A few weeks ago on my KFNS radio show, during the dormant part of the Cardinals offseason, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. reminded us that he likes having star players, wants to have star players, and believes that star players make his teams better.
Little did we know that this was a sneak preview… or a sneaky preview … of the action to come.
To the ladies, gentlemen and all of you kids: the Cardinals would like to introduce third baseman Nolan Arenado.
“When we’ve had an opportunity to get premium players, we’ve made every effort to get them,” DeWitt said Tuesday in a Zoom conference to announce and discuss the Arenado acquisition. “One thing we do know is premium players continue to be premium players. This was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.”
The tradition continues.
Since DeWitt and partners purchased the franchise before the 1996 season, the Cardinals have kept the rosters stocked with starpower. They’ve traded for established stars. They’ve signed free-agent stars. They’ve signed or traded for veteran non-stars who became stars here.
Before DeWitt took over in ‘96, the Cardinals were a below-average team that had stumbled and rolled into a ditch.
The Cardinals had failed to make the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons (1988-1995) and ranked 20th in winning percentage (.489) among the 28 MLB teams at the time. Home attendance was in decline. The team’s Anheuser-Busch ownership lost interest in the baseball business and reduced payroll. And the labor feud between owners and players had alienated fans in all MLB markets.
The sad situation in St. Louis called for immediate upgrades and a dial-up of enthusiasm and energy. After adding manager Tony La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan, starting pitchers Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre, left fielder Ron Gant (30 homers), shortstop Royce Clayton and closer Dennis Eckersley, the ‘96 Cardinals won their division and took Atlanta to seven games before fading in the NLCS.
Star power gave the Cardinals a charge and a restart.
A pattern was forming.
Home attendance increased dramatically in the late 1990s when slugger Mark McGwire came to town after a trade with Oakland on July 31, 2007. From Big Mac’s entry point through the end of the 1999 season he walloped 159 home runs in 359 games, and went deep at an astonishing rate of a homer every 7.5 at-bats.
But McGwire’s hulking presence couldn’t hoist the Cardinals above multiple roster issues during 1997-1999. Those Cardinals missed the playoffs each year, with three straight losing seasons computing to a .476 winning percentage.
DeWitt GM Walt Jocketty and assistant GM John Mozeliak got aggressive.
Before the 2000 season the Cardinals traded for starting pitcher Darryl Kile, signed free-agent starting pitcher Pat Hentgen, traded for center fielder Jim Edmonds, traded for second baseman Fernando Vina and took a chance on modestly priced free-agent catcher Mike Matheny.
With McGwire suffering from knee problems, the Cardinals secured first baseman Will Clark to play first base in a deadline-day trade.
And before the 1999 season the Cardinals had obtained rising-star shortstop Edgar Renteria in a trade with Miami; he already was in place to help build a new foundation.
The trade acquisitions and smart signings kept coming: closer Jason Isringhausen, starting pitcher Woody Williams, third baseman Scott Rolen, a second trade for Andy Benes, right fielder Larry Walker, lefty reliever Steve Kline, outfielder Reggie Sanders, shortstop David Eckstein, first baseman Tino Martinez, outfielder Juan Encarnacion. All were part of postseason-bound St. Louis teams. Except for Martinez, all were part of at least one pennant-winner in St. Louis.
Low-risk signings of starting pitchers Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan paid off in spectacular ways. (And is this where I mention another starting pitcher, Jeff Weaver?)
The trade for left fielder Matt Holliday brought superb results. Mozeliak won big on signing gambles that brought in aging outfielders Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran. A trade for outfielder Jason Heyward enhanced the 2015 Cardinals; the team won 100 games.
Some mistakes were made, sure. All MLB teams screw up and make stupid moves. After scrambling but failing to make the postseason for three consecutive years (2016-2018) the Cardinals reappeared in the playoffs in each of the next two seasons, 2019 and ‘20. The revival was pushed along by the trade for first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and the signing of lefty reliever Andrew Miller.
(By the way: I haven’t mentioned Adam Wainwright or David Freese here for a reason. They were acquired as prospects; the Cardinals get mad-praise credit for making the moves. But for the most part, I’ve limited this to looking at the major-league players that came to St. Louis as major-league players … not minor leaguers who were still finding their way.)
I was messing with some numbers on Wednesday.
Here are the collective accomplishments of position players Edmonds, Rolen, Renteria, Holliday, Eckstein, Beltran, Berkman, Walker, Matheny, Vina, Clark and Goldschmidt after their arrival in St. Louis:
- 24 All-Star games
- 14 Gold Gloves
- 10 Silver Sluggers
- Named on MVP ballots 16 times.
- Made the playoffs a combined total of 38 times as Cardinals.
- Played in a combined 364 postseason games as Cardinals.
- They had a combined total of 12 NL pennants and five World Series titles.
And the pitching? Well …
The late Darryl Kile was 41-24 as a Cardinal including a 36-20 record in 2000 and 2001. He finished 5th in the 2000 Cy Young voting, made the 2000 All-Star team, and made four postseason starts.
Woody Williams: three postseason teams including the 2004 NL pennant winner. Was 45-22 in 93 regular-season starts, and made six postseason starts.
Carpenter won 95 reg-season games, a Cy Young, 1o postseason games. Though he got hurt in 2004, Carpenter gets credit for being a big part of rotations that won three NL pennants and two World Series. He finished third in the 2006 Cy Young voting, and second in the ‘09 Cy Young balloting. Plus, three All-Star teams.
In his three seasons as a Cardinal, Suppan served in a rotation that won two NL pennants and a World Series. He beat Houston’s Roger Clemens in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS and in 2006 held the Mets to one earned run in 15 innings in two NLCS starts.
Isringhausen was a closer for four postseason teams including the 2004 Cardinals that won the pennant. Izzy was placed on the IL with a hip injury late in 2006 and didn’t pitch in the postseason — but his work helped get the Cardinals there.
DeWitt and associates went to the next level on the star constellation earlier this week, acquiring Arenado from Colorado in a steal of a deal that stunned fans in St. Louis, Denver and across MLB. The Cardinals’ offense required a transfusion and ownership-management went star casting again. Arenado is the latest example of a DeWitt tradition.
The new corner-infield combo of Goldschmidt and Arenado has a combined 11 All-Star games, 11 Gold Gloves and eight Silver Sluggers. Goldy ranks 9th in WAR among active position players; Arenado is 18th.
“We’re always opportunistic in (identifying) players who can take our club to the next level,” DeWitt said. “We’ve never stopped trying, and we never will as long as I’m around.”
Thanks for reading …
Listen to the Bernie Show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS, weekdays from 3-6 p.m. (Fridays 4-6 p.m.) Or catch the show or the show podcast anytime on line at 590thefan.com … the 590 app is available in your preferred app store.