We have officially leaned in to the slowest part of the off-season, at least for teams no longer playing.* Sure, playoff baseball and the World Series are great, but it’s not the same when you don’t have any skin in the game. Just before the hot stove heats up, I thought it might be fun to stroll down memory lane to the last time the Cardinals missed the playoffs for three consecutive years. Let’s take a look at how Walt Jocketty transformed the 1999 Cardinals into a division winner.
*obviously written before the Wainwright contract
The Cardinals were dreadful in 1999, posting a 75-86 record. That’s the fourth worst Cardinals team by winning percentage since 1980. It’s also the worst since, well, 1999. Their pythagorean mark was only slightly better (78-83), and their base run record was a comparable 79-83. Their true talent level was slightly better than their actual record, but there was a lot of work to be done to return to contention.
Mark McGwire served as the star, blasting 65 homeruns in the encore to his record-setting 1998 season, good for a 6.0 fWAR. Fernando Tatis established himself as a young, talented hitter. His .255 isolated slugging (ISO) was 25th amongst all qualified hitters in MLB that season, all part of a 3.2 fWAR performance in his age 24 season. Ray Lankford declined a little bit, but was still productive with a 3.8 fWAR in 476 plate appearances.
The Cardinals had stockpiled top-end minor league talent, and those players were beginning to produce at the big league level. In the 1999 edition of the Baseball America Top 100, J.D. Drew and Rick Ankiel registered as the top two prospects in all of baseball. Both reached Busch Stadium in 1999 and more than held their own. Drew collected 2.5 fWAR in 430 plate appearances, while Ankiel ran up a 2.82 FIP and 10.64 K/9 in a 33 inning debut at the tender age of 19. Edgar Renteria had been the 33rd best prospect in the game in 1996, and would enter 2000- his age 23 season- with nearly 2,400 career plate appearances to his name. Matt Morris, the 25th best prospect in 1997, had missed all of 1999 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but was slated to return out of the bullpen in 2000. Eli Marrero had been the 33rd best prospect in 1997, but was still trying to find his footing. Adam Kennedy came in as the 98th best prospect in 1999.
On the pitching side of things, Darren Oliver had been reliable, throwing to a 3.3 fWAR and a FIP minus (FIP-) that was nine percent better than league average. Kent Bottenfield magically combined batted ball luck and run support to produce 18 wins, a 116 ERA+, and a tattle tale 101 FIP minus that told the more accurate story. Still, he had been worth 2.3 fWAR. Jose Jimenez had flashed his electric but hard to harness form by tossing a no-hitter (which lowered his ERA to 6.02) on June 25th against Arizona. Garret Stephenson was called up mid-season and provided reasonable innings for the last few months, establishing himself as a potential option for the 2000 rotation.
Tatis’ production at the plate was accompanied by an iron glove. His Def (positionally adjusted fielding runs on Fangraphs) was the 8th worst among qualified hitters. McGwire’s defense was also a black hole. Marrero slashed just .192/.236/.297 on the season en route to a dreadful -0.9 fWAR and a 27 wRC+.
Marrero was emblematic of major problems at catcher. The Cardinals’ 0.4 fWAR from catchers was the third worst in baseball. Second base was only marginally better, with a 0.6 fWAR and a ranking of 23rd in baseball. Joe McEwing had been below average there, while youngsters Placido Polanco and Adam Kennedy had been considerably worse. The bench had been fine for the most part, but had been dragged down by Willie McGee’s swan song. In his final season, McGee exhibited dreadful defense and a wRC+ of just 43 across 290 plate appearances. It added up to a -2.6 fWAR, a sad ending for a fan favorite.
One of the outfield positions had been sunk not just by McGee, but also Darren Bragg, Joe McEwing, and Eric Davis. Lankford and Drew could fill two of the outfield spots with promise, but the remaining playing time in the outfield went to Bragg, McGee, and Davis. None of them cracked 350 plate appearances, and various aspects of their game demolished their value.
Jimenez was one of two talented but enigmatic youngsters, along with Manny Aybar. Time was running out for both of them to cement a role in St. Louis. The bullpen in general did a poor job in higher leverage spots and offered little in the way of reliability for 2000. Juan Acevedo, in particular, had been awful as a swing man.
Areas of need for 2000
The silver lining to such a frustrating season is that it’s easy to upgrade at multiple positions. Second base and catcher were positions where simply average players would represent major upgrades. Adding a single decent outfielder to eat into the playing time allotted to McGee, Davis, and Bragg in 1999 would also represent a major upgrade. The bullpen was riddled with holes, and the rotation needed innings.
