ariel Prieto was among the first players to leave Cuba for the U.S. When he arrived in Oakland in July 1995, he felt utterly alone. It was not until his teammates Geronimo Berroa and Stan Javier, both from the Dominican Republic, took him under their wings, to explain to him not only the workings of a new league but also an entirely new culture and country, that he began to feel comfortable. “Everyone thinks the United States is easy, but it’s not,” says Prieto (PAGE 66).
Now 43, Prieto has become Cespedes’s housemate and constant companion. Prieto has helped Cespedes quickly embrace the nuances of American culture—a process that was critical to his success on the field.
The course of Cespedes’s 2012 season was all the more impressive in that he was dealing with personal issues that extended beyond adapting to new pitchers and American customs. Members of his family, including 11 other relatives, were trapped in an immigration nightmare as they tried to join him in the U.S. In March, Cespedes’s family made it to Miami, and the A’s let him take a day off from spring training to surprise them there.“It weighed on my mind a lot last season…sometimes I went three or four days where I didn’t know where they were. They had disappeared. My mind will be completely clear knowing they are in this country,” says Cespedes (PAGE 67).
For the A’s, Cespedes looks to be the most rewarding kind of investment. “We were thorough. We calibrated everything…with all that being said, Yoenis Cespedes? La Potencia? He exceeded all expectations,” says Bill Owens, director of player personnel (PAGE 67).
Since the Seattle Mariners hired Jack Zduriencik as G.M. before the 2009 season, the former scout has taken a patient approach to building a potential winner. In this week’s Sports Illustrated, Ben Reiter profiles the team that could become baseball’s next juggernaut.
The Mariners currently field four position players under 26—Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders and Justin Smoak—who have in the past four years been ranked in the upper third of Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects. However, they and their teammates have not yet performed to their billing, as the Mariner’s have finished last in AL runs scored each of the past four seasons. Many observers, including Zduriencik, think the lack of offense was due in large part to the deep outfield at Seattle’s Safeco Park. Zduriencik says: “When you start altering your swing, trying to overcompensate, hit the ball farther, harder, then you get into bad habits.” (PAGE 48)
After a study commissioned by Zduriencik found that Safeco’s dimensions from 2009-2011 suppressed home runs to left center and centerfield by nearly 50%, the team decided to move the walls in this past winter in such a way that they now expect 30 to 40 more homers to be hit per season. Reiter says “With the physical barriers moved in, and the psychological barriers perhaps removed, the Mariners’ virtually unmatched young talent is expected to blossom.” (PAGES 48-49)
The young Mariners are led by 27-year old ace Felix Hernandez, a former Cy Young award winner who signed a seven-year, $175 million extension in the offseason. To boost the lineup, the Mariners reacquired one of the league’s most powerful sluggers in outfielder Michael Morse. The former National, who has hit six home runs in his first ten games, believes his new team feels a lot like his old team.
Morse says: “It’s the same kind of feel we had in Washington. A lot of guys with a lot of talent, but we weren’t too sure of ourselves. Then we put it all together, and look at them now. They know they’re good. I think that’s the same kind of feel we’ve got going here. I think this team could be the next Nats, for sure.” (PAGE 49)
Similar to the Nats rebuild under G.M. Mike Rizzo, the Mariners scouted very well and hit on their high picks of pitchers, like 2011 No. 2 overall pick Danny Hultzen (Baseball America’s 29th best prospect) and 2010 second round pick Taijuan Walker (No. 18 on B.A.’s list); and on their lower picks, like 2010 fourth round lefty James Paxton (No. 87 on B.A.’s List). In addition, they have two more hitting prospects in Triple-A, catcher Mike Zunino (No. 9) and middle infielder Nick Franklin (No. 79) on the vaunted Baseball America prospect list. Reiter says:
“Like the Mariners now, the Nationals then were coming off a string of losing seasons but were stockpiling prospects who would form the core of a team that won 98 games last season and is a World Series favorite this year.” (PAGE 49)
Reiter says that the patient G.M., like Rizzo, will look to add payroll and trade prospects to improve his club in the future. Zduriencik says: “I would be foolish to say, This is when [we’re] going to arrive. The only thing you can do as general manager is to try to accumulate as much talent as you can, let the coaching staff and minor league staff do their thing and let it jell.” (PAGE 50)
The Miami Marlins were among the most active teams this winter, signing past All-Stars shortstop Jose Reyes, pitcher Mark Buehrle and reliever Heath Bell. In total, they committed $194 million to free agents, more than 10 times the expenditure of the New York Yankees and nearly doubled their payroll. Reyes and new manager Ozzie Guillen appear on the cover of the March 5, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now. This is the fifth time that the Marlins have appeared on the cover.
Adding these free agents to a nucleus of young players that includes a pair of homegrown All-Stars, shortstop Hanley Ramirez and pitcher Josh Johnson, makes the Marlins as dangerous as any team in the league. One NL executive tells staff writer Ben Reiter (@SI_BenReiter), “I don’t think there’s anyone who’s not scared of playing this team” (page 35).
The Marlins, who have a new $515 million ballpark and a new manager in Guillen, should make baseball interesting in South Beach. The biggest concern could be Ramirez moving to third base to accommodate new teammate and friend Reyes. Guillen understands that he cannot take the situation lightly saying, “I would never be happy, if they moved me. But Hanley’s got to understand, this is his ball club. We built this ball club around him. You know, if Hanley Ramirez was replaced by Ozzie Guillen, I would be pissed. But Hanley Ramirez is being replaced by a pretty good shortstop. I expect Hanley to be fine.”
This week’s Sports Illustrated: Prepare for a Patriots-Giants rematch; Muhammad Ali turns 70; the emergence of Ricky Rubio; the “art” of overpaying NHL goalies; why perhaps the best player in women’s CBB plays for DelawarePosted: January 18, 2012
Following their triumphs in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, the Giants and 49ers appear on regional covers of this week’s Jan. 23, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands today. Below is the last time each team appeared on the cover and how many appearances it has overall.
- Giants: Aug. 4, 2008 (David Tyree); 22nd appearance
- 49ers: Oct. 26, 1998 (Kevin Gogan); 34th appearance
AFC AND NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME FORECASTS – TIM LAYDEN (@SITimLayden)
Patriots 27, Ravens 17: “Neither [Ray] Rice’s rushing nor the Ravens’ D will relieve QB Joe Flacco of the pressure to make as many big plays as [Tom] Brady does. And that won’t happen.”
Giants 31, 49ers 21: “San Francisco’s seasonlong ascent was built on the NFC’s best defense, but Drew Brees picked it apart last Saturday for 462 yards. Expect the red-hot [Eli] Manning to be nearly as effective—and counterpart Alex Smith much less so against a better pass rush than new Orleans’s, with higher stakes.”
On the Tablets: Senior writer Peter King’s guest on his weekly podcast is Joe Horrigan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Plus, King’s “Last Word on the NFL” leading up to the AFC and NFC title games.