The modern version of the St. Louis Cardinals, one of baseball’s most storied franchises, has been built on old-school baseball tenets – scouting and player development. But the Cardinals also have been at the forefront of modernizing that doctrine over the past dozen years. Their methods, combining what scouts see with the eye with what the numbers say, are understood only internally. The results – four straight trips to the National League Championship Series – are inarguable, and it’s hard to argue they’re not the model franchise in the sport.
Which all makes the federal investigation revealed this week, one that is looking into whether Cardinals officials hacked into the computers of the Houston Astros, all the more intriguing. At stake here is both reputation and methodology, a brand and a way of doing business – baseball business. And while the intrigue level is high with allegations that amount to corporate espionage, it’s impossible to say whether the fallout will match the potential for drama.
According to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation led by the FBI’s Houston bureau and also involves the Justice Department, investigators are not sure who, exactly, perpetrated the hacking or where they fit in St. Louis’s organizational structure. It’s hard to escape the importance of that question. Jail time could be ahead for those who orchestrated the plan. Everything else – from public perception to potential punishment of the franchise by MLB – hinges on who knew what and when, and how high that knowledge rose within the organization.
This, of course, is where the Cardinals’ scandal finds a slight parallel in the NFL. The issue of whether the New England Patriots improperly deflated footballs in last season’s AFC Championship Game focused on two low-level employees, but the league punished the franchise and quarterback Tom Brady, not head coach Bill Belichick, because the league found no evidence the all-knowing Belichick was aware of this practice.
Several current and former MLB executives said this week that they simply can’t imagine such an operation went on with the knowledge of Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak, who is in his eighth season in his position and oversees what is widely perceived as one of the best – if not the best – baseball operations departments in the sport.
To what extent that reputation is affected will, too, be tied to the ranking of the perpetrators. Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr., offering his first public comments on the matter at a Thursday news conference, said he believed the hacks came from some “roguish behavior” in St. Louis’s front office. But he said neither he nor Mozeliak knew anything of the breach before they became aware of the federal investigation this past winter.
Jim Martin, a former federal prosecutor now at the St. Louis firm Dowd Bennett who has been retained by the Cardinals, reiterated that stance.
“I am 100 percent confident that these concerns do not touch upper management and specifically John Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt,” Martin said via email.
In an interview with USA Today, Mozeliak said: “Unequivocally, I knew nothing about this.”
But the Cardinals, whose upper management and clubhouse style are both decidedly buttoned-up, are also aware that people will be skeptical of such a stance. Thus, for now, a pristine reputation sits in abeyance until the conclusion of the investigation. Martin, in an email, said the Cardinals did not have a timetable for when that might be.
“We don’t want the brand of the St. Louis Cardinals tarnished through something like this,” Mozeliak told reporters in Minneapolis, where the team was playing when the scandal broke Tuesday. “Bill and I are deeply concerned about this and we hope to have resolution sooner rather than later.”
The Cardinals list more than 200 employees as members of their front office. But who has access to what information can vary by team to team, officials from rival franchises said. So can the information that’s filed into a database that could be shared among the baseball operations and scouting staffs.
An official with another team who does not have direct knowledge of the Cardinals’ system says that, typically, scouts are able to upload reports to a franchise’s database, and other scouts would have access to their colleagues’ assessments. The Astros’ information, though, appears to have been more detailed and more proprietary.
“Teams have come up with their own formulas for rating players, and it’s obviously not just scouting anymore,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “If I value someone’s opinion, I wouldn’t try to steal it – I’d just try to hire that person. But the Astros have the reputation for doing things in a very non-traditional way. Because of that, it’s not just a scout’s opinion sitting in that database. It could be what they consider a more sophisticated way of evaluating players – both their own players and others.”
The core relationship between the two franchises is Jeff Luhnow, a former tech executive the Cardinals hired in 2003 to help modernize St. Louis’s approach to analyzing players, particularly in the draft. Luhnow has since gone on to become Houston’s general manager, and he helped pioneer the Astros’ database – which, according to several reports, is known as “Ground Control” and bears similarities to the system he built in St. Louis.
Given the Astros’ apparent turnaround – they lost 426 games over the previous four seasons but now sit in first place in the American League West and have amassed some of the best prospects in the game – there is evidence that Houston’s way is working. But whether that apparent success motivated Cardinals’ employees to pursue the Astros’ methods and evaluations hasn’t yet been determined – and in terms of the Cardinals’ reputation inside and outside the sport in which they’re considered a model, it might not matter as much as who did the hacking and who else knew about it.
Staff writer Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.