photo: Ted Simmons (Orlando Ramirez/Imagn)
Over the last half century plus, the St. Louis Cardinals have proven to be one of the most adept at finding players who rise to become key major leaguers, and in most instances do it with the Birds on the Bat logo emblazoned across their chest. In this series of articles, we will explore the Cardinals picks from each of the decades since Major League Baseball began their current draft process in 1965.
Finding potential is the easy part of the draft but turning that draft pick into a major leaguer is another case in and of itself. We begin this series by examining the Cardinals success at having done just that. with their first pick of nearly every draft over the last 56 years.
Before sabermetrics became in vogue in the early 2000’s, Major League Baseball teams had a legion of scouts across the nation looking for that one player who could make a difference at the highest level. It was an inexact science done in person without the benefit of technology. This is what helps make the Cardinals success so astounding since Major League Baseball first introduced the draft in 1965.
With the exception of two seasons, St. Louis has had least one draft pick in every opening round and in some cases multiple picks in the first round. Since it generally takes a first round pick an average of 4-6 years to reach the big show, we stopped our look with the 2017 draft. Although we won’t name every first-round pick, we will highlight the success the Cardinals have generated with first round picks over the years and a few of the less successful yet interesting choices.
Not every first rounder who makes it became known for his accomplishments.
In 1965, the Cardinals made Joe Difabio of Delta State University their first ever draft pick. Difabio had some iconic sports connections. His high school baseball coach was none other than Hubie Brown, the future NBA Hall of Fame basketball coach. In college, his pitching career reached new heights under the tutelage of “Boo” Ferriss.” For 2 1/2 seasons, Ferriss was one of the most dominant pitchers in the American League and in 1946 he beat Difabio’s future Cardinals team in Game 3 of the World Series. Despite all this, due to injury, Difabio would never pitch in a major league game.
The Cardinals may have struck out on Difabio but they didn’t strike out on many future picks. In 1966, they drafted Leron Lee out of Grant High School in Sacramento, CA. Within three years, Lee made it to the outfield grass of Busch Stadium where he would begin fashioning an eight-year major league career with four different teams.
In 1967, the Cardinals made Ted Simmons their top pick. By the following September, he made his major league debut and in 1971 became the Cardinals regular backstop, a role would continue for more than a decade. Simmons became the first Cardinals draftee to make it to the Halls of Cooperstown with the Class of 2020.
Ed Kurpiel, the Cardinals’ first pick in the 1971 draft, made it to the majors for a brief stint with the 1974 Redbirds. His first night on the roster, “Fast Eddy” watched as St. Louis speedster Lou Brock stole his 105th base of the season, breaking the MLB single season stolen base record previously held by Maury Wills.
A first round pedigree does not necessarily mean the path to the top is any easier than for any other player. In 1973, the Cardinals chose third baseman Joe Edelen. Edelen toiled in the minors for eight years before making his St. Louis debut on April 18, 1981.
In 1974, the Cardinals drafted a player who would be remembered more for his trade than for his bat and glove. Garry Templeton was the 13th overall selection and within two years, he had played his way onto St. Louis’ roster. By 1981, the shortstop became highest paid player in Redbirds history to that point and a year later, he was dealt to the San Diego Padres for “The Wizard” Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith.
Cardinals scouts continued to come through, as three of the final five draft choices to close out the decade of the 1970’s reached the big leagues. Leon Durham, Terry Kennedy and fan favorite Andy Van Slyke all made an opening day with St. Louis.
Of the 12 players drafted by the organization in the opening round during the 1980’s, six went on to enjoy big league careers that started with Redbirds while three others made their debuts in another uniform. More importantly for the Cardinals, all six including Cris Carpenter, Joe Magrane, Luis Alicea, Brian Jordan, Jim Lindeman and closer Todd Worrell would be key to the Cardinals future success.
With hindsight being 20-20, with a do over in the 1989 draft the Cards surely would have taken the “Big Hurt” Frank Thomas with the sixth pick and let their actual pick Paul Coleman drop to seventh and the Chicago White Sox.
Not many teams can compete with the Cardinals first round draft success of the 1980’s but in the 1990’s they erased any doubt to how good the scouting department really was. Led by legends Marty Keough, Mike Roberts, and Fred McAlister, their hard work and attention to detail paid off as the team drafted one major leaguer after another, beginning with pitcher Donovan Osborne in 1990.
Over the next 19 picks in the decade, they added Aaron Holbert, Dmitri Young, Allen Watson, Brian Barber, Sean Lowe, Alan Benes, Matt Morris, Braeden Looper, Adam Kennedy, J.D. Drew, and Chris Duncan, all of whom reached the big-league roster. Pitcher Ben Diggins, selected 32nd in the 1998 draft made it to the bigs with Milwaukee and ironically his last outing in the majors was a loss to the very team that drafted him.
In total, 70 percent of the Cardinals first round picks in the 1990’s made it to the pinnacle of success for a ball player. That is higher than the major league average that lies somewhere between 60 and 65 percent depending on who you ask.
Turning the page into a new century, draft picks proved how fickle potential can be. Following the success of the 1990’s, three straight number ones failed to make it to the big time at the beginning of the 2000’s. Eventually the tables turned, and the Cardinals ran off an impressive streak of 11 straight top draft choices ascending to the majors. Eight of them did not in a St. Louis uniform, including stalwarts Colby Rasmus, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller.
As the second decade of the 2000’s began, Cardinals scouts continued to scour the fields of amateur play uncovering 11 more diamond gems between 2010 and 2017. Gone now may be the likes of Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty and Michael Wacha, but the Cardinals draft legacy continues to shine behind the bat of 2021 National League Rookie of the Year candidate Dylan Carlson and the pitching Jack Flaherty and Jake Woodford, among others.
Analytics will continue to refine the way scouts find and score prospects but the success of Cardinals scouts has proven them to consistently be some of the best in the business regardless of the method or measuring stick used. Since 1965, the Cardinals have selected and developed 51 of their 78 first round picks into productive major league players.
Of the 51 who made it, an amazing 84% debuted in a Cardinals uniform. Out of those 43 who reached MLB as a Cardinal, 17 called Busch Stadium home for five or more seasons. Simmons spent the most time of any Cardinals first rounder, logging 13 years behind the dish. 15 of the 51 enjoyed an MLB career that spanned a decade or more.
Today, the Cardinals have three of their former first round picks on their current 26-man roster. 11 of the 189 first round picks currently playing in the majors began as members of the St. Louis Cardinals big league club.
With scouting and developmental success like this, is it any wonder that the St. Louis Cardinals have remained one of the best all-time?
Next up: Cardinals Second Round Analysis
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