THE REDBIRD REVIEW
Here’s my latest offering in a series of analyses that identify the Cardinals’ top players during the 28 seasons of franchise ownership by chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.
The period encompasses 1996 through 2023. So far, I’ve made the Top 10 picks for starting pitchers and relievers – and the Top 5 in catchers, first basemen, second basemen, and shortstops.
Next up: the top five third basemen plus honorable mentions.
1. Scott Rolen. He’s a Baseball Hall of Famer, one of the best third basemen in MLB history, and he chose to be identified as a Cardinal for his plaque displayed in Cooperstown.
On July 29, 2001 Rolen joined the Cardinals in a trade with the Phillies. During his five-plus seasons with St. Louis Rolen won four Gold Gloves and was selected to four NL All-Star teams. He was a substantial performer for a STL team that made it to four postseasons and won two NL pennants and a World Series.
Along with Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds, Rolen was part of the Cardinals’ famed “MVP 3” triumvirate in 2004 and finished fourth in the actual NL MVP voting that season. Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds came in third, fourth and fifth (respectively) in the MVP balloting that year. But it was Rolen who led the 2004 Cardinals with 9.0 Wins Above Replacement.
During Rolen’s time with the Cardinals (2002-2007) only Alex Rodriguez had more WAR among major-league third basemen.
With Rolen as the starting third baseman from 2002 through 2006, the Cardinals led the National League in regular-season winning percentage (.581). Over that time the Redbirds competed in more postseason games (48) and won more postseason games (27) than any team in the majors.
In the Cardinals’ triumph over Detroit in the 2006 World Series, Rolen batted .421 with a .476 onbase percentage and .737 slug for a 1.213 OPS.
In his two-best individual seasons as a Cardinal – 2003 and 2004 – Rolen batted .299 with a .956 OPS and averaged 31 homers, 40 doubles and 114 RBI. The only negative – not his fault – was a shoulder injury that sapped his power and limited his playing time in 2005. But Rolen rebounded in 2006 for a strong season that included a .296 average, 22 homers and an .887 OPS.
From 2004 through 2006, Rolen led MLB third basemen – and was second overall – with 60 defensive runs saved.
Rolen hit for average, hit for power, played exceptional defense and was an excellent baserunner. It was a pleasure to watch him play, and his defensive talent was a big part of the show.
2. Nolan Arenado. In a heist of a trade made by president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, the Cardinals acquired Arenado from the Rockies before the 2021 season. And he’s been just what the Cardinals and their fans anticipated. In his three seasons for St. Louis, Arenado was picked for three NL All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves. He now has 10 Gold Gloves and eight All-Star honors for his career.
Though Arenado was bothered by back spasms in 2023, he still delivered 26 home runs and 93 RBI. He’s averaged 34 doubles, 30 homers and 100 RBI during his three years as a Cardinal. And his 13.8 WAR put Arenado fourth among MLB third basemen since the start of 2021. Arenado had a career season in 2022, performing at 51 percent above league average offensively, winning his 10th Gold Glove and receiving the third-highest number of MVP votes in the National League.
Arenado is building a Hall of Fame career. He’s well on the way. In MLB history, Arenado ranks 7th in defensive WAR (19.1) and has plenty of time to move up on the list. Rolen is 6th all-time with 21.2 defensive WAR. The late Brooks Robinson is the all-time leader with 39.1 WAR for third-base defense.
3. David Freese. We must start with October 2011. Freese-frame it, because this was one of the greatest displays of timely, monumental, fate-changing hitting in major-league postseason history. In repeatedly zapping opponents with his heroics, Freese batted .397 with a .465 onbase percentage and .794 slugging percentage and set MLB records at the time for most extra-base hits (14) and RBI (21) in a single postseason.
Freese was named MVP of both the NLCS and the World Series in 2011. And in those series victories over the Brewers and Rangers, Freese crushed pitching (and hope) by hitting .444 with a .528 OBP and massive .889 slugging percentage. He smashed 11 extra-base hits, including four homers, and drove in 16 runs. All of that in just 45 at-bats over 13 games. Just remarkable … and unforgettable.
In Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, Freese produced an instant classic that’s a forever classic. Two out, two-strike, two-run triple to tie Texas in the ninth. A leadoff home run in the 11th that gave the Cardinals an improbable 10-9 victory and an impromptu street party outside of Busch Stadium. And Freese stepped up again in the bottom of the first in Game 7. After the Rangers jumped the Cardinals for a 2-0 lead, Freese answered with a two-out, two-run double to tie it up in the bottom half of the inning.
