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Retrospective: The 1984-1985 Cardinals Off-season

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San Diego Padres vs. St. Louis Cardinals Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images

We’re past the festivity of the holidays and now we’ve entered the cruel, cold winter months before baseball comes back. I can think of no better way to warm up than with a retrospective of the 1984-1985 Cardinals off-season (though a Nolan Arrenado deal would also work). Tell me, can you feel it? Tell me, can you feel it? Tell me, can you feel it? Burning, burning, burning... the heat is on.

The 1984 Season

The 1984 season wasn’t exactly a disaster for the Cardinals so much as it was aggressively mediocre. They rebounded from their real disaster season- 1983, when they went 26-33 down the stretch- to win 84 games. The 1984 edition of the Redbirds stood six games back of first entering July with a 38-40 record. By July 25th, their record had slipped to 47-53 and the Cubs had expanded their lead over the Cardinals to 13.5 games. It was bad enough for fifth place in the six team National League East.

They figured some things out at the end of the season, closing out 1984 on a 37-25 run. It coincided almost exactly with rookie Terry Pendleton taking over full-time duties at third base from Art Howe and Kurt Kepshire’s insertion into the rotation. It was too late to make a serious run at the playoffs- the Cubs had built too big of a lead for that- but it gave fans some promise for 1985.

Positives

The core of the lineup was rock solid, especially after Pendleton took over. Ozzie Smith (4.0), Willie McGee (3.6), Tommy Herr (2.2), and Pendleton (2.0 in 67 games) collectively supplied 11.8 fWAR and locked down four positions. The offensive production for the first three had been close to average, but you may have heard that the 80s Cardinals picked up lots of extra value on the bases and with the glove. It was certainly true for the core.

Collectively, they were easily the best baserunning team in baseball by any metric you’d like. The defense was above average, but a few negative performers had dragged them down, away from elite.

Joaquin Andujar had slipped a bit from his peak, but was still good for 260 innings, 3.1 fWAR, and an ERA+ a tick above average. The staff in general received an infusion of cromulent innings from several youngsters. Danny Cox (24), Kepshire (24), Dave LaPoint (24), Ricky Horton (24), Dave Rucker (26), and Neil Allen (the 26-year-old bounty from the Keith Hernandez trade) had supplied 776 innings and 7 fWAR collectively. It helped the team survive injuries and ineffectiveness from Bob Forsch and John Stuper, reliable stalwarts of the 1982-83 squads. It also helped them get past the injury to their mid-June acquisition, Ken Dayley, who pitched just five innings.

The bullpen had the second best ERA and 12th best fWAR in baseball in 1984, mostly on the strength of Bruce Sutter’s dominant year. Sutter had a 1.54 ERA, 1.5 fWAR, and pitched 24% of the bullpen innings.

Negatives

The negative defensive performers had diminished one of the team’s greatest potential strengths. Specifically, Lonnie Smith- also known as “Skates” for a reason- and the aging George Hendrick were problematic in the outfield corners. At 34, Hendrick seemed on a one-way track for collapse and his bat (106 wRC+) had ceased to make up for his defensive shortcomings.

The rotation’s health and ineffectiveness left the Cardinals with the fifth worst fWAR in the league. Forsch, Dayley, Ralph Citarella, Stuper, and Rick Ownbey combined to make 31 starts covering 138 innings with a dreadful 6.13 ERA. That’s bad in any era, but especially when the league-wide ERA is 3.81. That group’s K/BB ratio was 1. It was a different era to be sure, with fewer strikeouts, but the league-wide K/BB was 1.69. Forsch could potentially be relied upon to rebound with improved health but more stability was needed.

The organization was approaching a crossroads with two mega-talented but enigmatic youngsters. Andy Van Slyke (3.6 fWAR in two seasons) and David Green (4.4 fWAR in three seasons and 1112 PAs) arrived highly touted and had performed reasonably enough. However, neither had asserted themselves as the stars that development folks had expected. Green’s 98 wRC+ as the primary first baseman was a disappointment. Before Pendleton arrived, third base had been a wreck but he solved the issue. Complicating everything was Sutter’s pending free agency.

Skipper Whitey Herzog and the front office had their marching orders for 1985. They needed to improve their outfield defense, a power bat for the middle of the order, the rotation needed some stability, and Sutter’s free agency needed resolution.

The Off-Season

Two huge moves and one non-move punctuated the 1984-85 off-season, but smaller moves offered plenty of intrigue. The first major move happened in mid-December when the Cardinals dealt Hendrick and A-ball infielder Steve Barnard to the Pirates for lefty John Tudor and utility player Brian Harper in an effort to address the rotation. Tudor’s record, the pitcher currency of the day, had been middling (51-43 career) but he had pitched in front of some bad teams and in extreme hitter’s parks. His career ERA+ was 109, had been 111 in 1984, and he was durable. Hendrick’s aging services were deemed expendable, while Barnard never played above A-ball. At that point, Herzog had McGee, Van Slyke, Lonnie Smith, Tito Landrum, Steve Braun, and Harper for the outfield and David Green still at first base.

It was quiet until late January when they signed quad-A catcher Mike LaValliere. Nicknamed “Spanky”, LaValliere provided little value to the 1985 squad but became a key piece in a 1987 trade for All-Star Tony Pena.

