Entering the 2011 baseball season, John Vuch was promoted to the role of Farm Director where he took overall responsibility for the state of the Cardinals’ minor league farm system. What follows is part 1 of an exchange of questions and answers on a variety of topics including Mr. Vuch himself, social media and spring training.
azruavatar: There were obviously a lot of changes to the Cardinals this year not only on the field but in the front office. Notably, Jeff Luhnow, who had been heavily involved in both the amateur draft and the minor league system since 2005, left to become the Astros’ general manager. Last offseason you were promoted to the title of ‘Farm Director’. Can you tell us a little more about what your day-to-day responsibilities entail after the new title and Luhnow’s departure?
John Vuch: From a Player Development perspective, the bigger change actually came at the end of the 2010 season as Jeff focused his efforts on Amateur Scouting and I was given responsibility for our Player Development department. So in that respect, while the Amateur Scouting Department is experiencing major changes with the departure of Jeff (and Sig Mejdal [ed. note: Sig Mejdal left to become the Astros Director of Decision Sciences under Jeff Luhnow]), and the arrival of Dan Kantrovitz as Amateur Scouting director, there will be little effect on how we do things in player development, since we already began implementing a lot of changes when I moved into my new role for the 2011 season. I had good relationships with both Jeff and Sig and always enjoyed discussing players, theories and different ways of making evaluations with them, so I certainly don’t want to minimize the effect of their departure or their role in helping to provide talented players into the organization. But the vast majority of our scouts in the field are still with us and Chris Correa does a phenomenal job from the analytical side of things, so I’m confident that Dan and our amateur scouting department will continue to provide our farm system with the raw materials we need to develop players for our Major League club.
When I shifted into the role of Farm Director, that allowed me to focus more on the actual decisions that we make in terms of building our minor league rosters, making in-season transactions and ensuring that our players are being taught in a manner that is consistent with the expectations of the Major League club. Although I had many years in Player Development, it was a different experience last year being given the autonomy to make those decisions and implement changes to the way we develop our players. Fortunately, John Mozeliak gave me the resources necessary to succeed in the new role, and a big part of it was having Gary LaRocque spend the majority of his time with our minor league clubs. Gary has a wealth of experience as a former Farm Director and Scouting Director, so he was (and continues to be) a huge resource for me. I’m able to bounce ideas off him and get honest feedback, which is vital in helping me in the decision-making process.
Although the role of Farm Director puts me ultimately responsible for the productivity of our farm system and in charge of making the decisions associated with that department, we’ve really made an effort to involve all of our field staff in the decision-making process. Much of my time, especially in-season, is spent on the phone with the managers/coaches/rovers that are seeing our players on a daily basis. It’s vital to get the staff’s input on player decisions, as they should be the ones that know their own players better than anyone. While it’s not a strict “democracy”, and there are times where unpopular decisions have to be made, whenever possible I try to avoid simply making unilateral decisions without getting as much input as possible from people who can provide helpful insight. So the way I look at it is when our farm system is going well it’s absolutely a collective effort involving everyone in our department – conversely if the system isn’t going well that should fall on me, since I’m ultimately the one who put that staff in place. But I’ve got a lot of confidence in the group that we currently have teaching our players, and we’re always looking for ways to make ourselves better.
AZ: You’ve been with the Cardinals’ organization for a long time. Long enough that I feel guilty asking exactly how long that’s been but, if I recall correctly, it’s been since you were a teenager. I doubt that anyone considers the major league baseball business to be one that is a 9-5 work schedule or low stress. What helps to keep you motivated after working in a front office for as long as you have?
JV: That’s correct – I started working for the Cardinals as a 16-year old High school junior in 1979. (No need to do the math – while I don’t feel old, I suppose the calendar doesn’t lie!) After graduating from college, I finally became full-time in 1985 and moved over to the Baseball Operations department prior to the 1988 season. Motivation has never been an issue, as I can honestly say there’s never been a day where I woke up and said “I don’t feel like going to work today”. I know I’ve been extremely fortunate to be given the opportunity to have a career in an industry that I love – being able to attempt to make small contributions to the team that I grew up rooting for makes it even better.
