Twenty years and eleven days ago, to very little fanfare, the St. Louis Cardinals signed 29 year-old relief pitcher Kent Bottenfield. Bottenfield, formerly of the Montreal Expos, Colorado Rockies, San Francisco Giants, and Chicago Cubs, was coming off a two-year stint in the Cubs’ bullpen in which he had a 3.34 ERA and 4.31 fielding-independent pitching, following a few stints in which he was largely unsuccessful as a starter.
In 1998, Bottenfield was a moderately effective swingman for the Cardinals, pitching in 27 games as a reliever and 17 games as a starter. He wasn’t an ace nor a shutdown closer, but he was fine. He was not the kind of pitcher one would expect to merit retrospectives two decades later.
In 1999, Bottenfield was used exclusively as a starter. He was 18-7 right at the tail end of the era in which a pitcher’s win-loss record might mean something to MLB front offices and earned his first All-Star Game invitation. While his record was not an accurate reflection of his performance, it was the best season of Bottenfield’s career—a 3.97 ERA and 4.75 FIP, particularly given the era, made him an above-average pitcher. He was a pleasant surprise, but general manager Walt Jocketty was not counting upon Bottenfield to maintain this level of performance.
And thus began the Kent Bottenfield trade tree.
March 23, 2000: Cardinals trade Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy to the Anaheim Angels for Jim Edmonds
In the Angels’ defense, Kennedy was a useful prospect who developed into the starting second baseman for their World Series-winning team in 2002. And Edmonds, coming off an injury-riddled 1999, was set to be a free agent following the season. Plus, even if Bottenfield couldn’t maintain his 1999 performance, and he probably wouldn’t, he still looked like a solid bet every fifth day.
But there is no question that the Cardinals are delighted to have made this trade. Edmonds put up a 6.3 Wins Above Replacement season in 2000, leading the Cardinals to the National League Championship Series. And while he would take something of a back seat to Albert Pujols in future seasons, the center fielder was pivotal to the next eight Cardinals seasons following this Spring Training trade. Although the trade was only for one season, Edmonds signed an extension in May. While the “players fall in love and take less to stay in St. Louis” narrative is almost certainly overblown, this was one case where it may have been legitimate.
Edmonds was a Hall of Fame-caliber center fielder in St. Louis, no matter what the BBWAA says. But by the end of the 2007 season, the now-37 year-old was looking far less useful to a Cardinals team looking at a pseudo-rebuild. So they traded him with one year remaining on his contract for a minor leaguer.
December 14, 2007: Cardinals trade Jim Edmonds to the San Diego Padres for David Freese
Do you remember where you were when the Cardinals acquired David Freese? Unless you went to high school with him (Hey, did you know David Freese grew up in the St. Louis area and attended Lafayette High School in Wildwood? Did you know that?!?!), you probably don’t. You might remember where you were when Jim Edmonds got traded, as that was the headline, but Freese wasn’t a major prospect. He had a good season in 2007 as a 24 year-old in high-A but, well, he was a 24 year-old in high-A. The Cardinals had to take what they could get.
As it turned out, Edmonds lasted 26 games in San Diego. Freese was in the Majors by 2009. He was the Opening Day starting third baseman by 2010. In 2012, Freese was an All-Star. Oh, and then there was 2011. The year when that happened.
But Freese struggled in 2013—he remained the starter for the most part, but calls for third baseman-turned-second baseman Matt Carpenter to move back to the hot corner with prospect Kolten Wong taking over at second base intensified. So, with two years of club control remaining, the Cardinals did what two years prior seemed unthinkable—they dealt their hometown hero.
November 22, 2013: Cardinals trade David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk
Fernando Salas was at times a fine reliever for the Cardinals but at this point was mostly an afterthought, particularly compared to David Freese. The headliner of this trade was Peter Bourjos, a defensive stalwart in center field who was expected to compete with incumbent Jon Jay for a starting spot in St. Louis.
Bourjos wound up in more of a bench role, though particularly in 2014 he was a useful piece of the Cardinals’ puzzle. Since Bourjos left the team following 2015 not via trade but through being non-tendered, he could not continue the trade tree.
But the real headliner for the Cardinals was Randal Grichuk, who was famously (source: every nationally broadcast game of Grichuk’s career) was drafted ahead of Mike Trout in 2009. While Grichuk wasn’t Trout, he was the team’s primary right fielder throughout the 2014 postseason, he had a breakthrough 2015 as a center fielder, and even in 2016 and 2017 seasons which diminished his stock somewhat, he belted 24 and 22 home runs while showing a capacity to play all three outfield positions. Even when the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna made it abundantly clear that Grichuk was not going to start for the 2018 Cardinals, he always had potential. This was what made today’s continuation of the Kent Bottenfield trade tree possible.
January 19, 2018: Cardinals trade Randal Grichuk to the Toronto Blue Jays for Dominic Leone and Conner Greene
From a 2018 perspective, the more exciting acquisition is certainly Leone, who had a breakthrough 2017 in the Blue Jays bullpen. Leone had a sub-3 ERA and FIP in 70 1⁄3 innings, and he could help solidify a much-maligned Cardinals bullpen reeling from an absence of Trevor Rosenthal which they were not expecting six months ago. But Greene, who is just 22, could be a long-term candidate to continue on the legacy of Kent Bottenfield
The Kent Bottenfield trade tree is, of course, mostly luck, but it is also a metaphor for how the Cardinals have operated. They took a flier on Bottenfield, sold high in order to get a superstar in Jim Edmonds, sold Edmonds when he was no longer going to fit in their future plans, rode David Freese’s hot hand to an eleventh World Series title, turned him into a pair of useful outfielders, and have now turned one of those outfielders into a potentially dynamic reliever and a prospect. The Cardinals may not always sell at the precisely correct time, but they do have a tendency to sell at a point when they can get something in return.