The last thing I wrote on this website started with the sentence "The St. Louis Cardinals are a strangely easy team for which to devise an all-time team." Well, I’m doing that. But I don’t just want to fill out a best player at each position. I want to think about a functional 25-man roster of Cardinals greats which would serve as the platonic ideal of the franchise’s best players, complete with a batting order and bench. So here it goes.
The Starting Lineup
2B Rogers Hornsby, 1915-1926
Because he played so long ago, I think some modern fans underestimate Rogers Hornsby. They may know his name and they may know he was great, but no amount of reasonable adjustments for era can make Rogers Hornsby look like anything less than the greatest second baseman in baseball history. I’m sure a lot of you remember the insanity that was Will Clark’s run with the 2000 Cardinals, where for two months, the about-to-retire Clark managed a 171 wRC+. Rajah had a 174 wRC+. For a dozen years. While playing strong defense at second base.
LF Stan Musial, 1941-1963
Musial played enough at three different positions—first base, left field, and right field—to merit his inclusion at any of the spots. Regardless, he is the single most obvious inclusion in this lineup. And unlike Hornsby, who spent considerable time in his career with other franchises, Musial was a Cardinals lifer. And he was also (conservatively) one of the fifteen or twenty greatest players in the history of Major League Baseball. Stan Musial is essentially the owner of the St. Louis Cardinals record book—he leads the franchise in hits, home runs, RBI, runs, wins above replacement…in the time it would take to list the Cardinals records held by Stan Musial, there would be three new baseball statistics invented for which Stan Musial is the Cardinals all-time leader.
RF Enos Slaughter, 1938-1953
Though somewhat overshadowed by so many seasons playing with Stan Musial, who was better, Slaughter could hit a little bit, too. His Cardinals OPS was .847 and was a ten-time all-star. His legacy has been tarnished by his reported racism but from a pure on-field perspective, his greatness was certainly there.
1B Albert Pujols, 2001-2011
He entered the Cardinals lineup at the height of a comically offensive era, so looking at his raw offensive numbers seemingly wouldn’t do the others justice. But he kept doing it. Steroid testing, amphetamine crackdowns—whatever the factor may be, offense dipped significantly and throughout his Cardinals career, Pujols was a remarkably consistent offensive titan. He had a higher wRC+ than Musial and in an increasingly strikeout-dependent game, his 9.5% rate coupled with a 13.1% walk rate became increasingly unusual. That he is spending his twilight elsewhere will help his rate stats but let’s not underestimate his tenure—only five men accumulated more plate appearances for the Cardinals, all of whom also made this team.
CF Jim Edmonds, 2000-2007
Center field borders on a three-way tie in terms of career WAR with the club, but Jim Edmonds is the most complete option of the group. He led the group—Edmonds, Ray Lankford, and Curt Flood—in offensive runs in spite of fewer plate appearances; he led the group in wRC+ (143 vs. Lankford’s 124 vs. Flood’s 102); additionally, he wasn’t exactly a slouch in the field either. A lot of people are going to talk a lot about the Jim Edmonds Hall of Fame case in the next year, and I’m not really one to fight that battle, more as a matter of apathy than of antipathy. But for this specific occasion, I’ll take Edmonds over his alternatives.
C Ted Simmons, 1968-1980
His first full-season was in 1969, the year after the Cardinals won the National League and nearly won a second consecutive World Series title. He left the Cardinals for the 1981 season; in 1982, the Cardinals won the World Series over Simmons’s new team, the Milwaukee Brewers. During the years in-between, Simmons was part of a relatively mediocre era of Cardinals baseball, during which perhaps the greatest offensive catcher in baseball history, Johnny Bench, played in the National League. Ted Simmons seemed destined to be overlooked, but when weighing his stats, it’d be impossible to do so in this case. While playing good defense, Simba put up an .825 OPS, good for a 126 wRC+.
3B Ken Boyer, 1955-1965
Almost boringly effective, Boyer had a 119 wRC+, is 6th in franchise history among position players in defensive runs saved, and leads the franchise’s third basemen in both offensive and defensive runs saved.
