Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone. Hopefully you can rouse yourself out of your turkey coma (or tofurkey for our vegetarian readers) long enough to enjoy some shopping, football (go Mizzou!), or whatever else you enjoy with your family and friends over Thanksgiving weekend. Speaking of turkeys, I thought it might be fun to continue the off-season retrospective series by looking at a bad off-season. Last time, we looked in depth at the highly successful 1999-2000 off-season. Today, we’re going in a different direction.
I want to talk about a Cardinals team coming off of a 3rd place finish. Their win total was in the upper 80s. The lineup was anchored by a 5-win swiss army knife infielder, a transcendent defensive player approaching the end of his career, and youth everywhere else on the diamond. Their best outfielder was in the middle of a breakout in his pre-arbitration years. Their youthful rotation was led by one of the best control artists in the game. A dreadful bullpen played a major role in sinking the season. The general manager was an organizational man in his 10th season on the job, and the field manager was lauded for his communication skills.
No, I’m not going to talk about the 2018 Cardinals, even though almost all of the conditions above would apply. Rather, I’m going to hop in the time machine to revisit the off-season for the 1993-1994 Cardinals.
The Cardinals had a fine season in 1993. They had progressed from 81 wins in 1991 to 83 wins in 1992, and then 87 in 1993. They finished ten games back of the division-winning Phillies and seven back of an immensely talented Expos squad.
The season peaked on July 19th when a 4-0 shutout of the juggernaut Braves pushed the Cardinals to 55-37, a 97-win pace. A week later, they were in second place and four games back entering play on July 27th. They traveled to Philadelphia for a three game series with the first place Phillies. Philadelphia swept the series and never looked back.
It was a fun season, at least in the early going. The 32-38 finish to the season was a bit of a dud, but 87 wins from Joe Torre’s young squad made it seem like bigger things were around the corner. The most notable thing about the second half was a four homerun game from Hard Hittin’ Mark Whiten. Obligatory:
The outfield was young and full of promise. Leftfielder Bernard Gilkey followed up a 4.0 fWAR 1992 season with 3.7 in 1993. To his left, Ray Lankford patrolled centerfield and posted a 2.6 fWAR. Whiten manned rightfield, accumulating a disappointing 0.7 fWAR, four homerun game or otherwise. They were all backed up by Brian Jordan. The quartet would collectively amass over 100 career fWAR, and they were all 26 years old.
Youth in general was a strength of the team. Their under-27 fWAR was 5th in baseball behind teams that would dominate the 90s, like the Braves, Astros, Cleveland, and the pre-teardown Expos. The most productive player was 25-year-old Gregg Jefferies, who slashed .342/.408/.485 en route to 5.7 fWAR in a career year. Luis Alicea (age 27) and the perpetually injured Geronimo Peña (26) formed a 3.2 fWAR platoon at second base, and Todd Zeile produced a 112 wRC+ while holding down third base.
The rotation was led by Bob Tewksbury, who possibly made the most effective use of pus of any pitcher in the history of the game. By his own admission, he sat 84 miles per hour with his fastball. Yet he chewed up hitters and spit them out in the early 90s. He never walked anyone and he kept the ball in the ballpark thanks to phenomenal control, sort of a poor man’s Greg Maddux. Tewksbury was surrounded by a trio of lefties in their early 20s in the rotation- Donovan Osborne, Allen Watson, and a former lumberjack named Rhéal Cormier. Watson won his first six decisions in the heat of the pennant race before losing his last seven in August and September in a perfect microcosm of the year.
Out of the haze of the end of the Herzog era, general manager Dal Maxvill had built an exciting, well-rounded, youthful team populated with a potential solid core at all three outfield positions, everywhere on the infield except shortstop, and several spots in the rotation.
The 87 wins masked a darker truth. Their pythagorean record was just 82-80, a talent level supported by an 82-win base runs record. The 1993 Cardinals had played over their heads, and the 32-38 finale to the season was a nasty omen.
