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Retrospective: The 2003-2004 Cardinals Off-Season

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A perfect blend of guts and common sense bridged the gap from 2003 disappointment to 2004 juggernaut.

NLCS: Astros v Cardinals Game 6 Photo By Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The most depressing Super Bowl in the history of the city of St. Louis is about to happen, and pitchers and catchers are reporting in just a few weeks. It’s hard to say baseball’s off-season is over when several big free agents still haven’t signed, but we’re close enough. That means it’s time to conclude the Off-Season Retrospective series for this year. I’ve saved my favorite for last. Today, we’re going to talk about the transition from the disappointing 85-win 2003 Cardinals to the best regular season team St. Louis has seen since World War II. The 2004 squad was a juggernaut. Let’s dissect how it happened.

Recapping 2003

The Cardinals entered 2003 riding a wave of success. They won the division in 2000, tied for the division title in 2001, and fought through the Darryl Kile tragedy in 2002 to win a third straight division title. However, the division was tightening. The Cubs had a trio of exciting young arms fronting their rotation in Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, and Carlos Zambrano, while the Astros were enjoying their own run of extended success. It led to an action-packed pennant race.

The three teams jockeyed back and forth for the division lead all year. Despite injuries to J.D. Drew and Jason Isringhausen, despite major slides in performance from Fernando Viña and Tino Martinez (amongst so many), despite utter failure all over the bullpen and rotation, despite everything, the Cardinals entered September in first place with a 72-64 record. The month began with a five-game series at Wrigley against the Cubs, who were 2.5 games back. The Astros were one game back. With 11 September games against the Cubs and Astros, the sloppiness of the first 136 games could be erased with one good month of baseball.

All hell broke loose at Wrigley to begin September. They were shut out in the first game, and suffered a walk-off loss to start a doubleheader the next day. Matt Morris rescued game two of the doubleheader, but they lost each of the two final games of the series by one run. When the series ended, they were half a game back of the Cubs and a full game back of the Astros.

A week and a half later, the Astros essentially finished off the Cardinals’ season in a weekend sweep, outscoring the Cardinals 20-6 in the three games. They’d go 9-3 the rest of the way, but it wasn’t enough to erase a 5.5 game deficit. It ended with a whimper, three games back of Chicago and two back of Houston.

Positives

The offense was the biggest strength in 2003. The Cardinals bludgeoned opposing pitchers. Their 114 non-pitcher wRC+ was fourth in all of baseball. They scored the fifth most runs and hit the seventh most homeruns. It was also a well-balanced lineup, running up the seventh best DEF (Defensive Runs Above Average) and fifth best BsR (baserunning runs).

The lineup was anchored by two-way superstars all over the diamond. Scott Rolen (6.2 fWAR), Jim Edmonds (6.3), and Edgar Renteria (6.3) were monsters at the plate and in the field. The best of the lot was Albert Pujols, who smashed his way to a 9.5 fWAR at age 23. Nagging injuries had limited rightfielder J.D. Drew to just 328 plate appearances, but he still collected 2.7 fWAR. Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen, Renteria, and Drew made for a glorious core.

The front of the rotation was solid thanks to Matt Morris and Woody Williams. Despite his 2003 injuries, Jason Isringhausen was still a force closing out games. Cal Eldred and Steve Kline provided decent options in front of Isringhausen. Kiko Calero, an exile from the Royals following 2002, established himself as a fine right-handed setup man in 2003.

The heavy lifting was done for General Manager Walt Jocketty. He had an enormous amount of top-end talent all over the diamond.

Negatives

The negatives were obvious. After Williams and Morris in the rotation, Brett Tomko, Garret Stephenson, and 2002 hero Jason Simontacchi had been disastrous. One of the 2003 attempts to fix rotation ineffectiveness- rookie Danny Haren- flashed talent at times, but looked green at others. Talented but enigmatic Chris Carpenter had been signed before 2003, but he spent the year injured and rehabbing. Nobody knew what to expect from him.

The bullpen had been equally disastrous beyond Isringhausen, Calero, Eldred, and Kline. If they had a single average starting pitcher and two average relievers, the flawed 2003 squad still might have wheezed into the playoffs.

Pending free agent Viña was evaporating thanks to age and injuries. His 2003 replacement, the Patron Saint of Scrappy White Guys™ Bo Hart, was not a long-term solution at second base. Tino Martinez had been a disappointment at first base and, by some accounts, raised trouble in the clubhouse. For all of the glory of Pujols at the plate, he had spent parts of 2003 dealing with an elbow problem in left field. He resorted to flipping balls over to other outfielders or cutoff men stretching well into the outfield, not unlike a 1970s Big 8 option quarterback.

The farm system needed some help. Yadier Molina was on the way and Haren looked like a future contributor, but there was little else.

Walt Jocketty’s version of the Go Round Mums/Get Liz Back/Sort Life Out list looked like this:

  • Find a second baseman
  • Trade Tino Martinez and find a new first baseman
  • Add stability to the rotation
  • Add multiple relievers, including at least one lefty
  • Figure out the future of J.D. Drew, scheduled for free agency after 2004
NLCS: Cardinals v Astros - Game 3
Sure, he looked like a generic early 2000s suburban dad on his way to a bad Applebee’s work happy hour, but Jeff Suppan was a pivotal move in the 2004 off-season
Photo By Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

The Off-Season

Jocketty wasted no time going round Mums. His first major move came a week before Thanksgiving when he dealt Tino Martinez and cash to Tampa for minor leaguers Evan Rust and John-Paul Davis. The first base problem had an elegant solution. Pujols would move from left field to first base. Doing so would transfer Jocketty’s need for a first baseman to left field.

