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Bests of the Decade

A decade’s worth of bests from the Cardinals.

2019 NLCS Game 4 - St. Louis Cardinals v. Washington Nationals Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images

It’s the end of the decade, which means that Cardinal writers and bloggers are filling space with their “best of” the 2010’s. The 2010’s featured some of the best players in franchise history providing some of the best moments. It also had its own share of frustrations and failures. Here are the Cardinals ten “bests”. Some are indisputable. Others will surely spark disagreement. Regardless, here are my opinions, supported with a level of research appropriate for the season: minimal and rushed. Have at it in the comments!

1. Best Team - 2013 Cardinals
Contenders - 2011 Cardinals

MLB: OCT 18 NLCS - Dodgers at Cardinals - Game 6 Photo by Scott Kane/Icon SMI/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I actually do have statistical evidence to support this claim, which will be making its appearance in a future article. This isn’t the place for charts and graphs, so for now, you’ll just have to trust me. The 2013 Cardinals had almost everything that a fan could want in a baseball team. They won 97 games, topping an NL Central division that placed three 90+ win teams in the postseason. Adam Wainwright finished second in the Cy Young voting to winner Clayton Kershaw. Molina and Matt Carpenter split votes for the MVP and finished third and fourth respectively. The drawback to the ‘13 club as the best of the decade is their postseason finish. The club reached the World Series after Michael Wacha beat Kershaw twice in the NLCS, but there the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals in six games to end what looked like a magical season. Can a team that didn’t win the World Series be the best team of a decade that brought also witnessed a dramatic championship title? It’s certainly debatable. The 2011 Cardinals are a close second, but their win total was significantly lower and that club did not win their division. Plus, 2011 will make an appearance below, so they’re not getting slighted in this corner of the internet.

2. Best Player - Yadier Molina
Contenders - Matt Carpenter, Adam Wainwright

Divisional Series - Atlanta Braves v St Louis Cardinals - Game Four Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

There are two ways to approach the “best player” of the decade discussion. The first is statistical: who had the most WAR? Yadier Molina topped the Cardinals this decade with 41.7 fWAR, well ahead of Matt Carpenter (29.9) and Adam Wainwright (27.7). The second is by going purely subjective: what player defined the Cardinals this decade? Again, it has to be Molina. Molina finished in the top 5 in MVP voting twice. He was an 8-time All-Star and won 7 Gold Gloves this decade. He’s a future Hall of Famer and is in the conversation for best defensive catcher in the history of the game. What else can we say? Molina is an all-time great Cardinal.

3. Best Moment - 2011 World Series Game 6, Bottom of the Ninth
Contender - 2011 World Series Game 6, Bottom of the Eleventh
The two contenders for the best moment of the decade came in the same game, separated by just a few innings, and were provided by the same player. Here they are. Watch them. Savor them. We’ll never see anything like them again:

In an articles of “bests” there can be only one. How do I pick between these two? I chose the very scientific method of randomly assigning a moment to myself and my daughter and then playing rock/paper/scissors to determine the winner. She bested me 2 out of 3. So, David Freese’s triple in the ninth inning is the best moment of the decade over David Freese’s walk-off home run in the 11th. It’s science, friends, don’t @ me. Just enjoy them both!

4. Best Reliever - Trevor Rosenthal
Contenders - Seunghwan Oh, Jason Motte

NLCS - San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two

The volatility and expendable nature of relievers in the modern game make choosing the decade’s best a convoluted exercise. Cumulative stats like saves do not always correlate with excellence. Peak performance, however, does not always correlate to sustained excellence. From a cumulative perspective, Trevor Rosenthal leads the team with 121 saves over the decade. He also had the most innings pitched and, comparably, the highest fWAR - 7.3. The peak performer of the decade was probably Seunghwan Oh’s amazing 2016 season. Oh only had 19 saves, but his era was under 2.0 and he produced 2.6 fWAR. Fortunately, the 2nd, 3rd, and 5th best performances by an individual reliever were all provided by Rosenthal. So, while Oh might have had one amazing season, Rosenthal provided outstanding peak production and unparalleled sustained production.

5. Best Rookie - Harrison Bader, 2018
Contender - Tommy Edman, 2019

Pittsburgh Pirates v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Surprised? I was. I knew that Bader’s rookie campaign would rank high on this list, if only because of his unique combination of superior defense and baserunning to go along with solid offense. Surely, though, it would rank behind the great offensive rookies the Cardinals have produced: 2011 Allen Craig, 2017 Paul DeJong, or even 2016 Aledmys Diaz. The Cardinals also produced notable rookie pitchers Jack Flaherty, Shelby Miller, and Lance Lynn. By fWAR, however, Harrison Bader’s 3.6 fWAR in 2018 is significantly better than all of these players. Believe it or not, Tommy Edman’s 3.2 is second on the list. If the gap between these players was closer, there might be more conversation, but Bader tops the pitchers by a full WAR and only Edman is closer than .5 WAR.

6. Best Defensive Season (non-Molina) - Jason Heyward, 2015
Contenders - Brendan Ryan, Kolten Wong

St Louis Cardinals v Chicago Cubs Photo by John Konstantaras/Getty Images

Let’s get this out of the way first: Yadier Molina is the best defensive player on the Cardinals this decade. The evolving nature of catcher statistics makes quantifying his defense extremely difficult. Since we’ve already named him the Cardinals’ best player — and his play includes defense — let’s focus here on peak defensive performance from a non-catcher. That pretty much leaves us with three choices: 2015 Jason Heyward, 2010 Brendan Ryan, and 2018 Kolten Wong. All three are very close in both UZR and DRS, so you can make your own choice and claim you’re right. Personally, I’m going with Heyward. His combined UZR + DRS is the highest of the three and he won a Gold Glove for the season in question. Ryan had a 55 wRC+ in 2010. I just can’t put a player with that offensive line on a list of best anything. Wong’s ‘18 is behind Heyward in both UZR and DRS, so I can’t justify picking him statistically. Heyward, meanwhile, almost single-handedly raised a good not great Cardinals team to 100 wins in 2015. He was the best defensive OF’er I’ve ever watched (as an adult). That’s not intended as a slight to the flashier Jim Edmonds, who was also brilliant, or to Harrison Bader, who could top this list in the 2020’s, if his offense keeps pace with his amazing glove work.