SS Ozzie Smith, 1982-1996
I’ve noticed a trend among Cardinals fans that as a whole, we tend to overemphasize a player’s great defense. The gold standard is the aforementioned Albert Pujols, who would have many columns devoted to his defense (at first base, mind you) while he was busy being a once-in-a-generation hitter. But Ozzie Smith has a weird reverse trend, where his offense is praised for its substantial improvement over time. And on the whole, Ozzie’s offense was acceptable, but a 97 wRC+ and a grand total of 8.7 offensive runs in 8,242 plate appearances is not going to get somebody on the all-time team of any franchise, much less one with the history of the St. Louis Cardinals. Being, quantifiably, the greatest fielder in the history of Major League Baseball, however, will do it for you.
C Yadier Molina, 2004-present
Is Yadier Molina’s time as a top-hitting catcher over? It may be too early to tell, but based solely on what he has done so far in his career, Molina’s legacy is firmly established regardless. He has been unquestionably the best defensive catcher in baseball since joining the Cardinals and even managed to outdo Ozzie Smith’s offensive evolution, holding a career 101 wRC+ after starting his career rather ineptly at the plate.
2B Frankie Frisch, 1927-1937
It’s not easy to be the trade return for Rogers Hornsby and be viewed as anything less than an unmitigated disaster, but Frisch managed quite well in St. Louis. He was a good offensive second baseman, if not to Hornsby’s level (but nobody is), and was a superb fielder. Frisch also managed an astonishingly low 2.4% strikeout rate over 5,653 plate appearances with the Cardinals.
SS Marty Marion, 1940-1950
A defensive stalwart during a glorious Cardinals decade of three World Series titles, Marion arguably doesn’t fill much of a unique role with this team—he isn’t much of a bat off the bench and has the function of defensive replacement for perhaps the least likely player in baseball history you’d want to replace for defensive purposes. With that said, Marion is quite the insurance policy—a team with Marion instead of Smith loses some eight-hitter bat but little, if anything, in the field.
3B Scott Rolen, 2002-2007
Relatively speaking, Scott Rolen was not on the Cardinals long. He was on the Cardinals for just a shade under 5 ½ seasons and he missed nearly a full season’s worth of games between his DL stints in 2005 and 2007. But when he played, he was irresistibly good. On a rate basis, he was actually a noticeably better third baseman than Ken Boyer offensively (a 128 wRC+ compared to Boyer’s 119 wRC+) and defensively (77.44% of Boyer’s defensive runs saved in 46.23% of the innings). Boyer gets the edge for career accolades—I can’t work purely off rate stats, lest Keith McDonald make the team. But as a pinch hitter and a defensive stalwart, I can’t deny Rolen his rightful spot on the roster.
CF Curt Flood, 1958-1969
Curt Flood is my favorite Cardinal of all-time, and very little of that has to do with his actual ability to play baseball. But he had the ability. As far as options for a backup center fielder, with Edmonds already slotted into the starting role, it comes down to Flood and Ray Lankford. And while Lankford was excellent, he is a very similar player to Edmonds—lefty bat, well-rounded offensive and defensive game, and somewhat three-true-outcomes-ish (using a liberal definition of "pitcher" that includes Rick Ankiel, Edmonds and Lankford rank 3rd and 5th among Cardinals position players with over 1000 PAs in strikeout rate). Curt Flood offers something different—he was an average hitter but is also among the greatest defensive center fielders in the history of baseball. As good of a fielder as Edmonds was, Flood was even better. And in the way that I and many others fantasize about employing Peter Bourjos late in games and sliding Jon Jay to a corner outfield spot to create something of a super-outfield defensively, this could exist on an even grander scale on this team. Prime Jim Edmonds as a corner outfielder would be simply unfair.
LF Lou Brock, 1964-1979
This team doesn’t technically need Lou Brock and a modern baseball team may eschew 14 position players so as to have a 12th pitcher, but the prospect of Lou Brock off the bench is simply too exciting to resist. Modern metrics are somewhat unkind to him—he was a poor fielder and had a less-than-ideal strikeout-to-walk ratio—but his 888 career steals are indicative of a man who would be by far the best base-runner on this team. And it’s not like he was bad at the plate, either—his wRC+ is second only to Rolen among this team’s bench. As I said, you could survive without Brock, but if given the opportunity, why turn him down?
SP Bob Gibson, 1959-1975
There are Cardinals beloved for being somewhat goofy personalities and then there are Cardinals beloved for being among the fiercest competitors the world has ever seen. I don’t think I have to tell many people which category fits Gibson—please note that the category is forced to fit Gibson, as Bob Gibson had no need to comply with any standards other than his own. That he is the all-time franchise leader in wins and losses is a testament to just how firmly entrenched Gibson is in the team’s history.