They entered the 2000 off-season with the following expiring contracts:
Free Agents (1999 fWAR): Larry Luebbers (0.0), Heathcliff Slocumb (0.7), Mike Busby (0.0), Thomas Howard (0.4), Marcus Jensen (0.2), Curtis King (0.0), Darren Oliver (3.3), Ricky Bottalico (0.1), Eduardo Perez (0.5), Clint Sodowsky (-0.1)
That’s 5.1 wins, with the only significant amount coming from Darren Oliver. The rest was made up of a collection of minor contributions from quad-A bench players and relievers who had struggled in their roles. Heathcliff Slocumb (2.36 ERA, 3.81 FIP in 53.1 IP) joined Oliver as the exceptions.
Slocumb, Howard, and Perez were all re-signed. The remainder were allowed to depart.
They got a start on building for 2000 in the middle of the 1999 season. It began at the trade deadline when they dealt Shawon Dunston to the Mets for Craig Paquette, who established himself as a productive, versatile bench bat. In late August, they flipped staff disappointment Kent Mercker to the Red Sox for Mike Matthews.
The hot stove started quietly enough on October 15th when the Cardinals signed Mike James, a solid reliever for the Angels from 1995 through 1997. His career was derailed just 11 innings in to the 1998 season. He had posted respectable strikeout rates but had a bit of a walk problem. Given the state of the bullpen in 1999, it wouldn’t hurt to throw as many arms as possible at the issue.
The first significant move of the off-season happened on November 11th when Walt Jocketty sent Alberto Castillo- Marrero’s other half in the ill-fated catcher platoon- to the Blue Jays, along with AA starting pitcher Matt DeWitt and reliever Lance Painter. Jocketty acquired Pat Hentgen, the 1996 Cy Young winner and 1997 All-Star who remained durable but struggled in 1998 and 1999. After 9.8 total fWAR from 1996-97, he had dipped to 2.6 total in 1998-99 (1.9 in 1999). The Jays also sent reliever Paul Spoljaric along.
Five days later, Jocketty continued to bolster the rotation. He sent the enigmatic pitching duo, Jimenez and Aybar, to Colorado along with minor leaguer Brent Butler and reliever Rich Croushore. That was the bounty the Rockies received for Darryl Kile, Luther Hackman, and Dave Veres. Hackman was quad-A bullpen depth, and Veres had excelled in the crucible of Coors Field in 1998 (1.5 fWAR out of the bullpen, 3.36 FIP). However, it crashed for him in 1999, a victim of bullpen volatility.
The real star of the deal was Kile, who looked like a burgeoning ace when he left Houston as a free agent in November 1997. Coors Field had broken him. His walk and homerun rates spiked. The durability and stuff were still there, but pitching in Denver had gotten him into some bad habits. The Cardinals gambled on fixing him, spackling him in to Jimenez’s slot.
A few days later, they resigned Slocumb, but the next big move wouldn’t happen until mid-December. A month prior, the Blue Jays had released their defense-first catcher. He was a Gold Glove quality defender, even if he didn’t have much of a bat. Having already acquired Castillo from the Cardinals, Toronto felt comfortable releasing Mike Matheny. At new acquisition Pat Hentgen’s urging, the Cardinals brought in Matheny to pair with Marrero. With that, Walt Jocketty had filled his hole at catcher.
A day later, Darren Bragg was released. The second base conundrum was addressed just before Christmas when Jocketty acquired Fernando Vina from the Brewers for Juan Acevedo. Vina was a hard-nosed player who broke through for 3.1 fWAR in 1998, but had lost a large chunk of 1999 to injuries. Jocketty also sent two players to be named later to complete the deal- minor leaguers Eliezer Alfonzo and Matt Parker. Neither would play in Milwaukee. By dealing Acevedo and the previously dealt Jimenez, Jocketty had jettisoned 265 innings of a combined 5.87 ERA from his staff.
In January 2000, the reworked rotation included Kile, Hentgen, Ankiel, Stephenson, and Bottenfield, with Mark Thompson as depth. For all of his talent, Ankiel was a question mark, and Stephenson wasn’t reliable. With that in mind, Jocketty brought back former Cardinal Andy Benes. Like the other two rotation acquisitions, Kile and Hentgen, Benes had been great in 1996 and 1997 (7.5 total fWAR) before slipping in 1998 and 1999 (4.6).
Other than bringing back Shawon Dunston to resume his role as a bench bat, the rest of the winter was dead. Jocketty had filled three rotation slots, provided better options at second base and catcher, and reworked the bullpen, all while clearing out many of the culprits of the poor 1999 season and holding on to his prized young assets. He made one last move in the middle of spring training, flipping Joe McEwing to the Mets for LOOGY supreme Jesse Orosco. You could have safely assumed he was done. He was not.
Spring Training: The Big Fish
For all that he had accomplished, there was one major hole left in the outfield. They entered camp with Ray Lankford and J.D. Drew locked in as starters, and Dunston, Eric Davis, Thomas Howard, and Paquette as depth. The outfield was ripe for the same one-position failure that had plagued the previous year’s team.
