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walt makes his mark

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congratulations to the sox. they were baseball's best team during the regular season, and they confirmed it in the playoffs. what most impresses me is that they didn't crack after falling behind 3 games to 1 vs cleveland --- so often we see front-runners panic when they fall behind in a short series, and the sox kept their poise. i was impressed with the colorado fans, too --- despite their team's substandard play, they were loud and hopeful to the very last out of the series. unfortunately, the series was a dud overall --- the 4th lopsided result in a row. and for the 2d consecutive year, october was nearly devoid of drama; the last couple postseasons have produced only one chew-your-nails-down playoff series, the 2006 nlcs.

with the cards on the verge of naming a new gm (whoever that might be), i thought i'd look back at the old gm's early months to see what kind of moves he made coming out of the gate. not a predictive exercise by any means; just looking for a bit of perspective that can be applied to the incoming exec. assuming antonetti gets the job, he's going to be met by high expectations in some quarters (ie, sabr-philic cardinal fans) and a lot of skepticism in others. every roster move will be watched closely and judged prematurely; he'll be compared unfairly to walt and no doubt criticized if he doesn't have the team back in first place by, say, april of 2008. . . . .

he'll inherit a team whose circumstances in no way resemble those of the team jocketty took the reins of. walt was hired in october 1994, during the non-postseason of a strike-aborted year, shortly after the team changed owners for the first time in 40+ years. the cards hadn't made the postseason in 7 years and never finished closer than 7 games back during that span. here's the starting lineup for the team walt took over:

pagnozzi c tewksbury sp1
jefferies 1b sutcliffe sp2
alicea / pena 2b watson sp3
ozzie ss olivares sp4
zeile 3b cormier / urbani sp5
gilkey lf arocha cl
lankford cf
whiten rf

those cardinals were in 3d place when the strike ended the season, 8 games under .500 (53-61). they had a solid everyday lineup --- 6th in the nl in scoring with a 4.65 runs-a-game average (the league as a whole averaged 4.65 runs / game) --- led by two all-star starters, jefferies and ozzie. 5 of the 8 starters were above 100 in ops+, and 6 of the 8 were above average for their position; the same group had finished 4th in the league in scoring in 1993. while there was room for improvement (particularly on defense), the everyday lineup was not the problem. the problem was the pitching --- specifically, the rotation. st louis ranked 13th among the 14 nl clubs in 1994, and the starting rotation carried a 5.50 era, worse even than that of the 2007 club (5.04). joe torre lost one of his best pitchers from 1993 (donnie osborne) to injury and suffered a bad year from his nominal ace (tewksbury); he exacerbated the problem by converting perhaps his best starting pitcher (arocha) into a reliever.

tewksbury, sutcliffe, and jefferies were all at the end of their contracts, so walt had a few holes to fill right away. but at the time he took over there was no collective-bargaining agreement in force, which made for sluggish activity on the trade and free-agent markets. even so, the eager young gm didn't take long to start making moves. about a month after his arrival he signed a couple of minor-league free agents, one of whom (mark petkovsek) would spend four fruitful years in st louis; he also snagged a rule V signee, rich delucia, who'd knocked around with seattle and cincinnati; he would pitch very well for st louis in 1995. a couple weeks later jocketty made his first trade, acquiring a 25-year-old 2bman (ramon caraballo) who hadn't established himself in the majors yet; then he turned around and dealt half of his very productive 2b platoon (luis alicea) to boston for another couple of not-quite-there players, pitcher nate minchey and outfielder jeff mcneeley. about 6 weeks in, he'd added four unproven 20somethings with upside to the roster.

at the winter meetings he brought in two proven 30somethings, tom henke and danny jackson. henke, a missouri native, was on his way to retirement but agreed to a 1-year deal so he could pitch close to home and make another couple million before hanging 'em up. jackson was a front-of-rotation guy who'd pitched for 3 pennant winners (and 2 world champions) and was coming off a stellar year in 1994. the significance of these two signings should not be missed: they signaled the cardinals' arrival as serious bidders on the free-agent market. henke and jackson were by far the biggest names the franchise had ever fished out of the free-agent pool; if i'm not mistaken, jackson's contract (3 years, $10m) was the first 8-figure deal the cards ever handed out. so mere weeks into jocketty's tenure, a dramatic change in direction was apparent --- the team was going to spend money aggressively in pursuit of established talent. just to be clear, i'm not suggesting that walt set that agenda --- the owners set the agenda. they identified walt as the right guy to implement it.

