Sorry for the delay, but here’s my latest review of the top players during the Bill DeWitt Era of St. Louis Cardinals baseball. I’ve been selecting the best at every position. I was making good progress until I had to set aside this project to focus on offseason matters and the state of the Cardinals going forward.
It’s time for my next installment in the process to select the Cardinals’ top players at every position during the 28-season Bill DeWitt Jr. Era of baseball, which encompasses the 1996-2023 seasons.
Yes, the 2023 season was awful for the Cardinals, but please have some perspective. Over the last 28 seasons, few MLB teams can match or exceed the Cardinals’ body of work and sustained success.
DeWitt has been owner-chairman of the Cardinals since the start of the 1996 season. Though there have been some obvious disappointments along the way, it’s been a fantastic 28-year run with DeWitt in charge of the franchise.
Here’s what the Cardinals have accomplished over the last 28 seasons:
– The Redbirds rank fourth in the majors with 2,415 regular-season wins behind the Yankees, Dodgers and Braves.
– They’ve won the most postseason games, 75, by a National League team and are second overall in MLB to the Yankees. And the Cards have competed in the most postseason games (150) by a NL team.
– They’re tied for third among MLB teams for most league pennants won since 1996. The Yankees have won seven pennants, followed by the Astros (5), Cardinals (4), Giants (4) and Red Sox (4).
– The Cardinals are one of six teams to win multiple World Series titles since 1996. Here’s the leaderboard: Yankees 5, Red Sox 4, Giants 3, Cardinals 2, Astros 2, and Marlins 2.
So far, I’ve made the Top 10 picks for starting pitchers and relievers – and chosen the Top 5 at catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop and left field.
Here are the links to my previous rankings at each position:
It’s time to select the top St. Louis centerfielders during the DeWitt Era …
1. Jim Edmonds: Jimmy Ballgame is enshrined in the Cardinals Hall of Fame and resides on the short list of the greatest center fielders in Cardinals history. His combination of power, defense and onbase skill made him one of the finest players of his era. He was a huge part of the excellent core that made the Cardinals one of the most successful franchises in the majors. And this cool dude was a rich source of talent and entertainment. With all of his majestic home runs, spectacular catches, and a showman’s flair, Jimmy made it fun to watch the Cardinals play ball. He had mad “swag” long before the word became part of the sports-culture slang.
In one of Walt Jocketty’s greatest trades as general manager, the Cardinals acquired Edmonds from the Angels on March 23 of 2000 in a deal that sent infielder Adam Kennedy and starting pitcher Kent Bottenfield to Anaheim. It was a stunning heist that paid off repeatedly for the Cardinals.
During his eight (2000-2007) St. Louis seasons Edmonds ranked sixth among all MLB players in Wins Above Replacement; only Alex Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Andruw Jones and Todd Helton had more. And with Edmonds roaming in center, the high-flying Cardinals competed in six postseasons in eight years, winning two NL pennants and the 2006 World Series.
From 2000 through 2007, Edmonds won six Gold Gloves, a Silver Slugger and made three NL All-Star teams. He received MVP votes five times as a Cardinal, finishing fourth in 2000 and fifth in 2004. In 2000, Jimmy became the first Cardinal outfielder to blast 40 or more homers in a season.
During his career peak phase – 2000 through 2006 Edmonds averaged 31 doubles, 33 homers, 94 RBI and 93 runs while posting a .400 onbase percentage, .572 slug, and .972 OPS. He was 49 percent above league average offensively over the seven fabulous seasons.
During his eight seasons as a Cardinal, Edmonds was second to Albert Pujols in WAR, homers, RBI, runs scored, onbase percentage, slugging, OPS, wRC+, extra-base hits and total bases.
Edmonds put up some of the most impressive postseason numbers by a Cardinal during the DeWitt Era, batting .277 with a .368 onbase percentage, .523 slug and an .890 OPS in 61 games. During this 28-season DeWitt epoch, only Pujols had more postseason home runs, RBI and extra-base hits than Edmonds.
In the 2004 NLCS against Houston, Edmonds saved the Cardinals on consecutive nights at the “old” Busch Stadium to lift the franchise to its first World Series appearance since 1987. In Game 6, Edmonds hit a two-run walk-off homer in the 12th inning to lift the Cardinals to a 6-4 victory.
