The Cardinals Like ‘Em Old

Allen Craig is a bit of a beast. Reading through last year’s list of accomplishments can be dizzying. Craig is also turning 29, and he only has one full season under his belt.

The reasons it took him so long to get here are specific: He got injured some, a legendary player blocked him at first base and his glove didn’t allow him to play where his team needed him. But there is a chance that he’s so very, well, Cardinal. Look around his team and you can see it. Matt Carpenter debuted in his age 25 season. David Freese (26), Adron Chambers (24), Shane Robinson (25) and Jon Jay (25) were all “older” debuts. Once again, there are specific reasons for each of these, and there’s also a chance this is part of the Cardinal Way.

Testing this assertion is a little tougher than ruminating on the state of the current young people on St. Louis’ roster. That’s especially true since regimes come and go, and you never know whom to blame or to credit for current successes or failures.

We could go back to 1990 to try and get a decent sample. Of course, the Cardinals have had three general managers in that time, but one of them was there for 13 years and could have set some sort of tone that’s still in place. And we could ask how many positional rookies have been older than 26 on each team since that year. And then we would see this table. (Players traded during their rookie eligibility were counted with their debut team.)

Team Total
Twins 11
Marlins 11
Padres 10
Expos 9
Royals 9
White Sox 9
Reds 8
Mets 8
Cardinals 7
Tigers 7
Athletics 6
Pirates 5
Cubs 5
Indians 5
Mariners 5
Brewers 4
Rockies 4
Astros 3
Phillies 3
Yankees 3
Angels 3
Braves 3
Dodgers 3
Diamondbacks 2
Giants 2
Orioles 2
Rangers 2
Blue Jays 1
Devil Rays 1
Red Sox 1

The Cardinals are in the upper half, yes. Upper third even. But that’s hardly a trend.

But this is also very specific. As a team, you could conservatively advance your prospects or draft college players and still end up with few 26-year-old rookies. Perhaps you’re a team, like the Rays, which needs cost-controlled players and would never let a rookie get that old without trying him somewhere in the field.

So let’s have at this another way. Jeff Zimmerman, what’s the average debut age for position players by team since 1990?

Team age (1990) age (2000) total (1990) total (2000)
Mets 25.3 25.5 155 87
Cardinals 25.2 25.4 154 87
Athletics 25.1 25.3 171 90
Astros 25.1 25.2 139 80
Yankees 25.2 25.1 141 81
Padres 25.0 25.1 175 114
Pirates 24.8 25.1 163 91
Reds 25.0 25.0 151 93
Red Sox 24.7 25.0 128 70
Angels 25.1 25.0 155 87
Expos 24.8 25.0 183 94
Mariners 24.9 25.0 164 95
Phillies 24.9 25.0 131 67
Dodgers 24.6 25.0 138 77
Orioles 24.6 25.0 160 103
Brewers 25.2 24.9 139 77
Twins 24.6 24.9 155 86
Giants 24.9 24.9 142 84
Rockies 25.0 24.8 138 91
Royals 24.7 24.8 172 97
Indians 24.6 24.8 138 87
White Sox 24.9 24.7 152 78
Rangers 24.6 24.7 151 92
Tigers 24.6 24.6 171 102
Cubs 24.7 24.6 157 98
Blue Jays 24.4 24.6 160 89
Diamondbacks 24.5 24.6 108 94
Braves 24.3 24.6 144 86
Marlins 24.3 24.4 150 95
Devil Rays 24.6 24.4 94 80

Well, I cheated. I sorted the table since 2000 to push the Cardinals from fourth to second. But still, St. Louis has had baseball’s fourth-oldest-position-player debuts since 1990 — and the sample is 154 young men. The differences are tiny, but the ‘n’ is decent, and the differences were always going to be small. No team in baseball is running out 19-year-olds on the regular, at least not yet.

You might see a general agreement between the two lists and be tempted to make a causal link. The Cardinals at the top and the Rays and the Blue Jays at the bottom of both lists? This is about competitiveness. The Cardinals have a stacked team every year and rookies need to wait their turns. That fits the Craig Conundrum, and it makes a sort of sense. But then… Mets? Well, the Mets were competitive in the 2000s, snark aside, and the Athletics are pretty far up there for a team that has more in common with the Rays and the Jays. And what about the Padres?

There’s another direction that this might flow. If you pick more college position players, then you get older debuts? So let’s look at the Cardinals top-ten draft picks since 1990:

# HS College
Round 1 19 9 10
Round 2 12 6 6
Round 3 14 11 3
Round 4 14 6 8
Round 5 12 4 8
Round 6 11 2 9
Round 7 10 10
Round 8 13 2 11
Round 9 9 1 8
Round 10 14 2 12
Total 128 43 85

The draft always has its quirks. We know that a ton of college seniors were taken in the 10th round after new CBA rules changed the most recent draft, for example. So it’s not too strange that the Cards haven’t taken a high school position player in the seventh round since 1990. Only just a little strange, though. But in these 10 rounds, which constitute the large part of the major leagues, the Cardinals took high school players 33.5% of the time. It’s hard to find draft-wide numbers for every year, but at least in 2008, the draft hit a low with 32.2% high school players. From this analysis, the Cardinals don’t seem to be too college-heavy.

But you might notice that the later early rounds are decidedly more college-heavy. So let’s return to those players who are currently on the field in St. Louis. Craig was drafted in the eighth round. Matt Carpenter was drafted in the 13th round. Matt Adams (23rd round) and Adron Chambers (38th round) fit the mold. Maybe the Cardinals’ college picks just worked out better.

If you flip the script, Jon Jay was drafted in the second round and was one of the best success stories of the Cardinals’ recent early picks. Of course, back in the day, there were players like J.D. Drew (first round, college), Dmitri Young (first round, high school), and Yadier Molina (fourth round, high school), too. So it’s hard to say definitively that the organization has failed in the first five rounds and succeeded on college picks in the later rounds.

These things don’t often have a clean answer. The Cardinals are a competitive team, and sometimes it takes a bit to crack their starting lineup. They don’t take college players more than most, but perhaps they have been successful on the college players they have taken. And maybe to their credit, they are willing to give older rookies a shot at regular playing time despite their age.

The Cardinals don’t quite prefer them old. But even with older players, they are ready to play ball. It might just mean more peak years under team control.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

Jon Jay was drafted out of the University of Miami.

David Freese wasn’t drafted by the Cardinals.