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How a minor trade in 2000 worked out in a weird way for the Cardinals

The arguably bad process trade worked, but not in the way the Cardinals surely expected

NLCS Game 2 Astros v Cardinals Photo by Rich Pilling/MLB via Getty Images

I’ve reached the point of the offseason where I think talking about a two decade old trade is preferable to coming up with some modern Cardinals-related topic, and it’s still November so this is going to be a long offseason. Today, I’m talking about a truly random trade that the Cardinals made that pretty much nobody remembers. It’s not a significant trade in any way. The Cardinals did not start winning because of this trade. They unquestionably won the trade, at least from a hindsight perspective, and I’m interested to see if the process holds up.

Let me transport you to a different time, when the only analytics this writer was aware of was batting average and RBIs and ERA and wins. In my defense, I was in second grade and we were a few years away from Moneyball being a thing. The time was December of 2000, and the Cardinals made a move for some high upside pitching. Well, a pitcher with some upside. It wasn’t that high. In return, they only had to give up their young, above average starting 3B. So he didn’t come cheap.

Let’s back up. We need context. In 2000, the Cardinals went 91-71 and made it to the NLCS, but lost in 5 games to the New York Mets. It was a pretty good team. Mark McGwire and Will Clark combined to provide truly excellent offense at 1B, and four other starters had an OPS+ of at least 117. And of the players that didn’t, Fernando Vina, Placido Polanco, and Edgar Renteria were able to have just enough offense to pair with good defense. And then there was Mike Matheny, who had one of his better years here.

Pitching-wise, Darryl Kile had returned to a Cy Young caliber pitcher and the #2 prospect in baseball according to Baseball America, Rick Ankiel, had lived up to the hype at just 20-years-old, although he did have that unfortunate breakdown in the playoffs. The other three rotation members were more serviceable than good but combined for 91 starts. Just six pitchers started a game for the 2000 Cardinals.

But one of those pitchers, Garrett Stephenson, suffered an injury in the playoffs, and had to miss the entire 2001 season to Tommy John surgery. Another, Pat Hengten, left for free agency. Matt Morris returned from his own TJ surgery during the 2000 season and was excellent in the bullpen, so he could be counted on for one of those rotations spots, but that still left one other spot to fill.

Meanwhile, Polanco had finally emerged as a viable starter for the first time. After a couple seasons where he didn’t hit at all, something clicked in 2000. And he’d always had great defense, so when his offense rose to a 95 wRC+, he became a 2 WAR player in just 350 PAs. He was behind Fernando Tatis, who just had an injury-shorted season at 25. There was little reason to doubt Tatis at the plate, who had done nothing but hit, but he was a truly bad fielder. He was a -27 fielder by Total Zone in the 1.5 seasons he spent as a full-time starter for the Cardinals by December of 2000. His offense more than made up for it, but if, say, a team was under the guidance of a pitch-to-contact pitching coach, it’s pretty easy to see why Polanco would be preferred.

With regards to the hole in the rotation, they didn’t have many internal options. I mentioned above that only six starters made starts for all of 2000. One of those starters was Britt Reames, who made 7 starts out of 8 appearances. He had a 2.88 ERA, but a 4.66 FIP. But the more important numbers are that he turned 27 in August of 2000 and had 23 walks in 40.2 IP. His 2000 appearances were his first exposure to the majors, so there was nothing about this guy that suggested he could stick in the rotation. They had the #39 prospect in baseball in Bud Smith, but his highest level in 2000 was High A, so he wasn’t ready on Opening Day.

I’ve spent a lot of words explaining why the Cardinals do what they did. They have a seemingly expendable 3B and they need a fifth member of the rotation, so it would seem fairly obvious to trade such a 3B for that fifth member. And that’s exactly what they did. They traded Tatis and Reames for Dustin Hermanson and Steve Kline. And despite what I said above, this is just straight up a bad process trade no matter how it looks in hindsight.

Let me explain. Who is Dustin Hermanson at this point? Hermanson was a top 20 prospect just five years prior. He fell to #53 after a debut that featured more walks than strikeouts and after another not great season, he settled into becoming a roughly 3 WAR pitcher. Until 2000 that is. In 2000, he struck out 51 less batters and walked six more batters despite pitching 18 less innings than in 1999. He dropped to a 1.3 bWAR pitcher.

Now, obviously, the Cardinals were trading for him as a bounceback candidate. Maybe Dave Duncan thought he could fix him. But in my opinion anyway, a good bounceback candidate has bad numbers for primarily unlucky reasons, not bad numbers because they are bad. His K% went from 20.1% to 15.6% to 10.7%. His BB% had risen from 7.4% to 8.6%. I want absolutely no part of this pitcher. He was 28 and had just two years of team control.

Tatis meanwhile had three years of team control, was going to be 26 in 2001, and had been a 133 wRC+ hitter for the Cardinals in his last 1,262 PAs for the Cardinals. Yes, he only played in 96 games in 2000 and was awful at defense, but you play a 133 wRC+ hitter anywhere. And besides, you don’t have to trade him. The Cardinals were less than a month away from signing 38-year-old Bobby Bonilla to back up the injury-prone Mark McGwire. They didn’t need to do that. Tatis was right there.

