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)
New York Mets ace Matt Harvey is the most fascinating young power arm in baseball, writes senior writer Tom Verducci in this week’s Sports Illustrated. Harvey, who appears on SI’s cover with the headline “The Dark Knight of Gotham”, has taken New York by storm thanks to four plus pitches and a chip on his shoulder from a draft slight six years ago. “In an era dominated by pitchers, Matt Harvey has the ferocity of stuff and of will to rise above all of them,” says Verducci. (PAGE 64)
Harvey’s blazing start—he is 4-0 with 62 strikeouts and a 1.44 ERA—brings up memories of Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, homegrown power pitchers who helped the Mets to their only world championships. “I want to be that guy,” says Harvey, “when they know you’re starting against them, they go, ‘Oh, crap.’ ” (PAGE 66)
Verducci notes that Harvey was groomed to become a great power pitcher with disciplined mechanics by his father, Ed, who coached Matt in high school in Connecticut. Ed always told his son that if he maintains his mechanics, nobody’s better. “He saw me coach for a long time,” Ed says. I always tried to have a level of excellence with how I wanted my teams to play. Maybe he saw some of that.” (PAGE 66)
Harvey declined a $1 million offer to sign out of high school when he was picked later than expected by the Angels in the third round of the 2007 draft. He enrolled at North Carolina, where he initially struggled. He later reestablished his status as a top prospect, and the Mets chose him with the seventh overall pick of the 2010 draft. “What happened when I was 18 will be in the back of my mind,” Harvey says of the ’07 draft. “That was the biggest thing in my career.” (PAGE 68)
Now, Harvey’s signature pitch is a 97-mph fastball. Verducci notes that the rest of his repertoire includes “a roundhouse 1-to-7 curveball, a changeup that seems to float into the ether and, most recently, a tight, hard slider that reaches 92 (PAGE 65).” Verducci thinks Harvey’s best comparison may be with Roger Clemens. “His arm goes stock straight behind him as he shows the ball to second base while sitting on a bent back leg—just as the Rocket did.” (PAGE 65)
Like Clemens, Harvey wants to own the game. When pitching coach Dan Warthen told him that he could win 17 games if he threw 210 innings, Harvey said, “If I throw 210 I’m winning 20.” (PAGE 70)
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).
The Manny Machado story is about a young talent coinciding with a franchise’s return to glory. In this week’s SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, senior writer Albert Chen says that while last season was the year of Trout and Harper, Machado proved to be another member from the 2012 rookie class that left his mark.
Machado, 20, got the call to the Baltimore Orioles last August. He was on a team bus, somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania, when his Double A manager, Gary Kendall, told him he was headed to the majors. Shortly thereafter, his phone rang. “Welcome to the Show, bro…battle for D.C./Baltimore supremacy: It’s on,” said Nationals All-Star Bryce Harper (PAGE 45).
Machado didn’t set the world on fire like Trout and Harper, but he did have an early impact. Only three other third basemen who were 20 or younger since the Dead Ball era had a higher slugging percentage than Machado’s .445. Despite having played just two games at third base in the minors, he was called on to play the hot corner for a team in the middle of its first pennant race in well over a decade. “We took a leap of faith [calling him up], and what this young man has done for us? Huge,” says Baltimore G.M. Dan Duquette, whose team reached the postseason for the first time since 1997 (PAGE 46).
Machado is the youngest player in baseball history with a multi-homer game that early in his career. He also scored the winning run in the game that clinched a postseason berth for the Orioles and homered in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Yankees. “Manny Machado’s career is about to get real loud, real soon,” says Harper (PAGE 45).
Chen notes that sometimes teams need to take that leap of faith when grappling with the difficult decision of when to call up a prized prospect. In 2012, the average age of position players was 28.5, the lowest since 1993. As baseball’s best talent gets younger, teams are facing tougher choices over when to fast-track prodigies. “If we want to win, he needs to be up,” says Baltimore’s minor league infield coordinator Bobby Dickerson (PAGE 48).
Machado says his work ethic comes from his mother Rosa Nunez, a single mother who worked long hours at an export company to provide for him and his sister. “We’d have practice at 3:15, and he was out there before everyone else at 1:30 doing his work. Later at night he’d hit at the cages, and then go to the park and take more ground balls,” says Lazaro Fundora, Machado’s high school coach (PAGE 49).
Machado has arrived in the big leagues because the Orioles had faith. “I’m thankful every day that I got a chance,” says Machado (PAGE 49).
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)