7. Best Manager - Tony LaRussa
Contender - Mike Matheny

St Louis Cardinals Victory Parade Photo by Ed Szczepanski/Getty Images

Hmmm.... this one is tricky. The 2010’s had three managers: Tony LaRussa, Mike Matheny, and Mike Shildt. If we go by longevity, the clear winner is Matheny, who managed the Cardinals from 2012 to mid-season 2018. He led the club to four playoff appearances including a World Series loss. Matheny was fired into the 2018 season when the club was tracking toward a third straight season outside of the playoffs. Shildt immediately righted the ship and nearly led the club to the postseason. In 2019, Shildt’s club won the division and he won Manager of the Year. LaRussa, meanwhile, missed the playoffs in 2010 and then won the World Series in dramatic fashion the next season before riding off into the sunset. What do we make of all this? By my subjective analysis, Mike Matheny is the worst manager of these three, and yet, its hard to argue with his wins and postseason appearances. So, he’s actually the best, right? By default? Nope! The best manager of the 2010’s was Tony LaRussa. LaRussa is simply one of the greatest managers in the game’s history and while his style might not have held up as well into the modern game, he knew when it was time to hang it up and he went out leaving Cards fans with what should prove to be the best moments we’ll ever have as Cardinals fans. I have high hopes for LaRussa-disciple Mike Shildt, but his time is coming in the 2020’s. Matheny? I’m not disappointed to see him gone, and I wish him the best with the Royals.

8. Best Acquisition (Signing or Trade) - Colby Rasmus for Edwin Jackson and a lot more

2011 World Series Game 4 - Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

This trade is nuts. The Cardinals shipped out Colby Rasmus (and his dad), Brian Tallet, Trever Miller, and P.J. Walters for Edwin Jackson, Corey Patterson, Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski, three players to be named or cash. It wins best trade just because of the sheer volume of players involved. Oh, and its the trade that propelled us to the 2011 World Series. Isn’t that how the argument goes? It was the right move to trade Rasmus because the Cards ended up winning? Sure, I’ll go with that! Especially now that we’ve seen where Rasmus’ career went. A Rasmus trade seemed inevitable at the time and I was pretty much against it. Still, I’ll admit my assessment was way off, as Rasmus never stabilized as a consistently good performer. Other candidates for best acquisition include John Lackey, Jhonny Peralta, Marcell Ozuna, Paul Goldschmidt, and Miles Mikolas. I didn’t pick through transactions records for this, so I’m probably missing a few names. Let me know in the comments!

9. Best Draft Pick or International Signing - Carlos Martinez
Contender: Kolten Wong

World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game Six Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Before you ask, Matt Carpenter was drafted in 2009. Carlos Martinez was also signed in 2009. By the Red Sox. His contract, though, was voided and the Cardinals were able to snag him in April of 2010. Rising amidst a wealth of talent from the Cardinals system, Martinez has become the most productive Cardinals draft pick or international signing of the decade. He has produced 14.6 fWAR since his debut in 2013. Second in fWAR is 2011 first round pick Kolten Wong with 14. Michael Wacha (2012) and Paul DeJong (2015) also warrant a mention. Martinez wins the award both because of his overall production and the peak performance he has displayed while pitching in a variety of roles. Martinez initially apprenticed in the bullpen and was an outstanding reliever until a rotation spot opened for him. As a starter, Martinez consistently averaged over 3.0 fWAR per season. Shoulder weakness forced a return to the pen recently, but Martinez has continued to display his dominant stuff. Just 28 years old, Martinez should still have several productive seasons remaining.

10. Best Decade in Cardinals History

Boston Red Sox Prepare For World Series In St. Louis Photo by John Blanding/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Where do the 2010’s rank in the pantheon of Cardinals decades? The 2010-2019 Cardinals won a World Series, appeared in another, reached the NLCS three times, and won the division four times. This is comparable to the 2000’s, when the club had similar post season results, but did manage to win the NL Central an impressive six times. The 1980’s had a different division structure, and the club managed three World Series appearances and one win. The 1960’s Cardinals impressively won two World Series and lost a third. None of that compares to the 1940’s clubs led by Stan Musial, who won three championships and appeared in another Series in a five year span. That’s probably enough history to prove the point. The 2010 Cardinals can’t compete with the legendary birdos of the previous century, but the decade fits well with all but the absolute peaks of Cardinals history. In my lifetime, I would place the 2010-19 Cardinals even with the 1980’s and just below the 2000’s. I’m certain some of you will disagree, so let me explain myself. I was four years old when the Cards won in ‘82. I remember watching and listening in ‘85 and ‘87, but I was just a child. I really didn’t know what I was watching. My knowledge of the 80s comes mostly after the fact, and the analyst in me has a hard time looking past the stretches of awful that were between the brilliance. Similarly, 2016-2018 soured this decade’s overall ranking, but I wont let it mar the unbelievable first five years. For me, the 2000’s, stretching from McGwire to Pujols to Molina is the best stretch of baseball I’ve seen. I still believe the 2010-19 Cardinals could have topped them if they had had been more aggressive in player acquisition or had not failed to develop more elite talent.