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The Cardinals are never going to be bad again. How St. Louis concocts a magic brew to play winning baseball every year

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Once upon a time, in a land along the Mississippi River, there was a baseball team that rarely stumbled. Between 1995 and 2011, they finished under .500 only three times. Most seasons, they rewarded their loyal, chipper fans with the great bounty of an occupied autumn, reaching nine postseasons and winning the World Series twice. They were known as the St. Louis Cardinals, and they already seemed like a team straight out of a fairytale.

The glass slipper, by all logical bounds, should have shattered that winter after their second title. It had been an excellent run, and many of the main characters were exiting. Manager Tony La Russa retired (for a while), scouting whiz Jeff Luhnow left to run the Houston Astros and, most crucially, iconic first baseman Albert Pujols departed in free agency for the riches of the Los Angeles Angels.

A river will flow to the ocean. What goes up must come down.

The Cardinals came down a little bit, but not much. They haven’t won another World Series since, but they got there again and have made the playoffs in seven of 10 seasons. They haven’t sunk below .500 once. In an era characterized by peaks and valleys — either via the tanking Luhnow popularized or by complete accident — the Cardinals are one of a precious few teams that has maintained an unbroken string of competitiveness. Two dozen fan bases would sacrifice an appendage for this type of reliable summer intrigue.

A decade on from what looked like a swan song, the Cardinals came into 2022 daring the universe to play them a real one. Three roster spots out of 26 have been devoted mostly to Yadier Molina in his Yoda stage, 40-year-old starter Adam Wainwright and a return engagement for Pujols, a storybook ending that just shouldn’t work. But as ever, they’re squarely in the playoff hunt, flying toward October on the back of names you didn’t know two months ago, and might not know now.

They are in their own story, where the bubble never pops. “Cardinals Devil Magic” started as a joke but has had demonstrated effects on so many seasons that it has calcified into an accepted, observable force, like gravity or the strong interaction that holds atomic nuclei together. If there’s any magic involved, they seem to have it down to a science.

I, for one, have accepted this as a rule of the baseball world: The Cardinals are never going to be bad again.

The Cardinals' Tommy Edman has played star-level defense at shortstop and second en route to becoming one of the majors' most valuable players in 2022. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
The Cardinals' Tommy Edman has played star-level defense at shortstop and second en route to becoming one of the majors' most valuable players in 2022. (Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)

How 'Cardinals Devil Magic' went from joke to fact

The Cardinals’ last losing record came in 2007, and John Mozeliak — now the president of baseball operations — was promoted into the GM seat immediately afterward. That team went 78-84. If you’re looking for a truly bad Cardinals team, you have to go back to 1990. That’s the most recent St. Louis team to lose 90 games, or finish last in its division. (The Cardinals’ latest last-place finish prior to that came in 1918.)

It should be said that the Cardinals are not alone in resisting the tug of losing seasons. The New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have exhibited many of the same deft skills in keeping their megaships afloat. The Cardinals have just done it without access to on-demand free agency infusions.

Armed with a famously devoted fan base, they have not necessarily lacked the money so much as the tie-breaking allure of a major coastal city. Or at least that was the thought that spawned their focus on drafting and development.

“When you look at the free agent market, we’re likely going to be the bridesmaid at that,” Mozeliak told Yahoo Sports last week. “We realized that 20 years ago. So ultimately, for us to really be successful, we have to draft and develop well, both internationally and domestically. And then we can leverage that to hopefully identify elite talent that we can ultimately get in trades as well.”

“Cardinals Devil Magic,” was originally a funny, exasperated shorthand for the moments when St. Louis found yet another guy no one has ever heard of to produce in the big leagues, but it’s not a joke.

Over the past 20 completed seasons, the Cardinals have called up more productive rookie hitters than any other franchise. They have had 17 rookies log above-average batting lines, by park- and era-adjusted OPS+, in at least 250 plate appearances. The next best clubs had 15 — and what’s striking is the other teams near the top of this list had rebuilding years to cycle through young players and see who popped. The Cardinals, you’ll recall, were doing this while contending virtually every year.

They also stand out if you boost the criteria and look for rookie hitters who really hit — the ones who managed OPS+ numbers of 120 or more, at least 20% better than league average. They’ve had an MLB-best nine of those, eight during the Mozeliak era.

These are the “Devil Magic” All-Stars that you probably remember. Matt Carpenter. Allen Craig. Aledmys Diaz. Paul deJong. Tommy Edman.

Zoomed out, this is the superpower we’ve seen lift the Dodgers, the Tampa Bay Rays and their ilk to perennial prominence. That laser focus on hoarding potential and maximizing every ounce of talent is the basis for virtually every contemporary front office strategy. It just had a head start in St. Louis.

The Cardinals’ largest expenditure to reel in an external free agent under Mozeliak is an $82.5 million deal for Dexter Fowler, and that didn’t go particularly well. They have lavished larger deals on players originally acquired via trade — including Matt Holliday and impossibly Cardinals-y current cornerstone Paul Goldschmidt. But mostly, they have pulled winners out of their own minor league system.

