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From Yadi magic and stealth moves to baseball's best fans: Why the Cardinals always contend

The Cardinals have been to the World Series four times and have won the World Series twice during Yadier Molina's tenure with the team. Rob Carr/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- Luke Weaver delivered a 94-mph fastball to the low-and-outside reach of the strike zone. Catcher Yadier Molina didn't move his glove. The ball brushed the corner of the strike zone and, when umpire Tim Timmons yanked back his right arm to call Josh Harrison out on strikes, the Pittsburgh Pirates' leadoff hitter didn't even bother to argue. He bowed his head and jogged back to the home dugout.

Two batters later, Weaver threw an 82-mph changeup that tumbled beneath Andrew McCutchen's bat just as McCutchen swung, leading to another strikeout.

A couple of innings later, Matt Adams connected with a Ryan Vogelsong slider, producing an audible crack. The ball cleared the right-field stands, bounced off a sidewalk and rolled into the Allegheny River.

It's nights like Tuesday that St. Louis Cardinals fans can see a future that looks a lot like the present and a lot like the past, a line of nearly unbroken success.

In this era of Cardinals baseball, this is what rebuilding looks like.

After averaging more than 95 wins in the three previous seasons and reaching the postseason five straight years, the Cardinals are on pace for a ho-hum 86 wins. Yet if the season ended today, they would play the San Francisco Giants in the wild-card game, giving them the third-longest streak of reaching the postseason in baseball history behind the dynastic Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees teams of the 1990s and early 2000s.

Granted, it's a lot easier to reach the postseason in the era of two wild cards, but it's fair to say the Cardinals' consistency lately is the envy of baseball front offices across the country.

Since John Mozeliak took over as general manager in 2008, the Cardinals have the second-best winning percentage (.559) in baseball behind the Yankees, who have had payrolls that dwarf the Cardinals'. In that span, they also have the best run differential per game (+0.58) in the major leagues -- and haven't finished worse than second in the NL Central since 2008.

Here's how Mozeliak summed up the challenge of contending yearly with an eye on the long term:

"Every year presents new challenges, demands and expectations. Our goal has always been to look at this team with long-term lenses and try to understand how and what we need to do to remain competitive. Ownership provides us with resources to best manage our short- and long-term goals. Our success is based on traditional thinking with strong scouting and player development. We compliment it with modern business strategies and innovation."

But what do others in baseball think St. Louis does to end up in the thick of things year after year?

To find out how the Cardinals' methods are viewed throughout the game, ESPN.com reached out to a handful of rival team executives -- two general managers and two assistant general managers, all speaking on the condition of anonymity -- to get their perspectives on the Cardinals' recent string of success.

For what it's worth, none of them mentioned the hacking scandal now being investigated by Major League Baseball as indicative of a system of underhanded dealings by the Cardinals' front office. Then again, in the interests of full disclosure, Houston Astros' executives weren't part of the survey.

BUILDING FROM THE GROUND UP

The often-misunderstood, sometimes-mocked "Cardinal Way" goes back nearly 100 years to one of Mozeliak's few predecessors, Branch Rickey, and describes the way in which scouting and minor-league instruction built the foundation. Mozeliak and his staff are stewards of the tradition and, according to our survey, are managing it well.

"They've had a pipeline of guys like [Matt] Carpenter, and those pitchers come up quietly and just seem to never miss a beat. They're not necessarily the Baseball America darlings after the draft, but they move quickly and they turn into big-league contributors," one general manager said.

Carpenter, a 13th-round draft pick in 2009, ranks 12th in the National League with a .904 OPS. Here's one comment Baseball America wrote about Carpenter in 2011: "Drafted as a fifth-year senior out of Texas Christian and signed for a $1,000 bonus, he's aware that time and age aren't on his side."

"They obviously are very successful in the draft and seem to have a steady supply of homegrown talent. Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver, Matt Adams, Stephen Piscotty, Carpenter, the list goes on," one GM said.

One thing to keep in mind is that Mozeliak didn't walk into a bereft system that had been mismanaged. He took over a team that had won the World Series two seasons previously and had good minor-league coaches and scouts already in place. He inherited the GM role largely because he rode out the turmoil between then-GM Walt Jocketty and now-Astros GM Jeff Luhnow and gained DeWitt's trust.

