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The Unfulfilled Promise of the 1970 Cardinals

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Coming out of the dominant 60s, the Cardinals were poised for more. It never transpired.

St. Louis Cardinal

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone. May your Black Friday be filled with great deals, a full slate of college football, and leftovers featuring enough carbs to choke a horse. Last year, I ran a series of articles focusing on past Cardinals off-seasons. I’ll likely revisit that in the coming weeks. One particular era (1970-1972) stands out as an obvious candidate for that series. Unfortunately, there’s no specific pivotal off-season from that era, but rather a series of moves that slowly dissolved the relevance of baseball’s premier franchise in the 1960s. It didn’t have to be that way. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Cardinals were so loaded that when they faltered through their next several seasons, they left as much promise unfulfilled as almost any other team in baseball history.

Let’s collect the remaining career fWAR of every player on each team’s roster since 1900. For example, Ozzie Smith would gain 2.7 fWAR in his career after the 1993 season, so we’ll assign 2.7 future fWAR to the 1994 Cardinals. We’ll do that for every player on every team in baseball since 1900. Adding it all up, we’ll have the total future fWAR for each team. It’s a gauge of how much talent and future production a team had on hand.

The 1970 Cardinals come in 20th out of 2,634 teams in future fWAR. Only 19 other teams had more future value sitting on their roster. The 19 ahead of them is littered with great teams with huge win totals, playoff berths, and champagne baths. You’ll find three Braves teams in the 90s, three early 70s Dodgers teams, two mid-20s A’s teams, the 1900 and 1901 Pirates, and the 1962 Giants, amongst others. All of those teams either eventually made it to or won the World Series. The 1970 Cardinals, on the other hand, are arguably baseball history’s most talented and young team to never reach the post-season within their window.

Ted Simmons St. Louis Cardinals Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images

Who Were They?

Nobody under a certain age thinks much about the early 70s Cardinals. The 60s and 80s squads dominate franchise lore, but the 70s are talked about as a lost era amongst Cardinal fans. It didn’t have to be that way. Here are all of the players on the 1970 Cardinals with greater than 10 future fWAR, and their age in 1970:

Future fWAR, 1970 Cardinals

Name Future WAR Age
Name Future WAR Age
Steve Carlton 78.9 25
Ted Simmons 53.9 20
Jose Cruz 50.8 22
Jerry Reuss 50.0 21
Mike Torrez 25.5 23
Dick Allen 22.7 28
Reggie Cleveland 20.7 22
Joe Torre 18.1 29
Bob Gibson 17.5 34
Fred Norman 16.7 27
Lou Brock 14.0 31
Nelson Briles 12.2 26
Jose Cardenal 11.3 26

That list features three future Hall of Famers in Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Steve Carlton. A fourth future Hall of Famer, Joe Torre, would make it on the strength of his prolific run as Yankees manager, although he was certainly no slouch as a player, with 62.3 career fWAR to his name. A fifth player, Ted Simmons, should be in the Hall of Fame. Dick Allen was a star and won the MVP award just two years later. Jose Cruz would deservedly become the face of the franchise for the Astros, and Jerry Reuss was a metronome of above average stability for multiple teams across the league for nearly two decades.

Moving past the bigger names, Mike Torrez was sort of a poor man’s Reuss with less longevity, even if he did get posterized by Bucky F’in Dent in 1978. Reggie Cleveland had a few good years and multiple mediocre ones awaiting him after the 1970 season. Nellie Briles was a steady contributor for the Pirates. Fred Norman was the same for the Big Red Machine. Even Jose Cardenal had a brief round of solid performance as an everyday outfielder for the Cubs.

That’s what the Cardinals had in stock at the dawn of the decade. The pitching staff is particuarly impressive. They were loaded with young talent augmented by Bob Gibson. Carlton, Reuss, Torrez, Norman, Briles, and Cleveland were fixtures in playoff baseball in the 70s, all for teams that weren’t the Cardinals. Add up the pitching and you’re left with one of the 10 most promising staffs by future value in baseball history (and one of the teams they trail is the 1969 version of the same team):

  1. 1971 Mets: 276.9 future fWAR
  2. 1969 Mets: 268.7
  3. 1968 Mets: 260.2
  4. 1970 Mets: 250.3
  5. 1964 Indians: 247.0
  6. 1984 Red Sox: 233.4
  7. 1969 Cardinals: 231.4
  8. 1970 Cardinals: 230.9
  9. 1978 Dodgers: 230.9
  10. 1993 Braves: 229.8
August A. Busch Jr. Speaking at Microphones

What Happened?

Despite all of the talent, the 1970 squad was sunk by several black holes in the lineup. Simmons was too young, putting up a 77 wRC+ in a time-share with Torre behind the plate. Julian Javier (2B), Dal Maxvill (SS), and Mike Shannon (3B) combined for 1,210 plate appearances with a wRC+ below 60. Torrez and Reuss were average, but nothing special, while Briles had one of the worst years of his career. Carlton was above average but had yet to morph into a transcendent superstar. They collapsed to just 76 wins.

Of course, this disappointment extends far beyond just 1970. They broke through for 90 wins in 1971, seven games back of the first place Pirates. The next four seasons saw more disappointment- 75 wins in 1972, 81 in 1973, 86 in 1974, and 82 in 1975. Here’s where it gets painful:

Trade Dates for 1970 Cardinals

Name Traded
Name Traded
Dick Allen Oct. 1970
Nelson Briles Jan. 1971
Mike Torrez Jun. 1971
Fred Norman Jun. 1971
Jose Cardenal Jul. 1971
Steve Carlton Feb. 1972
Jerry Reuss Apr. 1972
Reggie Cleveland Dec. 1973
Jose Cruz Oct. 1974
Joe Torre Oct. 1974

Brock and Gibson retired as Cardinals, and Simmons wasn’t traded until disco was going out of style. Torre was traded at the perfect time, to the Mets, just as his career began to fade. Those particular players aren’t the problem. Where the Cardinals got into trouble was the rest of the list in a stunning series of ill-concieved trades, both for their logic in making the deals and for the return packages.