The Bopper to Drive in the Jack Rabbits

By early February, the Cardinals still needed their big bopper to drive in the proverbial jack rabbits. Viewed through today’s lense, the trade they made sounds crazy. The Cardinals gave up:

  • a slick-fielding, MLB-ready shortstop who had yet to complete his first MLB season (Jose Uribe)
  • a 3.0 fWAR starting pitcher entering his age 25 season (LaPoint)
  • a top prospect first baseman/outfielder who had racked up 4.4 career fWAR before his 24th birthday (Green)
  • and a throw-in quad-A outfielder/utility player (Gary Rajsich)

In return, they received a right fielder/first baseman who had seen two of his last four seasons cut in half by injury. He was entering his age 29 season. He had two seasons left on his contract plus a third season that would vest once the trade was completed. If projection systems existed at the time, he would have likely been seen as approximately a 2.5 to 3 win player with playing time concerns.

In today’s world, with today’s economics, that’s approximately 11 years of cost-control for three players (a starting pitcher, a shortstop, and a corner bat) in exchange for three of a post-arbitration player. One of the cost-controlled players had just put up the same fWAR as the bat they were acquiring.

Of course, economics were different then and there’s a lot of nuance in that deal. LaPoint was a generic pitch-to-contact guy whose value was amplified at Busch Stadium. Uribe was extraneous, lost behind Ozzie Smith. Green had been checked in to a treatment center the previous season for addiction. Finally, the big piece was Jack Clark, one of the best producers at the plate when healthy. The Cardinals didn’t need him for the outfield. They needed him for first base, a position that could help keep him off of the injured list.

The Rest

In early February, the Cardinals dealt AAA pitcher Mickey Mahler to the Expos for a player to be named later. Like LaValliere, the player eventually named had a far bigger impact in 1987 than he did in 1985. You probably recognize that player, Tom Lawless, by his bat flip alone:

A week before the first game of the season, the Cardinals dealt their top prospect- LHP John Young- and all glove/no-hit infielder Angel Salazar to the Mets in exchange for a 21-year old utility player named Jose Oquendo. The idea at the time was likely to replace Uribe in the system following the Clark deal, but the Secret Weapon ended up becoming so much more than that. Keeping with the theme, his biggest impact wasn’t felt in the organization until 1987. Combined with the Lawless blast, two of the biggest moments of the 1987 playoffs were supplied by under the radar acquisitions in the 1984-85 off-season.

The final move happened in early April when the Cardinals dealt Rucker for Bill Campbell and 32-year old backup middle infielder Ivan de Jesus. Rucker and Campbell were interchangeable, with Campbell offering more of a track record. However, Campbell came with de Jesus, a veteran with the ability to start if anything drastic happened in the middle infield.

In the meantime, Sutter had opted to sign with the Braves, whose TBS money allowed them to outspend the Cardinals. It seemed like a disaster at the time since there was no immediate solution to losing Sutter, particularly given how important he had been to the early 80s Cardinals. Herzog’s solution was to go with a bullpen by committee, which seemed fraught with peril.

The Results

The trade with the Pirates couldn’t have worked out any better. They dealt Hendrick at just the right time. He had -1.5 fWAR in 1985, while Tudor was a Cy Young runner-up with 6.4 fWAR and 21 wins.

Clark’s defense at first sabotaged his value a bit- a 2.9 fWAR in 1985- but he stayed mostly healthy and delivered at the plate in a big way. His 150 wRC+ was tied for seventh in MLB. LaPoint (2.4) and Uribe (0.5) combined for 2.9 fWAR themselves in 1985, but LaPoint faded in subsequent years. Clark was an anchor, a down ballot MVP candidate, and a major producer in his three years in St. Louis.

Van Slyke finally got a full-time opportunity. He didn’t fully blossom until he was traded to Pittsburgh, but he still racked up 3.4 fWAR as the de facto replacement for Hendrick in the outfield. The more impactful outfield move happened early in the season. Lonnie Smith was dealt to Kansas City in May. His playing time was given to Vince Coleman, a 2.6 fWAR oufielder who spent the remainder of the season terrorizing opposing pitchers and catchers on the basepaths.

Sutter’s first season in Atlanta was subpar and his final seasons were lost to injury and ineffectiveness. Losing him to the Braves had been a blessing in disguise. In his place, the bullpen by committee was splendid, boasting the sixth best fWAR and best ERA in baseball. Flamethrowing rookie Todd Worrell eventually locked down the closer’s role, supported by a large, effective cast that included Dayley, recast as a reliever.

Forsch reinvented himself as a swingman and returned to his previous solid levels of production. Combined with Tudor, a step forward from Cox, and continued Andujariness from Joaquin Andujar, the rotation became a steady force.

Add up the positive swings in value from Smith to Coleman, the starting pitching mess of 1984 to Tudor, Green to Clark, and Hendrick to full-time Van Slyke. It’s easy to see how those events would take an 84-win team to further heights. The season started slowly- they were 19-20 on May 24th- but then they caught fire. The 1985 squad finished with 101 wins, outlasted the pond scum Mets, and gave all of us two tremendous post-season memories en route to the World Series:

There’s a third post-season memory in there, a negative one that ultimately prevented this legendary team from the World Series glory. We won’t dwell on that one. For now, you can settle for going crazy thinking about the off-season that built one of the best Cardinal teams in history.