Zeile was fine at the plate in 1993, but gave a lot of his value back with an iron glove. Ozzie Smith’s 2.6 fWAR was solid, but he was declining. It was his worst season, by fWAR, since the strike-shortened 1981. The youth in the rotation had performed admirably, but it was an extreme contact profile ripe for regression. The rotation’s K% ranked dead last in MLB. With baseball about to lean hard into the steroid era, pitching to contact was about to become more toxic than ever before.
In a season in which so many young players led the way, 33-year-old Rob Murphy and 35-year-old Lee Smith sunk the bullpen. Murphy was awful all season long. Smith was phenomenal... when he wasn’t handing over 11 homeruns in 50 innings. It ended up moot, as Smith was dealt at the waiver trade deadline to the Yankees for their stretch run. Mid-season pickup Todd Burns was a total disaster in the bullpen, with a 6.61 ERA, 6.16 FIP, and the worst bullpen WPA on the team in just 30 innings.
The two largest negatives that overshadowed the off-season had nothing to do with on-field performance. First, there was a looming labor stoppage, which had all kinds of ancillary effects on the market. Not every owner was willing to spend with the strike hanging in the balance. It especially wasn’t appealing with a lukewarm batch of free agents. Most of the useful parts available were reaching their early to mid 30s.
The second off-field negative had to do with ownership. The brewery claimed that the franchise was losing money. Attendance was up in 1993, but had slipped considerably in Herzog’s swan song and the two subsequent seasons. When Gussie Busch passed away in late in 1989, the prevailing connotation was that his son didn’t have the same enthusiasm for the baseball team. Financial losses combined with diminished attendance led the Cardinals to drop payroll from 8th in the league in 1990 to 18th in 1991, 20th in 1992, and 24th in 1993. There was some money available, but a lot of it was committed to arbitration raises for the army of youngsters they had developed. Keeping players like Jefferies, Gilkey, Lankford, Zeile, and Tewksbury, amongst others, meant boosting payroll nearly $9M. For context, the entire team payroll in 1993 was $22M on Opening Day.
Areas of Need for 1994
Tewskbury had been solid and there were plenty of options to fill out the rotation, but the youth meant that another reliable arm could be helpful. The bullpen desperately needed an upgrade. A more advanced approach would have been recognizing that the team wasn’t as good as the actual record, meaning they should have moved more aggressively in free agency and trades to buttress the team.
The list of players on the 1993 roster reaching free agency was mercifully brief. Lee Guetterman had performed admirably in the bullpen before becoming a free agent, and the rest of pending free agents were bench players- Tim Jones, pinch hitter extraordinaire Gerald Perry, Tracy Woodson, and Lonnie Maclin. They also let Les Lancaster go. Guetterman and Lancaster had combined for 107 innings of 0.6 fWAR/0.39 WPA and made up two of their best relievers. The urgency to improve the ‘pen became that much more important.
Given what I’ve written so far, you shouldn’t be surprised to read that the 1993-1994 off-season was as dead as fried chicken for the Cardinals. In the infancy stages of the off-season, they added quad-A bench options by signing 3B Scott Coolbaugh and C Terry McGriff. Just before Christmas, they brought back Gerald Perry and added another quad-A bench option in Gerald Young. Coolbaugh, McGriff, and Young had collectively taken 31 MLB plate appearances in 1993.
They started to address the pitching staff in late December. First, they signed Vicente Palacios, who had been a mild bullpen contributor to the Pirates’ 1990-1992 division champion teams. He had played in Mexico in 1993, and profiled much like the rest of the Cardinals rotation at the time. Specifically, he was a swing man capable of starting and relieving, just like Rheal Cormier, Allen Watson, Tom Urbani, and Rene Arocha. Then in early January, they took a shrewd gamble on former Yankee and Royal reliever John Habyan.