In the second inning of Game 7 the Astros were leading 1-0 with two runners on when Edmonds made a phenomenal diving catch in the center-left gap to deny Brad Ausmus an extra-base hit that would have opened a dangerous 3-0 lead for Houston. Given the circumstances, I don’t think I’ve seen a more magnificent catch than that one. Edmonds came through under immense pressure for two heroic displays of October baseball. He was amazing.
When the 2006 Cardinals won the club’s first World Series since 1982, Edmonds’ postseason included 13 hits, 10 walks, two doubles, two homers and 10 RBI.
What a star. Edmonds brought an element of drama and excitement to every game he played. We’d come to the ballpark in anticipation of seeing Jimmy climb the wall to make a preposterous catch, or activating his beautiful swing to launch a three-run homer … or both. Edmonds was a virtuoso.
2. Ray Lankford: Through no fault of his own, Ray’s timing wasn’t the greatest. Think about it. He was the Cardinals’ center fielder after Willie McGee and before Jim Edmonds. As a top prospect Lankford arrived in St. Louis just as the franchise was healing into a frustrating downturn, with Anheuser Busch sabotaging the team’s competitiveness by slashing the payroll. From 1990 through 1995 the Cardinals ranked 18th among the 28 MLB franchises with a .485 winning percentage and failed to make the playoffs. Lankford’s popularity wasn’t as high as it should have been, but what was he supposed to do? He wasn’t as beloved as McGee, or as celebrated as Edmonds. And Lankford was unfairly associated with the on-field decline of the Cardinals – which occurred after Whitey Herzog resigned as manager in 1990, and before DeWitt and partners purchased the franchise just before Christmas in 1995.
It took too long, but Lankford received his just reward in 2018 when fans voted him into the team’s Hall of Fame. By then, he was viewed in a different light. And a good percentage of the voters were much younger fans during the Lankford years, and they loved him. Once Ray got on the ballot, the fans responded with enthusiasm and joy.
Lankford didn’t make his St. Louis debut until late in the 1990 season, and he played for the Cardinals until being traded to San Diego for starting pitching Woody Williams on Aug. 2, 2011. Ray later returned to the Rebirds for his final big-league season in 2004.
In my opinion Lankford had an underrated career. If you look at his St. Louis profile – which includes several seasons before the DeWitt Era began – Ray’s value becomes obvious.
In the history of St. Louis Cardinals baseball, here’s where Lankford ranks on an extensive list of career categories:
* 5th all-time among Cards outfielders in WAR.
* 5th in homers (228).
* 5th in walks.
* 5th in stolen bases.
* 7th in extra-base hits.
* 9th in runs scored.
* 10th in doubles.
* 10th in RBI.
* 11th in total bases.
Lankford hit the most home runs in the history of the “old” Busch Stadium. In franchise history the only Cardinal outfielders that have more WAR than Lankford are Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Jim Edmonds and Lou Brock. That’s pretty much all that you need to know to appreciate how good he was.
Let’s look at how Lankford still rates as a Cardinal during the DeWitt Era: 2nd in steals, 4th in OPS, 4th in slugging percentage, 5th in onbase percentage, 6th in RBI, 6th in total bases, 6th in extra-base hits, 7th in home runs. During the 28 seasons of DeWitt ownership, only Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds have a higher OPS than Lankford (.891) among hitters with at least 1,500 plate appearances.
3. Jon Jay: I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: I didn’t value Jay as much as I should have during his time with the Cardinals. Jay didn’t put up glossy numbers or win awards and wasn’t picked for an All-Star team. He didn’t get “web gem” attention from ESPN for his defense. And let’s face it: Jay had a tough act to follow in Jim Edmonds. But internally Jay was a helluva lot more respected than center fielder Colby Rasmus, who had the hype and the talent, and the high-end prospect ratings … but lacked work ethic and competitive character.
Jay was a good player for the Cardinals and his teammates loved him. A “glue” type of player who helps bring a team together. But Jay also did a lot of things well. As a Cardinal from 2010 through 2015, Jay ranked fourth on the team in WAR – with only Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday and Matt Carpenter ahead of him. (Note: Pujols also had more WAR than Jay – or any Cardinal – in his final two seasons as a Cardinal in 2010-2011.)
