Thanks for dropping by and taking some questions! Below are some of the things I wonder about.
1. How would you rank the defensive positions in terms of importance for an average team. How much does that change depending on the pitching staff, GB:FB ratio, etc? Would you care to add color to the traditional thoughts on the defensive impact of Catchers and 1Bs?
I am not sure what you mean by "defensive importance." Traditionally, we hear about good teams being "strong up the middle" (2B, SS, CF, and C). As is often the case, that is silly. What does that even mean? The better you are at each defensive position, the more games you will win and vice versa. If you have an average SS and a great 3B'man (say Eckstein and Rolen, although Eck is probably a little above average, or Bell and Rollins for Philly), you are pretty much as well off as if you had an average 3B'man and a great SS (say Ensberg and Everett).
That being said, the spread of talent at each position is a little different (some positions have a more narrow spread than others). That is generally because the SS, 2B and CF get more opportunities to field balls than the other positions. That means that for any given player who is above or below average, their talent (above or below average) will be accentuated at those positions. That does not mean that it isn't harder to play SS or CF. It is. It also does not mean that it may not be more difficult to find players who are adequate SS, 2B CF, and C. It may be (although the fact that the more difficult a position defensively, the more we tolerate poor hitting, mitigates this potential problem of scarcity at the right end of the defensive spectrum).
The best defensive players overall are at SS, then 2B, then CF, etc. And of course, to play SS, 2B, and catcher, you need "smart" and experienced players, not just athletically giften ones.
C is a unique position. I don't like to include it in the defensive spectrum. Bill James puts it in the spectrum at the far right end (the most difficult), but I am sure that he recognizes that it is a unique talent and probably does not belong in the same "category" as the other positions. Of course each position requires a certain set of unique skills, so we can't really extrapolate exactly how a player will perform when he moves from one position to another (although we can and do try). For example, Biggio was at least an average 2B. He "should have" been an above average OF'er. For whatever reason, he was terrible in the OF. And of course it generally takes some "getting used to" when a player moves positions, especially from the IF to the OF (like Soriano) or vice versa, which is more rare of course.
In any case, a team should approach each potential player (in terms of personnel decisions) on a case by case basis rather than adopting any particular organizational philsophy with regard to defense or anything else. A position player's value to your team is simply his marginal run value in terms of his offense and defense combined. It doesn't really matter how a player's (or team's) talent is distributed (between offense, defense, and baserunning). While technically a run saved on defense is worth slightly more than a run saved on offense (in win value), for all practical purposes, they are one and the same. It also does not matter how that talent is distributed on the team, in terms of the defensive spectrum. +3 (or -5) runs at second base is the same as +3 (or -5) runs in LF (in terms of a defensive projection or defensive talent) or any other position.
So this whole idea of trying to be strong up the middle or a team "focusing on defense" (or offense or pitching), is silly. You simply try and put together the best overall team you can for the lowest amount of payroll (it is not quite that simple, but that is the basic idea).
If you happen to have a heavily laden GB or FB staff, of course the "average" defensive projections (based on a league average G/F tatio) for each player will change. The Cards have had a fairly heavy GB staff (rarely does a team overall have a heavy FB or GB staff because there are just too many pitchers on a staff), so obviously it behooves them to have a better defense in the IF than in the OF. It doesn't make all that much difference though. And of course, if you have a heavy RH pitching staff, you would prefer better defense at SS and 3B. If you have lots of lefties on your pitching staff, you can leverage your defense by having better defenders at 2B and 1B. Etc.
For an individual pitcher who is heavily FB or GB, it can make a large difference where the strength of your defense is. In fact, you can use "defensive" platoons with certain pitchers if you want (if you happen to have the personnel for that, which most teams don't). A few years ago, Boston had the opportunity to play Pokey Reese in the IF when Lowe was on the mound, even though he doesn't hit a lick, because his great defense was so accentuated behind a GB pitcher.
As far as 1B and catcher:
My opinion is that teams overvalue catcher defense. The average catcher is such a poor hitter these days that I believe there are many players in the majors and in the minors who "should be" catching in the major leagues because they are decent, good or excellent hitters, and can catch a little (e.g., Fick, Willingham, C. Wilson). They don't catch because teams (and pitchers I guess) do not like to catch players who are considered weak on defense (and in "handling" a pitching staff). Instead, players like Flaherty, Chavez, Diaz, Ausmus, and our own Gary Bennett, continue to have part time or full-time catching jobs even though they can't hit a lick. I believe that this philosophy is counterproductive, but I could be wrong.
Sabermetricians have had a hard time identifying significant differences among catchers in terms of how they call pitches and thus affect a pitcher's ERA (basically "catcher ERA"). That doesn't mean that those differences do not exist. It does suggest however that maybe catchers do not have as much influence on pitchers as teams (and the pitchers themsleves) think. (Maybe with a young staff, you need a good, experienced catcher, and with a veteran pitching staff it doesn't really matter - I don't know.)
That being said, catcher defense, in terms of PB, WP, throwing out and picking off baserunners, fielding bunts, and errors, appears to be worth plus or minus 10 runs a year or so in talent, about the same as a first baseman, not a huge amount to write home about, as compared to a middle infielder or CF'er (who can be worth plus or minus 15 to 20 runs a year).
While defensive metrics likke UZR and Dewan's (and others) system, measure first base defense well (in terms of fielding ground balls), not a whole lot of saber people have yet incorporated "receiving bad throws" into the "first base defense paradigm." Dewan has done some work on that. I'm sure some other people have as well. While it is definitely a skill that varies from player to player, my best guess (WAG) is that it is another plus or minus 5 runs at best, perhaps making a first baseman "worth" almost as much as a 2B and SS overall, and more than a 3B. Of course, 2B and SS get some extra "value" in terms of their ability to catch line drives and pop flies (and to a lesser extent 1B and 3B), both of which are generally ignored, for better or worse, in many of the advanced defensive metrics, including my own UZR.
2. How would you characterize the Cardinals' organization's ability/willingness to adopt to sabermetric thinking.
Touchy subject! To be purposely terse, at the managerial and coaching big league level (LaRussa and staff), very little. At the GM level (Walt and Mo), a little. At other levels in the front office, a lot. At the level of the principal owner, although he does not meddle too much in the day to day affairs of the team, AFAIK, a lot. At other levels in the organization and with other front office personnal, a little to a lot.
3. Many people have raved about the Cards' '05 draft. In your opinion is it more likely that was a lucky one-time shot or should we expect to see the Cards draft class to perform similarly in the future?
No, definitely not "lucky." Myself (not so much anymore) and some other stat guys, along with other front office and scouting people, have put a lot of time, energy, and research (especially statistical analysis of college players), into the amateur draft. You never know of course (IOW, "luck" plays a large role in the ultimate success of the draft, as it does in all aspects of baseball), but expect the Cards to continue to have stellar drafts. It is and will continue to be one of the Cards really strong areas, even as compared to the other saber teams, like Oakland and Boston. This bodes well for our future.