Addressing the rotation wasn’t easy, as the free agent market was light on options. Sid Fernandez was available and had pitched well for the Mets. Beyond that, it was a quartet of geriatric options- 40-year-old Dennis Martinez, 46-year-old knuckleballer Charlie Hough, 37-year-old Scott Sanderson, and 38-year-old Rick Sutcliffe. Of the four, Martinez clearly performed the best in 1994 with a 3.6 fWAR. Sanderson (0.2) and Hough (-0.1) were at the end of the line. The Cardinals chose Sutcliffe, the worst of the four. That evaluation was true even at the time, knowing what everyone knew. Sutcliffe was coming off of a 5.75 ERA/5.25 FIP/0.5 fWAR season in Baltimore. He was cooked and he looked cooked. He was the biggest acquisition the Cardinals would make.
The last move they made was two days before Opening Day. They signed Rich Rodriguez, who had been released by the Marlins at the end of March. He was another high contact pitcher whose actual performance sat atop some risky peripherals.
That’s the entire set of moves. They addressed the bullpen by adding a swingman who hadn’t even pitched in MLB the year before and picking up the Marlins’ dirty laundry two days before Opening Day. They “fixed” the rotation by signing a 38-year-old coming off of a 5.75 ERA/0.5 fWAR season. The other moves might as well have been made for the benefit of the AAA squad. When Gerald Perry is your most effective off-season move, you know you’re in trouble. I hope you, gentle reader, do not have leftover indigestion from yesterday’s turkey lest that off-season activity list further compound the matter.
What ownership and the pre-strike free agent market couldn’t tear down, regression would finish. Jefferies slipped from a fringe MVP candidate to merely a little above average. Gilkey was a career 120 wRC+ hitter entering the year, but registered only 88 in 1994. Tewksbury’s 13.7 fWAR and 3.31 FIP from 1990-1993 gave way to a 2.0 fWAR and 4.18 FIP in 1994. The lefty trio- Osborne, Cormier, and Watson- had combined for 2.8 fWAR and 387 innings in 1993. It shriveled to 155.1 innings and 0.7 fWAR while Osborne missed the entire season. Mike Perez had been dynamite out of the bullpen in 1993, going 9-3 with a 1.84 ERA/3.42 FIP and 0.3 fWAR. That turned into a hideous 8.71 ERA/5.20 FIP and -0.4 fWAR, out of the closer’s spot no less.
A few of the off-season moves were disastrous. Sutcliffe’s 6.78 ERA was the third worst in all of baseball amongst starters with 60+ innings. His FIP, 6.07, was seventh worst. For some reason, Terry McGriff was given 131 below-replacement plate appearances on a team that only played 114 games.
The good news is that Habyan, Palacios, and Rodriguez had provided cromulent innings. The bad news was that, combined with the regression from the holdover 1993 pitchers and Sutcliffe, the pitching staff was one of the worst in baseball. Outperforming their pythagorean record in 1993 had papered over larger issues. Amazingly, they outperformed their pythagorean record again in 1994. It could have been even worse than it was. The strike mercifully ended the season at 53-61, and a 49-65 pythagorean record. Only a putrid Cubs team would keep the Cardinals from the division’s basement.
With so much turmoil, there was bound to be changes. Maxvill was fired in the middle of the strike, in September. Walt Jocketty would replace him a month later and bring along his young assistant, John Mozeliak. Skipper Joe Torre avoided the axe, but it was only a temporary reprieve. An abysmal start to the 1995 season would end his career in St. Louis. Rumor has it he went on to do some good things elsewhere.
Whiten and Cormier were dealt away, Tewksbury and Jefferies were allowed to leave as free agents, and Zeile would be dealt mid-1995. Half of the talented young outfield- Lankford and Jordan- would help make up the backbone of the 1996 division winner.
The strike surely soured the brewery even further on owning the Cardinals, and they put the team up for sale. A group led by Bill DeWitt purchased the club and the rest is history.