Carlton angered owner Gussie Busch by asking for a $65,000 salary for 1972, which was $10,000 more than the Cardinals offered. The request came during Carlton’s holdout, in an era when owners and players were as contentious as ever with one another. The Cardinals- likely at the directive of owner Gussie Busch- decided that the solution was dealing Carlton to the Phillies for Rick Wise.

Amazingly, Reuss was dealt before the 1972 season because he had a mustache. At least, that’s the account he gives, noting that his mustache angered Busch. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s two very good, young pitchers traded because the owner wanted to save $10,000 and didn’t like a mustache.

Dick Allen was used in a trade with the Dodgers to address the lack of production at second base in 1970. The trade achieved that goal, but all of the gains were lost by replacing Allen with Joe Hague at first base. Allen exploded with the Dodgers in 1971 (5.2 fWAR) and won an MVP with the White Sox in 1972 with an 8.0 fWAR.

In almost all cases, the value received in return was woefully short of what they had traded. Here’s the full list of the return for those players:

Players Acquired for 1970 Cardinals

Name Acq. For
Name Acq. For
Ted Sizemore Allen
Bob Stinson Allen
Matty Alou Briles
George Brunet Briles
Bob Reynolds Torrez
Al Santorini Norman
Ted Kubiak Cardenal
Rick Wise Carlton
Lance Clemons Reuss
Scipio Spinks Reuss
John Curtis Cleveland
Mike Garman Cleveland
Lynn McGlothen Cleveland
Cash Cruz
Tommy Moore Torre
Ray Sadecki Torre

There are a few decent seasons from this group- Alou in 1971, Spinks and Santorini in 1972, Sizemore was a little below average for most of his time and good in 1973, Wise was very good for two years, and McGlothen was above average for his three seasons in St. Louis. As for the rest, it was a total disaster. Cruz was given away for cash. Spinks was finished as a player after just two seasons. Allen became a monster while Sizemore was average at best. Wise was fine, but he was clearly no Carlton.

It created a major gap in production. Here’s the deficit in fWAR between the players they traded compared to the ones they acquired:

  • 1971: -4.8 (finished 7 games back in the division)
  • 1972: -19.5 (21.5 GB)
  • 1973: -9.8 (1.5 GB)
  • 1974: -13.1 (1.5 GB)
  • 1975: -19.4 (10.5 GB)
  • 1976: -25.4 (29 GB)

The trades themselves were bad enough, but they were made worse by constantly compounding the errors. It was as if they decided to shoot themselves in the foot, only grazed a toe, and took a second shot to finish the job. Torrez was traded in June 1971 to the Expos for Bob Reynolds, a pitcher who appeared in four games in St. Louis. Reynolds was eventually traded, along with Cardenal, for 32 games of Ted Kubiak. Then Kubiak was traded for 35 innings of Joe Grzenda. The causal chain there is excruciating, with the Cardinals coming up on the short end every single time and receiving almost nothing in return.

Briles was flipped for Matty Alou, one of the few reasonable returns they received. However, Alou was traded a year later for 18 plate appearances of Bill Voss. Dealing Torre at the end of his career was an unusually shrewd move, except what they got in return was Ray Sadecki at the end of his career, and 18 innings of Tommy Moore. They traded Sadecki in May 1975, and threw in recently acquired Elias Sosa in exchange for Ron Reed. Sosa, a Cardinal for just two months, would become a relief ace of the late 70s. In itself, that deal wasn’t bad- Reed was a fine late 70s starter- except the Cardinals traded him at the end of his only half-season in St. Louis for Mike Anderson, a generic fourth outfielder who lasted two years.

The cherry on top was Carlton for Wise. As much as the other deals stung, that particular deal is one of baseball’s all-time worst. Wise had two very good years- it must be said- and he was eventually dealt for Reggie Smith, who provided two and half premium years in St. Louis. That’s all well and good, except Carlton was the best pitcher in baseball for the fourteen years after he was traded. If you want to count Smith in the math, you also have to count Bernie Carbo- a throw-in that the Cardinals gave the Red Sox along with Wise. Weighing the contributions by Carlton and Carbo elsewhere against what the Cardinals received from Wise and Smith leaves the Cardinals with a 14.7 fWAR gap from 1972 to 1976 just from the Carlton/Wise trade and its branches.

Go back and look at the yearly deficit above and the games back figures. If they had held on to the 1970 core, there are at least two division titles in 1973 and 1974. It’s a stretch, but 1975 also has a good argument. Picture an alternate history where Allen, Carlton, Reuss, Torrez, and Briles paired up with Simmons and Brock to send Gibson and Torre to their retirements in style. Imagine the mountain of 1960s success rolling on into the age of astroturf and polyester.

A run through 1975 with two or three more playoff berths elevates the prestige of the Cardinals from a 1960s mini-dynasty to a decade-long dynasty. Instead of perennial playoff berths for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the NL East, those October games could have happened under the Arch. It also creates quite a “What if?” scenario for Simmons, whose Hall of Fame case lacks any post-season heroics.

It’s quite an alternate history. I have seen the man in the high castle, and he’s wearing sansabelt pants.