Brian Gunn On Walt Jocketty

Brian Gunn is a regular at Baseball Analysts and The Hardball Times, among other places.  Recalling his fine "GM In A Box" piece on Walt Jocketty in the THT annual a few years back, I asked him to dispel his wisdom once again on the Cards ex-GM.  His piece follows.


WALT JOCKETTY
By Brian Gunn

So just two days after Terry Ryan steps down as GM of the Twinkies, Walt Jocketty is out as GM of the Cards.  Both of them were front-office graybeards – Ryan took the top job in ’94, Jocketty the year after – and both were very successful despite operating in small to mid-size Midwestern markets.  But stylistically they were radically different.  Ryan was a shepherd – nursing his homegrown flock, even hording it – while Jocketty was a big-game hunter.  He generally looked elsewhere for talent, and he landed some of the biggest names around.  Here’s a brief look at his legacy, and some thoughts about the organization (or perhaps disorganization) he left behind…

JOCKETTY’S STRENGTHS

Jocketty built arguably the premier National League franchise of this decade.  Since 2000, the Cardinals own more regular-seasons wins than any other NL team, won more playoff games, won more league titles, and, of course, won it all in 2006. 

How did Jocketty do it?  First of all, he was fearless.  A master wheeler-dealer, nobody did a better job turning lemons into lemonade, often flipping questionable talent for marquee players. 

Consider:

Jocketty landed, via trade, Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds, Edgar Renteria, Darryl Kile, Scott Rolen, Dennis Eckersley, Todd Stottlemyre, Fernando Vina, Larry Walker, Will Clark, Adam Wainwright, and Woody Williams

Here are the most notable players he gave up to get them: Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, Kent Bottenfield, Adam Kennedy, Braden Looper, Pablo Ozuna, Manny Aybar, Jose Jimenez, Placido Polanco, Bud Smith, Steve Montgomery, Jay Witasick, Juan Acevedo, Chris Narveson, Jose Leon, one year of J.D. Drew, and the waning days of Ray Lankford’s career.

It’s an astonishing haul.  Generally Jocketty would use the same formula: go after some established but underappreciated star, give up a few middling prospects for him, let him soak in the cozy St. Louis fan experience, win ballgames, re-sign the guy to an extension (often with a hometown discount), win more ballgames, then repeat the whole process as one big feedback loop.  Jocketty was a master at that (and he was probably the best trading-deadline dealer there ever was – that’s how he got McGwire, Clark, Williams, Rolen, Walker, Chuck Finley, and Fernando Tatis).

Jocketty’s other big strength?  Cobbling together a pitching staff on the cheap.  It took him a while to get the hang of it – Cards’ hurlers in the ‘90s were usually awful.  But Jocketty, along with rehab specialists Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan, were able to buy low for arms like Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, and Darryl Kile, and let them succeed in front of those reliable St. Louis infielders.  At its best it worked beautifully.  For example, in 2005 the Cards led the majors in ERA with a starting rotation that cost, altogether, $17 million – or less than what Roger Clemens alone made that year.

JOCKETTY’S WEAKNESSES

He was never that great at developing talent from within.  Oh sure, he had his moments – he drafted and signed both Rick Ankiel and J.D. Drew when other teams wouldn’t touch ‘em for fear of being out-negotiated by Scott Boras.  And of course, Jocketty was responsible for Albert Pujols, merely the best player in the league, if not all of baseball.  But by and large the Cards’ cupboard ran rather bare during the Jocketty years.  Baseball America has recently ranked them near the bottom of all major-league farm systems, and the Cards have been especially weak locating talent overseas.  Perhaps that’s the flipside of Jocketty’s wheeling-and-dealing prowess – it gave him a sense that the team didn’t need to develop from within in order to succeed.

Jocketty’s other big weakness was that he tended to construct rather shallow rosters.  Often the ballclub would be led by big shots like Pujols, Edmonds, and Rolen, while the margins were raggedy at best.  Cards fans no doubt remember some of the team’s biggest playoff games left in the hands of shlubs like Craig Paquette, Garrett Stephenson, or Jason Marquis.  To be fair, however, Jocketty improved in this area over the last couple years.  The Cards’ bench and bullpen were among the best in the league this past year, and role players were crucial to winning the World Series in 2006.

JOCKETTY’S BEST MOVE

Landing McGwire was a masterstroke that rejuvenated the franchise, but I’d still go with the trade of Bottenfield and Kennedy to the Angels for Jim Edmonds.  In 1999 Bottenfield was an 18-game winner while Edmonds was an underperformer clouded by “character issues.”  But Jocketty noticed that Bottenfield’s peripherals were weak, Edmonds were strong, and he moved on a deal.  Kennedy ended up a dependable starter in Anaheim, but Edmonds ended up the best centerfielder in baseball for a number of years.

JOCKETTY’S WORST MOVE

I can still remember December 18, 2004, when the Cards traded starter Danny Haren, reliever Kiko Calero, and hitting prodigy Daric Barton for Mark Mulder.  As others have pointed out (I can’t remember where), Calero for Mulder straight-up would’ve been a poor deal for the Cards, to say nothing of losing Haren and Barton.  When I first heard the news I became literally sick to my stomach, and the feeling hasn’t quite gone away.

THE FUTURE

I’m not sure where Jocketty may be headed – I’ve heard Seattle and Cincinnati as rumors, but who knows.  As for the Cardinals, Tony La Russa will almost surely follow Jocketty out the door (supposedly TLR was considering leaving town anyway, and the presence of a new GM would only add to the awkwardness).

As an organization, the Cardinals should be much more committed to development and performance analysis.  Supposedly Jocketty deeply pissed off his bosses – owner Bill DeWitt and team president Mark Lamping – for failing to develop an amicable working relationship with VP of player development (and stat maven) Jeff Luhnow.   Supposedly Luhnow lived in fear of being seen around Busch Stadium, especially with reporters, for fear it would get back to Jocketty.  And the Jocketty wing of the organization – the old-school scouting types – generally treated Luhnow, according to one source, “like a war criminal.”  That should change with Jocketty’s ouster.  Expect the Cards to commit to rebuilding and a renewed emphasis on objective analysis.  Whether this occurs under interim GM John Mozeliak, or an outsider like Logan White, Paul DePodesta, or Chris Antonetti, we shall see…


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