Again, Mozeliak is the steward of an organization that has been one of baseball's gold standards since it joined the National League in the 19th century.

"I think winning begs winning," one assistant GM said. "Certainly you have to do a good job drafting and developing, but at the same time when you're able to win and then supplement with high-round talent like Piscotty and [Kolten] Wong, you can sustain a little bit more easily. It's almost like a self-sustaining system at this point. At least that's what it looks like from the outside."

STEALTH TRADES AND SIGNINGS

That said, Mozeliak hasn't simply drafted on his predecessors' work. He has managed to bring in bright young talents such as Piscotty, Weaver, Alex Reyes and Carson Kelly to a system in which perennial contenders pay a tax because the worst teams draft the highest and signing free agents, either domestic or international, limits your ability to do so in future seasons.

"Mo is always easy to deal with -- straightforward and honest -- so it's not surprising he's able to make trades with a wide range of clubs," one GM said.

Even if your farm system is good, GMs routinely have to plug holes in the development pipeline through trades or free-agent signings.

That can prove costly, and one bad move can set back an organization for years to come. The Cardinals get credit for betting on the right players to invest in, such as Matt Holliday, Molina and Adam Wainwright, while avoiding that one big mistake.

In that regard, Mozeliak might have been bailed out by Arte Moreno. The Cardinals made Albert Pujols a lucrative offer before the Los Angeles Angels owner came in with a 10-year, $240 million deal that ESPN.com's Dan Szymborski recently called "a gigantic long-term drag on the Angels."

"They tend to acquire free agents in that middle tier, guys like Brandon Moss," a GM said. "For any team, the goal is to avoid crippling yourself with one really big mistake."

Another under-the-radar move Mozeliak gets credited with: Signing South Korean closer Seung Hwan Oh to a one-year, $2.5 million contract out of Japan.

"Doesn't get a ton of attention, but [he] is quietly putting together one of the best reliever seasons in baseball," one assistant GM said.

Oh has the third-best reliever WAR (2.5) in the major leagues behind Dellin Betances and Kenley Jansen.

"BEST FANS IN BASEBALL"

In the early 1990s, that phrase became routinely associated with the Cardinals, largely through the work of Hall of Fame baseball writer Peter Gammons. It has become a punch line on Twitter, but it's viewed as a genuine asset by some other team executives.

In fact, one of them went so far as to name a supportive fan base as the No. 1 reason for the Cardinals' sustained success.

"It's an easy atmosphere for a young player to come into and have success," he said. "One other team has that now, the Giants, but they built it. For the Cardinals, it was just kind of there for them to take advantage of. I'm not saying the Cardinals don't draft and develop good players, but you plug some of their guys into other places to play and I don't think they have the same kind of success."

The Eastern Seaboard cities Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington are typically viewed as the most challenging environments for young players because their fan bases aren't as forgiving of early-career struggles, the argument goes. Not everyone is buying it.

"I've always found that to be a little bit of a cop-out. When the Yankees or Red Sox trade someone and they have success somewhere else they can pin it on that. To me, it doesn't give the Cardinals enough credit," another executive said.

IT'S YADIER, STUPID

Some baseball people have long suspected that Molina is the true underpinning for this run of success. Others consider the combination of Matheny and Molina, two Gold Glove catchers who are committed to figuring out ways to help pitchers succeed.

Molina, 34, has caught 1,558 games for the Cardinals. Only four catchers in baseball history, led by Hall of Famer Johnny Bench, have caught more games for one team. Molina figures to pass Jorge Posada by the end of this season.

"He's just awesome. He steals strikes for his pitchers, he calls a great game, he shuts down running games, he comes up with pressure hits and he has the respect of umpires," one assistant GM said. "That and there's very little catching in the game right now. Having Yadier is a huge asset when they bring up those young pitchers because they can just let him have the controls and worry about making good pitches."

The Cardinals signed Molina to a five-year, $75 million extension in 2012. They hold a $15 million team option for the 2018 season and Molina has said he would like to end his career as a Cardinal.

The Cardinals went 34-17 in games Molina caught in his rookie season. They have won 100 games twice, 90 games or more six times and two World Series since he broke in. It's pretty clearly a mutually beneficial relationship. These days, one could say the same for a lot of elements of the Cardinals' system.