From 2011 through 2013, Freese started at third base for a splendid team that won a World Series, two NL pennants and 27 postseason games.
In the three postseasons Freese had 15 doubles, a famous triple, seven home runs, 29 RBI and slugged .518 with a .875 OPS.
During the post-expansion era, which began in 1961 Freese is tied for 3rd among Cardinals in the postseason with 23 extra-base hits, ranks 4th in home runs (4) and RBI (29), and is 5th in hits (48.) In his 48 postseason games for the Cardinals, Freese put up a .289 average, .357 OBP and .518 slug.
Freese had 7.7 WAR as a Cardinal. That’s more than two than two Cardinal Hall of Fame relievers, Bruce Sutter and Jason Isringhausen, had during their time in St. Louis.
In 2023, Cardinal fans chose Freese for induction into the team Hall of Fame. But he questioned his worthiness and declined. Hopefully Freese will change his mind. He belongs.
4. Matt Carpenter: I’ll mention this again. Carpenter played at so many positions – first base, second base, third base, right field – that I wasn’t sure what to do with him. But I had him in my Top 5 at first base, and at second base. Well, here he is again. And third base makes the most sense, simply because Carpenter had his highest total of games there (617) during his St. Louis career.
I’m going to take a broader view here, and look at Carpenter’s place among St. Louis position players during the DeWitt Era:
* 3rd for most games and most plate appearances.
* 3rd in runs scored and in doubles.
* 4th in WAR (30.6) behind Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Jim Edmonds.
* 4th in total bases and extra-base hits.
* 5th in RBI.
* 6th in homers.
Later on in this series, I’m going to select the Top 10 position players – in the DeWitt Era – without attaching a specific defensive position. Carpenter is worthy of such acknowledgement.
Here’s the thing that really made Carpenter stand out. He was a fantastic leadoff man. One of the best in franchise history.
Some of you will deduct points because of Carpenter’s speed and shortage of stolen bases. To me, the most important consideration for a leadoff man is getting on base – and if he hits for power on top of that, even better.
Among leadoff men – minimum 350 plate appearances at the No. 1 spot – during the 28-season Dewitt Era, Carpenter ranks first in onbase percentage (.382), slugging (.482), OPS (.864), wRC+ (137), walk rate (13.4%), home runs (111), doubles (217), RBI (369) and runs (549).
5. Fernando Tatis Sr. After being acquired from Texas at the trade deadline in 1998, Tatis played 300 games for the Cardinals until a trade sent him to Montreal after the 2000 season. Looking back on it, Tatis was better than I perceived at the time.
As a Cardinal he had a .282 average, .389 onbase percentage, .528 slugging percentage and a .914 OPS. And even if we adjust for the era and ballpark effects, Tatis provided the Cardinals with a level of offense that was 30 percent above the league average.
His best season – 34 homers, 107 RBI, .957 OPS – came in 1999.
His greatest feat (of course) occurred in the third inning of a Friday-night game at Dodger Stadium on April 23.
Tatis shockingly set a major-league record that will never be broken by hitting two grand slams in the same inning. And both bombs were launched against the same pitcher, Chan Ho Park. Tatis drove in eight of the 11 runs scored by the Cardinals in the third inning. In fact, the eight runs batted in set a MLB record for most RBI by a player in one inning. The visitors won 12-5. I’m sure that St. Louis starting pitcher Jose Jimenez appreciated the run support.
Tatis struck a fastball for the first grand slam, then hammered a hanging slider for the second slam and a piece of history.
In Tony La Russa’s initial lineup for the Friday night game, Tatis was slotted fifth behind Eric Davis. But Davis had intense pain in his left hand and was a late scratch from the lineup. TLR moved Tatis to the fourth spot. That one lineup switch set up a sequence that made history.
Tatis had a knack for this. Eight of his 113 big-league homers were grand slams.
I was there that night at Dodger Stadium, covering the game for the Post-Dispatch with the legendary beatwriter Rick Hummel. (I miss the Commish so much.) What Tatis did was absolutely stunning. I’ll never forget it. I treasure the memory.
Honorable Mention: Jedd Gyorko, Placido Polanco, Gary Gaetti.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can 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.
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible and Baseball Prospectus 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.