Late in spring, the Angels had finally decided to move on from a talented, mercurial young outfield star. His style had been mistaken for showboating, and an injury-plagued 1999 had left many teammates questioning his desire to play. He was not universally liked in the clubhouse. With just one year remaining on his contract, the Angels wanted to get something for him while they still could. Jim Edmonds had flashed prodigious talent, and needed a new home.
“I don’t know Jim much,” says Cardinals leftfielder Ray Lankford, “but I’ll tell you this: If he’s the player everyone says he is, and he hustles and works his butt off, nobody will care what they said about him in Anaheim. That’s old news. He’s not an Angel anymore. This is a new day. Jim’s a Cardinal.”
Bottenfield had been rendered superfluous, and the depth of young talent meant that Adam Kennedy could be made available. That was enough to get it done for Jocketty, who beat out several other suitors for the services of James Q. Ballgame. Just like that, the Cardinals had filled their final hole on the roster. From 1995 to 1998, Edmonds’ 18.3 fWAR was 9th amongst all outfielders. In the under-28 set, he trailed only Ken Griffey, Jr. He was a star player looking to regain his footing after an injury-riddled 1999. The Cardinals gave him the chance to do so.
What’s fascinating about Jocketty’s off-season that year is how many times he gambled on fallen stars and/or players with just one year remaining on their contracts. Kile, Edmonds, Hentgen, and Vina were all slated to become free agents after 2000. Kile, Edmonds, Benes, and Hentgen either were or should have been All-Stars in 1996-1997, but each had fallen on hard times. Similarly, Vina and Veres had been very good performers in 1998 but had struggled in 1999. Matheny had never truly looked like a starter, but the Cardinals accepted him for what he was- a Gold Glove catcher who couldn’t hit. They filled seven integral roles for the 2000 Cardinals, and the only thing they lost that was remotely valuable was Adam Kennedy’s arbitration years.
The gambles on Kile, Edmonds, Vina, Matheny, and Veres had all paid off handsomely. Hentgen and Benes were less rewarding, but still held their own. Here’s how it all played out:
1999 vs. 2000 Replacements
|1999 Player||1999 fWAR||2000 Player||2000 fWAR||Net|
|1999 Player||1999 fWAR||2000 Player||2000 fWAR||Net|
Note: In that chart, the OF platoon consists of McEwing’s pro-rated outfield time, and two-thirds of McGee and Bragg’s time, all of which adds up to approximately one outfield position. Second base is the pro-rated time for McEwing, Polanco, and Kennedy, while catcher is pro-rated to include Marrero and Castillo.
Edmonds represented the largest favorable swing, gobbling up 6.9 wins all on his own. Vina was good for 2.9 wins. Kile, Matheny, and Veres collectively added 5.3 wins. The irony is that Benes and Hentgen were each a step down from their 1999 counterparts.
Combined with Kile, the three rotation replacements were collectively a smidge better- 0.2 fWAR- than the team had received in 1999. That said, they covered 40 more innings and made five more starts than their predecessors. In 1999, those innings had gone to a questionable cast of characters.
The bullpen’s infusion of talent led to mixed success. Veres was very good, Matt Morris and Mike James provided reasonable innings, and the steadiness from the rotation limited exposure to the more tender parts of the bullpen. Mid-season, Jocketty fortified the bullpen by acquiring Jason Christiansen and Mike Timlin for the stretch drive. Spoljaric never made the team. Orosco threw 2.1 innings, spread across six games in an injury-riddled season. Slocumb regressed, and the rest of the bullpen slipped from 1999.
What made the team special was their two-way offense. At the plate, they bludgeoned opponents. Their non-pitcher wRC+ had climbed from 99 in 1999 all the way to 112 in 2000, which pushed them from 18th to 3rd in baseball. On the defensive ledger, their positionally adjusted fielding runs (Def) had exploded from -2.6 in 1999 (17th in the league) all the way up to 43.8 in 2000, fourth in baseball. The defensive gains were keyed by the addition of Matheny (2nd best in Def in baseball), Vina, expanded playing time for Polanco, and Edmonds eating up playing time previously given to Bragg and McGee.
It all added up to 91 pythagorean wins- a 13 win improvement over 1999, or exactly what’s in that chart above. Their actual win total was 95, and they outpaced the division for the NL Central crown. Ultimately, they were short circuited by injuries, Ankiel’s star-crossed post-season, and several key performers disappearing at the worst possible time. By October, McGwire was hobbled and relegated to pinch-hitting duty. His replacement, Will Clark, was amazing, but the big redhead was clearly missed. Matheny was famously shelved when he cut his finger opening a birthday present, a hunting knife. Edmonds, Vina, Hentgen, and Kile were dreadful in the NLCS, outperformed by something called Benny Agbayani and Timo Perez.
They fell short of the World Series, but the season had been resounding success built on the back of a highly productive off-season. Let’s hope the current iteration of the Cardinals can find their own impactful solutions in the vein of Edmonds, Kile, Vina and the gang.