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15 years later...

Well now that our 4 man outfield rotation is back up and running again I thought this would be a perfect time to explore days of Cardinal yore and go back to the mid-90s when the Cards, though we didn’t have a whole lot at the time, had a pretty good 4 man outfield rotation. In 1993 and 1994, the Cards had some terrific athletes in the outfield in Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford, Mark Whiten, and Brian Jordan. Jordan was the youngest and least experienced as he had just come up from the minors and had spent much of his time in the minors as a pro football player as well, but Joe Torre had to figure out how to allocate the playing time among these 4 guys, all of whom could hit for some power and had some speed as well.

Lankford was, of course, the best of the 4 and the best Cardinal outfielder of the 90’s. He hit from the left side and had power, speed, and was a very good centerfielder. He finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year balloting in 1991 and by 1993 had established himself as one of the best centerfielders in the NL. Actually, as it turned out, ’93 was his worst season in the big leagues (.266/.366/.346) – at least until his final couple of years – and maybe that gave Torre the impetus he needed to recall Jordan and give him the playing time he received. Overall, though, Lankford was one of those 5 tool guys. For his career he averaged a .366 wOBA and finished his career w/ 238 HR and 258 SB.

Lankford was notoriously poor against left-handed pitchers and Jordan’s right-handedness allowed Torre the option of a sensible platoon against southpaws. Lankford’s ’94 season was much better as he was able to raise his wOBA from .320 to .360. He went from 7 HR to 19 and went from 27 extra base hits to 49. Despite his excellent speed, Lankford was a pretty poor basestealer in the early part of his career. In ’93 and ’94 he stole 25 bases total and was caught an astounding 24 times. He was also infamous for the breezes he brought the catcher’s way as his career K rate was 27%. In ’93 and ’94 he struck out 224 times out of 977 ABs. Still, despite having relatively poor offensive seasons in ’93 and ’94, Lankford was worth 2.1 and 2.7 WAR, respectively. From 1995-1999, he averaged more than 5 WAR per season.

Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten was built like an NFL tight end and was the team’s primary RF in the ’93 and ’94 seasons. He is probably most famous for this game, the second game of a double header against the Reds where he hit 4 homers and drove in 12 runs. Despite the 25 HR and 15 SB Whiten had in ’93, his wOBA was only .326. In 626 PAs, he only had 13 2B and 4 3B. Combine that w/ slash stats of .253/.323/.423 and you get an offensive season that looks a lot better w/ the traditional stats than it does the saber stats. Whiten also had tremendous arm strength though he didn’t always know where his throws were headed. He had 11 outfield assists in ’93 and 10 OF errors. Whiten was, w/o a doubt the rawest of the Cards’ outfielders.

His ’94 season didn’t look as good on paper (he dropped from 25 HR to 14) but his slash numbers and wOBA were better -- .293/.364/.495 and .361, respectively. W/o the strike, he might have ended up w/ 25-30 bombs and a much better overall line. His defense was just as bad, however – 9 assists/9 errors. His ’93 season was worth just 0.3 WAR – he was basically a replacement level player despite the one noteworthy game – but in ’94 he was worth 2.8 WAR – a career high. He was traded to Boston at the end of the ’94 season and the 4 man outfield platoon was no more.

Brian Jordan was probably the best athlete of the 4, and that’s saying something. An All-Pro football player, Jordan gave up a career in the NFL to become a full-time baseball player in 1992. Well, he was actually a part-time baseball player from ’92-’94 as he had just 643 PAs in those 3 years. He was the most versatile of the 4 OFs as well, as he played all 3 OF positions and played them pretty well, particularly in 1994. When he became a Cardinal, he had a lot of ability but hadn’t played a lot of baseball, b/c he was also a football player so he, too, was very raw. Still, in 1993 he fashioned a wOBA of .380 in part-time duty. That fell to .318 in 1994. Like Lankford, Jordan was thrown out on the bases almost as often as he was successful in these 2 years but he did manage to hit 10 HR in just 223 PAs in ’93. His slash line in ’93 was .309/.351/.543 but in ’94 they dropped to .258/.320/.410. The team, as a whole, fell from 12 games over .500 in 1993 to 8 games below in the abbreviated 1994 season as the offense got worse and the pitching putrified.

The most underrated player of the group was Bernard Gilkey. Gilkey was the leadoff hitter and leftfielder for the Cards for several years in the mid-90s. Compared to the rest, he just didn’t have the athleticism but, in seemed to always be doing something to help the team. He didn’t have the power of the other guys or the speed. He didn’t have the big arm of Whiten or the ability to cover ground like Lankford or Jordan, but you just couldn’t get him out of the lineup. He did hit 22 HR and steal 30 bags in the 2 years combined (though, like the others, he was thrown out far too often) and, unlike Whiten and Jordan, had a decent walk rate – over 9%. His slash stats for ’93 were .305/.370/.481 but in ’94 dropped to .253/.336/.363. In ’93 he was the Cards’ best OF – worth 3.6 WAR but he was worth just 0.5 WAR in 1994. (Can you believe that Gilkey was an 8 win player for the Mets in ’96? Wow!) I always loved that guy, even when he was w/ the Mets (just as I loved Jordan even when he was a Brave or Dodger!).

In 1993, the Cards were just an average pitching team and were in the playoff hunt for a good portion of the season largely b/c of the contributions of the 4-headed monster in the outfield. In ’94, when the pitching went south as did the play of the outfielders, the team was horrendous. The strike was our version of a mercy rule that prevented us from watching any more of that futility and hurting those we loved! But during a time when the Cards just weren’t very good, these 4 guys were fun to watch. They made a lot of mistakes – on the basepaths, in the outfield, and in swinging at damned near everything that was tossed up there – but they were tremendously athletic and could do some things on a baseball field that most players just couldn’t do. All that said, I think the 4 we have right now are better than those 4 – and none is the best player on the team.

I’ll have a game thread out in a couple hours. Going for a series win w/ Wainer on the mound.