When Bill DeWitt & Friends purchased the Cardinals in 1995, the team's payroll was in the bottom third of the league, and the results had been likewise middling. The new regime made some high-profile acquisitions, most notably TLR and Mark McGwire. But aside from a 1996 Division Title, the team remained well out of the playoff race and many fans complained the new ownership was still unwilling to spend the money needed to build a contender.
That changed after the 1999 season.
The Cardinals finished the '99 campaign with just 75 wins, in 4th place in the NL Central. Their payroll was around $46 million. By the time the Hot Stove was over and the Redbirds would take the field in 2000, their payroll would jump 37% to around $63 million* and they would have laid the groundwork for a dynasty that continues to this day.
Interestingly, GM Walt Jocketty's spending spree included relatively few free agent acquisitions. Instead, Jocketty made a series of bargain-basement trades for players on expiring contracts, rolling the dice that he would be able to re-sign them.
The first major move came on Nov. 11, when the team acquired former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen from the the Blue Jays for middle reliever Lance Painter and two guys you've never heard of. Hentgen was no longer putting up All-Star seasons, but he was still solid and a virtual lock for 175-200 innings. He was coming into the final year of his contract with the Blue Jays, owed $6 million.
Five days later, Jocketty made an even bigger deal: Acquiring Daryl Kile, Dave Veres and Luther Hackman from the Rockies for four baby Cardinals, including Manny Aybar and Jose Jimenez. The Rockies certainly got some value in the deal - especially Jimenez, who would serve as their closer for a few years. But again, Jocketty was taking on someone else's unwanted, expiring contracts. Kile was coming into the final year of his deal, owed $7.4 million. Veres was under contract for two more seasons, and would make $1.3 million in 2000.
So in less than a week, via the trade market, Jocketty had added around $15 million to a $46 million roster, in exchange for a handful of league-minimum type guys.
On December 20, Jocketty did it again. He acquired Fernando Vina - in the last year of his contract at a salary of $2.8 million - for reliever Juan Acevedo.
Jocketty did work the free agent market as well. He signed Heathcliff Slocumb to a one-year deal for $1.6 million. He also picked up a light-hitting catcher who had been released by the Blue Jays named Mike Matheny for just $750k. And in the biggest of his free agent signings, he brought Andy Benes back to St. Louis after an implosion in contract negotiations had sent him to Arizona two years before. Benes signed a three-year-deal for around $18 million, with a hidden clause requiring him to host a TV show with Fredbird in perpetuity thereafter.
It was with those moves in place that the Cardinals rolled into Spring Training. But the most significant move of the '99/'00 offseason was yet to come, and it would follow what had become a familiar template.
On March 20... MARCH 20! - the Cardinals acquired hot dog outfielder Jim Edmonds from the Anaheim (or maybe California) Angels for Kent Bottenfield and 2nd Base prospect Adam Kennedy. The deal had reportedly been in the works for some time, with the Angels holding out for Kennedy and Rick Ankiel. But with Opening Day less than two weeks away, the Angels gave up on the top lefty pitching prospect and instead took a 31-year-old pitcher who had spent much of his career as a reliever, but was coming off an absolute aberration of a year as a starter.
It's a trade often remembered as one of the greatest pieces of larceny in Cardinals history, but it's worth remembering: Edmonds was also only signed through the end of the season, for $4.5 million.
In an April 2 article in the Post-Dispatch, Jocketty told Rick Hummel that he had twice asked ownership to raise the payroll, first for the moves which acquired Hentgen, Kile and Veres, then again in order to acquire Vina and Benes. Tony La Russa praised the moves in the same article, saying it was the most dramatic offseason spending spree he had experienced since the A's acquired Bob Welch and Dave Henderson before the 1988 season.
While La Russa said the contention that the Cardinals ownership had been stingy in the past was a "cheap shot," he acknowledged the belief had been prevalent.
"I would say that ownership and the front office are off the hook," La Russa said.
While Jocketty's deal-making was impressive, and fans seemed appeased at the 37% jump in payroll, the real mark of how much DeWitt and Co. were willing to invest in the team was yet-to-come.
May 13, after less than two months as a St. Louis Cardinal, Jim Edmonds signed a six-year, $57 million extension with the club - the biggest deal in club history at the time. Vina, Kile and Veres were all likewise signed to extensions, pushing the team payroll even higher.
By opening day of 2001, the Cardinals payroll was up to $77 million, much of the increase coming from those extended contracts. That means that in committing to targeting and extending those players, the team's payroll increased by nearly 70% in just two years.
Is it realistic to expect the Cardinals payroll to skyrocket this offseason? There are certainly signs that it will. DeWitt told Derrick Goold point-blank "we're expecting a fairly significant increase in the next three-to-five years." Of course, that article was published last offseason, and we're still waiting...
But this ownership group has dramatically increased payroll in the past. They did it in 1999/2000. And the results since then? The've been pretty good.
*Some of the exact dollar numbers may be just a bit off. I've found some contradictory figures, and what's available online dating back to 2000 is a little spotty.