SP Harry Brecheen, 1940-1952
The ace of two World Series champions, Brecheen is the premier lefty in franchise history, amassing 25 career shutouts and posting a 2.91 ERA with the club. His gold standard season was 1948, in which he led the NL in ERA (2.24) and FIP (2.37).
SP Dizzy Dean, 1930-1937
With the exception of one game, Dizzy Dean’s MLB career was over at 31. His Cardinals career was over at 27. But what he did in his brief Cardinals career was the stuff of legend. He was a four-time all-star and the 1934 NL MVP while winning 30 games for a World Series champion. His strikeout rate (5.67 K/9) may be lackluster by modern standards but for the 1930s, it made him one of the most overpowering pitchers of his era.
SP Jesse Haines, 1920-1937
Haines was the epitome of a workhorse pitcher. I feel somewhat weird about putting a pitcher on the all-time team who never amassed a 5 WAR season by Fangraphs and amassed only one (5.5, in 1927) by Baseball Reference. But while in 99% of circumstances, I don’t care for the win as a pitching statistic, it is fairly useful shorthand to indicate long-term pitching acumen, and Jesse Haines is second in franchise history in wins.
SP Adam Wainwright, 2005-present
The greatest St. Louis Cardinals pitcher in my time as a fan, and probably of your time as a fan, is Adam Wainwright. He has been the definition of pitching consistency, eating innings and putting up Cy Young candidate seasons like clockwork. It’s entirely possible that in a generation, his legacy nationally will be somewhat overshadowed by Clayton Kershaw (and I’m not inclined to deny that Kershaw deserves the praise he gets—he’s fantastic). But the numbers don’t lie when making the case for Adam Wainwright as a historic-level pitcher.
RP Jason Isringhausen, 2002-2008
If forced to name a closer for this team, I’m taking Izzy. It’s a testament to the position because for virtually the entire time he was on the Cardinals, I found myself on pins and needles every time he pitched. And he was arguably the best closer in franchise history. It’s thankless, really. But in his franchise-high 401 career appearances (Kyle McClellan is 11th, in case you have a tough time conceptualizing just how much bullpen usage has changed in modern times), he was a reliable strikeout pitcher who would frequently bend but not break in relief appearances. He certainly had his lows as a Cardinal but when he was right, Jason Isringhausen was good as it has gotten from the closer role.
RP Al Hrabosky, 1970-1977
He’s arguably the best lefty reliever in franchise history and his role in this bullpen would seemingly prevent him from serving as the team’s color commentator. Quoth the Theriot, "It is what it is."
RP Lindy McDaniel, 1955-1962
Relievers don’t put up 2.8 WAR seasons too often, but then again, relievers don’t accumulate 116.1 innings in seasons in which they started a grand total of two games too often, either. Lindy McDaniel was actually a fairly successful starter for the Cardinals, too, for a brief time, but as a reliever, he came into his own and would be an ideal fit as a high leverage reliever for this team.
RP Todd Worrell, 1985-1992
Todd Worrell benefited greatly from being able to induce ground balls while the Cardinals had one of the greatest defensive infields of all-time and he gets that benefit again. Backed by a regular infield of Pujols, Hornsby, Smith, and Boyer, the factors which allowed Worrell a 2.56 ERA with the club remain intact.
RP Ken Dayley, 1984-1990
An exceptional reliever for the legendary 1985 Cardinals, putting up a 2.76 ERA and 2.01 FIP, Ken Dayley was a consistent bullpen presence from 1985, his first full season with the Cardinals, through the conclusion of his career with the team. He and Hrabosky create a formidable duo of bullpen lefties.
RP Lee Smith, 1990-1993
Since this is designed to be a functional team, I was tempted to include starters by trade in the bullpen, but the short-term efficiency of these relievers led me to greedily load up with top-tier relief arms and settle for Lindy McDaniel spot starts or whatever the equivalent to replacement level starting in this scenario would be. Baseball’s former saves king is a pretty nice little bullpen piece to have. His Cardinals career was somewhat brief, but 2.90 ERA/2.89 FIP pitchers who put up 160 saves in a little over three years is cool and good and a thing that’s fun to have on your team.