Edman, the most recent entrant to earn his place in “Devil Magic” lore, came out of nowhere in 2019. On a FanGraphs prospect list that ranked 35 players prior to that season, Edman didn’t merit a mention. Then he hit .304/.350/.500 across 92 games where he played five different positions well.

In 2022, Edman … leads all position players in Baseball-Reference WAR. A good chunk of that immense value springs from defense. By the Statcast-powered Outs Above Average metric, he rates as one of 2022’s top five shortstops and one of its top five second basemen. His ability to more than capably handle two of the most difficult positions on the field has given the Cardinals flexibility to deploy more rookies.

Among them is Brendan Donovan, a versatile utility man who doesn’t play defense as well as Edman, but figures to be 2022’s addition to the “Devil Magic” list. Baseball Prospectus ranked him as the 10th best prospect in the St. Louis system but saw the twist coming, foreseeing a “24-year-old, seventh-round college bat that is going to outplay this ranking.”

Indeed. In his first 57 major-league games, Donovan has gotten on base at a .411 clip — which is far and away the best among rookies, and ranks fourth among all hitters with at least 200 plate appearances.

No one in St. Louis is spilling the secrets behind this assembly line, but both Mozeliak and manager Oli Marmol are quick to note that the Cardinals focus not only on individual development in the minors, but on crafting winning teams.

St. Louis Cardinals rookie Nolan Gorman is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run home run. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals rookie Nolan Gorman is congratulated by teammates after hitting a two-run home run. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

How St. Louis pulls in star players

While manufacturing contributors like Donovan is great, sustaining a winner does require premium talent, too.

“In a perfect world, you’re developing elite players,” Mozeliak said. “Meaning you’re developing your Paul Goldschmidts, your Nolan Arenados. But let’s be honest, that’s hard to do, and especially where we always pick.”

Consistent winning complicates that mission. Since Mozeliak took over, the Cardinals’ highest draft pick is No. 13 in 2008. Usually, they have made their top selection between No. 18 and No. 23.

Scouting players and developing players are technically two different processes and two different departments of a front office. But with the most successful teams, they are one long swing. Mozeliak credits that handoff — “a really seamless process” — as a key reason for his team’s never-ending success.

“We understand that it’s our lifeline to be successful in the draft,” he said.

Here’s what he means: They turned the No. 27 overall pick in the 2014 draft (Luke Weaver) and a second-round pick in the 2012 draft (Carson Kelly) into headliners that reeled in Goldschmidt. Other times, they sit back and wait for an elite talent to reach their depth of the draft, mirroring what you might think of as the Baltimore Ravens model in the NFL, and then they pounce.

Continuously discovering star hitters has been crucial. Their pitching development has produced some hits, but has overall been less notable. They have famously traded some excess hitters in search of young pitching. Plus, those “Devil Magic” stars feel that way for a reason. They seem to be under a spell, and often times, it wears off. Players like deJong and Diaz and Craig faded out of starting jobs into smaller roles or the minors.

The other rookie who has stepped into a big role for the 2022 team probably isn’t going to do that. Coming into the 2018 draft, Nolan Gorman was widely touted as a potential star, a barrel-chested power-hitting third baseman destined to be the first MLB draftee born in the 2000s.

Bopping homers for an Arizona high school, he was burning too bright to reach the St. Louis pick at No. 19.

“I think a lot of people would have would have said like prior to the draft season starting so you know, like, early January, February, he was someone that might go in the top 10,” Mozeliak said. “And, you know, I compliment our scouting department for staying on a player that maybe they were hearing would get to us.”

He reached the St. Louis pick. This spring, he ranked among the top 60 prospects in baseball, and cracked the top 40 in several of them. Less than four years on from that draft, he stepped into the Cardinals lineup at second base. In 35 games so far, he has six homers and an OPS 17 percent better than league average.

They appear to have pulled the same trick in 2020, nabbing 6-foot-5 third baseman Jordan Walker out of a Georgia high school with the 21st pick. He has crushed every level of the minors so far, and now ranks among the 20 or so best prospects in baseball.

This is the story of the Cardinals. Just when everything points to a slide into mediocrity, or toward a rebuild, a new star sprouts. Or a sweetheart Nolan Arenado trade falls out of the sky. They're not locks to reach October this year, but it's hard to envision them falling out of a race with the Milwaukee Brewers that few expected them to be in.

Choosing the most desirable path for your favorite baseball team is an almost philosophical question. Rival Chicago Cubs fans needed to see a World Series winner, and they finally got that. But they’re going to endure multiple fallow periods on either side.

The Cardinals haven’t won the ultimate prize in a while now, but they traffic in an endless supply of hope. Preseason projections routinely shrug at the current vintage St. Louis teams, and every year supposed experts like me scour the roster and decide someone else has a better chance at a playoff spot. Mostly every year, supposed experts like me look up in August and realize the Cardinals are going to make it anyway.

What they give their fans is legitimate reason to believe they might win it all, or at least contend, deep into every summer. Year in and year out. No matter how unlikely it looks each spring.

If that isn’t a baseball fairytale, I don’t know what is.

Hannah Keyser contributed reporting.