I can’t find a source for what a win cost on the market in 2001, but the earliest source I can find is 2006. The price of a win then was worth $4.6 million. From 2006 to 2010, the price of a win changed by an average of 7%. If you assume the same trend but backwards, the price of a win was worth $2.99 million in 2001. His arbitration figures roughly line up with that. He made $3.63 million following his 3.4 bWAR season, but he followed that with 2.5 and 2.9 bWAR seasons, so it’s reasonable to think of him as a 3 WAR pitcher, and if they valued him as that and you get 40% of your value in your first year in arbitration (which I think was true then), the price was $3 million per win. Same thing basically.

So arbitration still thought of him as that when he had his 1.3 bWAR season because that’s how arbitration works. He probably made less than he otherwise could have had he remained a 3 bWAR pitcher, but he ended up getting $5.3 million for the 2001 season. Which basically means he needed to be a 1.8 WAR pitcher to be worth that. I think, given the trend he was heading, that is probably around what his projection would be for 2001, which means that he didn’t really have any value.

Meanwhile, Tatis entered arbitration for the first time with the Montreal Expos. He made $2.7 million. At this point, like I said, he was a 133 wRC+ hitter in his past 1,262 plate appearances. Arbitration would overrate him because of how bad his defense was so it was probably smart to get rid of him at some point, but he was still a good value in 2001 I’m sure.

I’m framing this as a Tatis for Hermanson swap, but they weren’t the only members of the trade. The Cardinals traded Britt Reames, a player literally created to be traded. He was 27, he had a shiny looking ERA, but wasn’t particularly impressive and I don’t even think the Expos expected him to last at starter. Steve Kline meanwhile clearly wins this part of the trade. He was a 1.5 bWAR lefty reliever out of the bullpen on average for the past three seasons. He was a less impressive but still solid 0.8 WAR player by Fangraphs which I happen to like more unless you have a career worth of stats. And because Kline was in the bullpen, he only pitched the equivalent of four seasons and he had much less than that at the time of the trade. He still had three years of team control.

Basically, I don’t think the difference between Kline over Reames makes up for the difference of Tatis over Hermanson. Knowing how relievers work, even accounting for the fact that Kline was at that point as reliable as they come, doesn’t mean you can depend on him for 1.5 bWAR or 0.8 fWAR going forward. In my opinion anyway. It’s just a high price to pay for an young, elite hitter with three years of team control.

Hermanson did not bounce back. He arguably pitched even worse in fact. His strikeouts did rise and he kept his BB rate the same as 2000, but he could not stop allowing home runs. He had a 1.59 HR/9 that season, up from 0.83 the year before. He had 0.3 bWAR and a 5.33 FIP. His ERA actually dropped, but the Cardinals traded him after the season for three minor leaguers who never made the majors, so they were tired of him. Kline was exactly as advertised. He was worth 1.3 bWAR on average for the next three years, although his 2.7 bWAR season in 2001 is doing a LOT of work for that average.

Meanwhile, Tatis, uh, fell apart. Like he absolutely sucked. He continued to have injury-shortened seasons and lost virtually all of his power. He averaged 28 HRs per 600 PAs with the Cardinals, which included a 34 HR season in 1998. He also famously hit two grand slams in one inning in 1999. Tatis had a 56 wRC+ for the Expos over those three years in just 794 PAs. He was worth -2.6 fWAR. You are not reading typos. He was really that bad. He was paid a combined $13.75 million over those three years.

Like I said when I started this, this is clearly a win, but it has more to do with Tatis falling apart than actually winning the trade. Which I suppose you can give them credit for, but I doubt they saw that coming. It’d be one thing if he became bad because his bat fell to average and his defense made him a bad player, but he was just bad in a completely unpredictable way. He was out of professional baseball for two years, then returned to baseball to raise money to build a church. He spent two years in AAA before re-emerging as a pretty good hitter off the bench for the Mets for the next three years. What an absolutely weird career.

Hermanson meanwhile had a second life out of the bullpen and I got to be honest. I had no clue he was the closer on the World Series winning Chicago White Sox in 2005. No clue. That’s because he wasn’t the closer in the playoffs - that was Bobby Jenks - but he had 34 saves for that team. He pitched only 0.1 IP in the playoffs, which was a strikeout, so I assume an injury happened.

Can we talk about how weird that 2005 White Sox team is? A pitching staff composed of Mark Beurhle, Jon Garland, Jose Contreras, Freddy Garcia, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, and some starts from a 21-year-old Brandon McCarthy. El Duque was old and bad, but the other four combined for a whopping 16.6 bWAR. Am I the only one who remembers these pitchers as mediocre? I mean not Beurhle, but the rest of them and even with Beurhle I didn’t think of him as an ace. They had just six hitters with 2+ bWAR, and just two of them had over 3 WAR. They had zero players with 5 WAR. And Dustin Hermanson was their closer for most of the season. And they freaking won the World Series with that team. What the hell?

Anyway, I randomly came upon Dustin Hermanson’s career, found out he was the closer for that team, and wanted to write about that, and I settled for writing about the trade that brought him here instead.