The hours can be long – during spring training it’s 7 days a week, starting every day before 7:00 am and in-season we roll up a lot of 15+ hour days, but when you’re doing a job you enjoy, the hours aren’t an issue. While the advent of email, cell phones, etc make you accessible and “on-call” 24 hours a day, it also makes it much easier to work away from the office. There’s no doubt that there is stress associated with the job, but really the only negative aspect is the demands it makes on the rest of my family and their events that I miss when I’m traveling. They’re incredibly understanding about it since it’s really always been that way, and they have adapted to it – but it still doesn’t make it any easier when I have to leave!
Ultimately though, the motivation simply comes from enjoying what I do for a living.
AZ: You and I have corresponded some in the past about the club’s desire to teach minor leaguers about their off the field “responsibilities” as well as on the field ones. Specifically, I’m curious about the club’s approach to twitter. There are a lot of players with public accounts and, at times, they share some very personal information. What’s the club’s approach to twitter given how accessible and popular of a technology it is becoming with young people?
JV: Social media is something that we’ve already addressed with our players in the past, but we have plans in place to spend more time discussing it with them this spring. If used properly, Twitter and Facebook can be a positive way for players to connect with fans and the media, as well as begin to create a “brand” for themselves. If used improperly, players can embarrass themselves and the organization and cause damage to their public image.
I’m sympathetic with our players at times because I remember being young and doing dumb things at their age and, I’m very grateful that the internet wasn’t around to memorialize some of those things for posterity! But the big difference is that in 2012 everyone has the ability to take pictures/videos of them with their phones and, while I was an anonymous college student at their age, as professional athletes and public figures, they don’t have the luxury of doing some of the things their peers can do without it becoming public.
We have had conversations with a few players about “tweets” that don’t put them in a good light, and once we discuss it with them individually, the vast majority of players we’ve spoken with seem to have gotten the message. However, there are still a few “tweets” that get brought to my attention that, although they may not be atypical from a young man in his late teens/early twenties, aren’t consistent with what the Cardinals stand for.
To me, the key is not banning them from using a technology that is only going to become even more prevalent, but instead to educate them on how to use it properly as a public figure. The best analogy I’ve heard is to equate it to sitting in an auditorium with a microphone in front of 100 people, or 1,000 people or 10,000 people (depending on how many followers). If it’s something you wouldn’t be comfortable saying it out loud in front of a crowd of that size, it doesn’t belong on your Twitter. I anticipate that social media will be an issue that we continue to address and educate our players about in the coming months and years, and hopefully our players will continue to improve on using those forms of communication in ways that benefit their image rather than making them and the club look bad.
AZ: We’re coming up on Spring Training and there will be a lot of minor leaguers who will head to Florida to take part in both the major league and minor league camps. Statistically, it’s not a lot of time to judge a player on the numbers. What are some things, outside of the quantifiable results and performance, that the club wants to see from prospects during this time?
JV: You hit the nail on the head – spring training is an awfully small sample size to simply look at the stats they compile in March and use that as the sole basis for deciding what club they make. We can’t ignore a player’s prior history, especially for those that have been in the organization for years. That said, we’re looking for improvements in comparison to the prior year. For pitchers – is he throwing harder? Is he exhibiting better command? Throwing the breaking pitch more consistently for strikes? Similarly for hitters – Has he gotten stronger, better conditioned? Exhibiting better plate discipline? Has his defense improved? Those types of questions frequently play a role in determining whether a player gets moved up or whether he tops out at his prior level.
AZ: The Cardinals farm system is regarded as a top 10 system right now. While there will likely be prospects who contribute to the Cardinals, there’s a real possibility for the club to use some of these players as trade pieces as well. As the farm director, what is it like to watch players you’ve helped usher through the system switch affiliations via trades?
JV: Our goal in player development is always very simple – to do anything possible to contribute to a championship caliber club. Whether that’s “graduating” players to the major leagues, as we saw last year with Lance Lynn, Eduardo Sanchez, Fernando Salas, Adron Chambers, etc, or it means trading Alex Castellanos in order to acquire Rafael Furcal, both methods are part of accomplishing the larger goal in player development. From a selfish standpoint, it’s always fun and satisfying to watch the young guys come up and make an impact, but especially when it turns out like 2011. I’m just as happy to see a minor league player turn into immediate major league help through trade. Ideally, the key is to know your own players better than anyone else, and perhaps move a guy that the other organization values more highly than we do.
Note: My thanks to John Vuch for his time in answering my questions. Don’t forget to come back tomorrow for the conclusion where we’ll discuss player’s transitioning positions and the implementation of the player development system with a new manager.