after those two big moves, jocketty pretty much sat on his hands until the labor dispute finally got sorted out. he signed a fringe free-agent, danny sheaffer, and a couple of well-past-prime reclamations, darnell coles and tim hulett --- the sort of scrap-heap vets jocketty would always retain a fondness for. now roughly 6 months into his reign, he'd already displayed nearly the full range of tendencies he would exhibit over the next 13 years:

  1. a keen eye for useful quadruple A players (petkovsek, delucia)
  2. a fondness for scrap-heap veterans (hulett, coles, sheaffer)
  3. an ability to land the big fish (henke, jackson)
and then, on april 5, he revealed one more characteristic that would become a hallmark of his reign: an ability to package so-so prospects for star players headed into free agency. the strike had ended three days earlier, on april 2, setting off a flurry of roster activity throughout baseball, as teams scrambled to fill holes and set their payrolls. jocketty still needed help for his rotation, and he found it on the montreal roster in the person of ken hill, who'd finished second in the 1994 cy young voting and led the league in wins with 16. in return, walt sent a young major-league reliever (bryan eversgerd) and two class A players to montreal. in today's terms, it would be the equivalent of trading brad thompson and a couple of insignificant class A guys for brad penny. it was a straight salary dump by the expos, who couldn't afford hill's $4.5m salary for 1995 and certainly wouldn't be able to retain him when he hit the free-agent market after the season. teams don't make those kinds of straight-dump deals anymore, which is one reason walt jocketty is out of a job; but for almost 10 years they were his stock-in-trade. he would add mark mcgwire, fernando vina, jim edmonds, scott rolen, and darryl kile on similar terms --- so-so young players in exchange for a star in the last year of his contract, whom walt would then sign to a long-term deal for beaucoup bucks.

he still had one hole to fill, as the cards lacked a 1st baseman to replace jefferies; on april 9 he dealt his starting rightfielder (whiten) and a swing arm (cormier) to the red sox for 3d baseman scott cooper and relief prospect cory bailey, with incumbent 3bman zeile moving over to fill the vacancy at 1b. here's how things shaped up on opening day:

pagnozzi c tewksbury sp1
hill sp1
jefferies 1b
zeile 1b
sutcliffe sp2
jackson sp2
alicea / pena 2b watson sp3
ozzie ss olivares sp4
osborne sp4
zeile 3b
cooper 3b
cormier / urbani sp5
gilkey lf arocha cl
henke cl
lankford cf
whiten rf
jordan rf

walt completed his maneuvers in june, when he traded zeile (a pending free agent) for mike morgan and fired joe torre as manager 47 games into the season. quite a breathtaking transformation. in the span of 9 months, jocketty completely overhauled the pitching staff, adding three proven, stabilizing arms (jackson, hill, and henke) and some promising young ones (bailey, petkovsek, minchey). he also created everyday opportunities for young players in right field (jordan), at 2b (pena), and at 1b (john mabry, who took over for zeile).

comically enough, the results of all this activity were disastrous. the two star pitchers, hill and jackson, both posted eras over 5.00; cooper, the new 3d baseman, slugged .313 and had an ops+ of 69. pagnozzi got old, ozzie got hurt, and the two young 2bmen (caraballo and pena) both washed out, leaving jose oquendo (a crusty old veteran of 31) to take most of the abs at that position. the cardinals finished with a .434 winning percentage (62-81), one of the worst performances in memory --- their 3d-worst winning pct in the previous 70 years. it was an inauspicious beginning for what would eventually be a stellar run of success.

walt tore it all up again the next year, adding big names through free agency (benes, gant, gaetti) and trade (eckersley, stottlemyre, clayton) along with a big-name manager/coach tandem. . . . the moves yielded one division title in 1996, but they also made the cardinals old and slow and set them up for the sluggish, non-competitive 1997-99 seasons. by the end of 1999, five years into his tenure, jocketty's teams had a combined winning percentage of .482; in the five years before he took over, the cards played at an aggregate .492 clip.

i point this out not to diminish jocketty's reign, but rather to counsel caution about the new guy: success doesn't happen overnight. it didn't for walt, and it might not for the new fellah either.