Jocketty struck again early in the Winter Meetings when he dealt Drew and stalled out utility player Eli Marrero to Atlanta. In return, he acquired a rotation option, Jason Marquis, to pair with Carpenter, Haren, and Simontacchi. Rotund lefty Ray King came along with Marquis, and Jocketty snagged a Baseball America Top 100 prospect named Adam Wainwright to smooth out the deal. Marquis had once been a top 100 prospect himself in 2001, but had uneven results in his first few seasons. King had established himself as a quietly effective lefty.

The quandary with the Drew deal was that Jocketty now had to fill two outfield spots. The first was filled a week later when he signed Reggie Sanders to replace Drew. Sanders averaged 2.7 fWAR over the previous five seasons, and had gone 3.0/3.1/3.0 from 2001-2003. One day before the Sanders signing, Jocketty inked workhorse Jeff Suppan. Soup didn’t wow anybody. He simply took the ball every fifth day and threw everything but the kitchen sink until he gutted out a chance for his team to win. He was the perfect antidote to all of the instability in the rotation.

By January, Jocketty still had to fill the second base slot, round out the bullpen, and find another outfielder. He threw cheap volume at each position. Hector Luna had been plucked from Cleveland in the Rule 5 draft. Marlon Anderson signed as a free agent. Wilson Delgado was brought back from the Angels. Those three would enter spring training fighting with Bo Hart for second base. Even Brent Butler, traded to the Rockies in the Kile trade and released after 2003, was brought back as an option.

In the outfield, he brought back old friends John Mabry and Ray Lankford via free agency, each coming off of bad 2003 seasons. Colin Porter was picked up off of waivers from the Astros. The hope was that some combination of So Taguchi, Porter, Mabry, or Lankford could hold down left field.

Julian Tavarez was signed in early January and offered a steady right-handed reliever. From there, Jocketty gambled on Mike Lincoln, Doug Creek, and Chad Paronto to flesh out the bullpen. In the least, he knew he had Isringhausen, Kline, King, Tavarez, Eldred, and Calero, and potential help from Haren, Marquis, Carpenter, or Simontacchi when one of them didn’t make the rotation.

During Spring Training, it became apparent that none of the second base options could fill the role. Jocketty flipped minor leaguer Matt Duff to Boston for former Diamondback Tony Womack, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery. Left field was also still problematic, so Jocketty traded for Roger Cedeño from the Mets in the first week of the season.

Trading a young talent like Drew took guts. Using sheer volume instead of stability to solve second base and left field took guts. Relying on two of the starter options (Carpenter/Haren/Marquis/Simontacchi) to work out took guts. Those moves were all gambles. However, Jocketty could afford to gamble because of all of the common sense inherent in the Suppan, Sanders, Tavarez, and King acquisitions and the move from left field to first base for Pujols.

Divisional counterparts in Houston and Chicago had made louder moves. The Astros signed Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. The Cubs traded for Derrek Lee and signed Greg Maddux. Other than the old Diamond Mind projections, everybody assumed the Cardinals were the odd man out in the division race. Everybody was wrong.

NLCS: Astros v Cardinals Game 7 Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Results

The season got off to a mediocre beginning. Entering play on May 24th, they were 23-22 and in fourth place behind Chicago, Houston, and even Cincinnati. They were underperforming their pythagorean record a little bit, and the second base and left field solutions had yet to take hold. From that point forward, the Cardinals went 82-35. They were a monster in waiting. When the Cubs made a blockbuster move at the trade deadline for Nomar Garciaparra and the Astros made a June move for superstar Carlos Beltran, Jocketty countered by finally filling his outfield deficit by acquiring Larry Walker after the July 31st trade deadline.

Everything came up Milhouse in Jocketty’s restructuring. Rolen and Edmonds had career years, uniting with Pujols to form the MV3. Chris Carpenter finally delivered on the promise of his early days in Toronto. Jason Marquis had the best season of his young career. King and Tavarez had career years. Tony Womack produced more value by fWAR in 2004 than he did the entire rest of his career. Suppan had a career year by old man stats, posting the highest win total of his career- a feat matched the following year. He saved the best for last, besting Roger Clemens in the decisive game 7 of the NLCS. Their 105 wins were the best in baseball, as was their pythagorean record.

This table tells the story.

fWAR, 2003 Players vs. 2004 Replacements

2003 Player/2004 Player 2003 2004 Net
2003 Player/2004 Player 2003 2004 Net
Drew/Sanders 2.7 2.4 -0.3
Vina-Hart/Womack 1.2 2.8 1.6
Tino/Lankford-Mabry 1.0 0.9 -0.1
Tomko/Suppan 1.3 1.4 0.1
Stephenson/Carpenter 0.1 3.1 3.0
Simo-Haren/Marquis 0.3 1.8 1.5
Fassero/King -0.8 0.8 1.6
Simo-Hermanson/Tavarez 0.2 1.3 1.1
Total 6.0 14.5 8.5

All of the moves added 8.5 wins. Coupled with breakout years from Rolen and Edmonds, a pinch of luck, and high leverage wizardry in the bullpen, it’s easy to see how the 85-win 2003 squad transformed themselves into this beast.

They stormed through the Dodgers in the Division Series and gutted out a seven game Championship Series against the Astros. The NLCS blessed us all with this memory:

And then this memory less than 24 hours later:

And then this memory just a few innings after that:

Those were the last good memories of the season, as they ran in to a buzzsaw in the World Series. It shouldn’t stain your view of the 2004 team. If you made a short list of the best Cardinal teams, 2004 belongs right there with 1967, 1985 (another brilliant year that fell just shy of glory), the 1940s squads, and the Gashouse Gang.

If there are other off-seasons you’d like to see reviewed in the future, please leave them in the comments.