With the Cardinals desperate for pitching help during the 2011 season, GM John Mozeliak felt comfortable trading Rasmus as part of a three-team trade that fixed the STL bullpen and patched the starting rotation. Jay made the trade easier for Mozeliak because “Mo” trusted Jay to take over in center field. Good call.
Jay was the Cardinals’ primary starting CF for five consecutive playoff teams – 2011 through 2015. Over those five seasons the Cardinals had the best regular-season winning percentage (.584) in the majors, competed in more postseason games (61) than any team in the majors, and led MLB with 32 postseason wins. With Jay as their center fielder the Cardinals won the World Series in 2011, won the NL pennant in 2013, and was a four-time presence in the NLCS.
In his five-plus seasons for the Cardinals Jay batted .287, had a .354 onbase percentage, played solid defense, and performed five percent above league average offensively per wRC+. And Jay, who batted left, was 10 percent above average offensively vs. right-handed pitchers.
When Jay started a game in center field over a five-season stretch (2011-2015) the Cardinals went 309-209 for a .596 winning percentage. Bravo. Jay played in 58 postseason games (50 starts) for the Cardinals from 2011 through 2015.
4. J.D. Drew: He was a really good player for the Cardinals for five-plus seasons at the beginning of his big-league career. From a late-season call-up in 1998 through the end of the 2003 season, Drew batted .282, had a .378 onbase percentage, slugged .498, amassed an .876 OPS and was 25 percent above league average offensively per wRC+.
Drew’s best season came in 2001. Though he played in 109 games that year, Drew accrued 5.6 WAR, slammed 27 homers, scored 80 runs, drove in 73 runs, swiped 13 bases, and had a 1.027 OPS. He was 61 percent above league average offensively in ‘01.
Fairly or unfairly, I never saw Drew as someone who truly loved playing the game of baseball. He possessed elite talent and was above average in every area … but I just had the feeling he could have done more. Perhaps I should have appreciated Drew for what he actually did for the Cardinals. Part of the issue was hype; the Cardinals’ scouting director when the team drafted Drew compared J.D. to Mickey Mantle.
Drew’s greatest contribution to St. Louis baseball? After the 2003 season Jocketty traded Drew to the Braves for a package that included a young Atlanta pitching prospect named Wainwright. Drew made only one All-Star team in his 14 MLB seasons but put together some terrific seasons for the Braves, Dodgers and Red Sox after departing St. Louis.
5. Brian Jordan: He was a personal favorite, and an imposing talent. BJ was more of a corner outfielder but Tony La Russa had no problem using him in center. Jordan graduated to the Cardinals in 1992, and his final three seasons (1996-1998) came during the DeWitt Era. In those three years Jordan batted .304 with a .353 onbase percentage, .481 slug, and .835 OPS.
Jordan received MVP votes in 1996, but his best season as a Cardinal came in 1998 when he cranked 25 homers, 34 doubles, a .534 slugging percentage, stole 17 bases and generated a .902 OPS. He was 34% above league average offensively that season.
Jordan left the Cardinals as a free agent after the 1998 season and went on to star for the Braves and Dodgers. In his early years as a Cardinal, Jordan was a two-sport athlete who started at safety for the NFL Atlanta Falcons. Without the double duty, he probably would have produced more as a Cardinal. But he had plus talent in all phases of the game and competed with an intense drive.
Honorable mention: Harrison Bader*, Skip Schumaker, Rick Ankiel, Randal Grichuk, So Taguchi, Tommy Pham, Colby Rasmus.
* Bader would be a legit option for the No. 5 designation over Jordan. Bader won the Gold Glove for his center field defense in 2021, and was credited with 39 defensive runs saved from 2018 through ’21. But he was a below-average hitter who struggled against RH pitchers. And injuries were a problem for him.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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For weekly Cards talk, listen to the “Seeing Red” podcast with Will Leitch and Miklasz via 590thefan.com or through your preferred podcast platform. Follow @seeingredpod on Twitter for a direct link. We have a fresh pod up this week – a discussion of the Cardinals’ recent signings of starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Lance Lynn and Kyle Gibson.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.