From about the time I could start understanding baseball to about middle school, I think I just kind of accepted that every Cardinals player was good. Or at least that the concept of them being possibly bad did not enter my mind. I legitimately do not remember ever thinking “oh no this hitter is up” although maybe that’s just my memory not clocking that as important. So I’m used to looking at players from around that era and seeing that they were a lot more underwhelming than my memory tells me.
Which brings me to Craig Paquette. Paquette, as befitting any true bench player, did not form enough of an impression on younger me that I remember anything more than he just played for the Cardinals. If you told me to describe him as a hitter (before I looked at his stats), I honestly don’t think I could have told you anything specific. He would have blended in with the other players I primarily think of as bench players from around that era.
But there’s a fascinating thing about Paquette. He played in the majors in parts of eleven seasons for five different teams and literally the only time he was good, he was a Cardinal. He was a bad player before he came on the Cardinals and he was a bad player when he left the Cardinals. And hell, he was a bad player for one of his three seasons on the Cardinals. But for two of the three seasons, he functioned as a super utility bench player who provided nearly average production whenever he played.
This is otherwise known as doing the Tony Womack. Womack, if you don’t know, was a below average player in every season of his career except for that season with the Cardinals. Womack had some truly dreadful seasons, but he typically managed to be above replacement level. Paquette on the other hand was replacement level or worse in every season that he didn’t play for the Cardinals.
How did that happen?
When Craig Paquette was drafted in the 8th round of the 1989 MLB Draft, the Oakland Athletics were the reigning AL Pennant winners and would go on to win the 1989 World Series later that year, plus make the World Series for a third straight time in 1990. After missing the playoffs in ‘91, they were back to 1st in the AL West in ‘92, but lost in the ALCS. Paquette was rising fast through the Athletics system as this happened.
In 1993, things came to a crashing halt for the Oakland organization. Their pitching staff, needing to replace two older guys to free agency, collapsed. Mark McGwire missed most of the season to injury. And their longtime 3B, Carney Lansford, retired. Paquette was clearly the plan to replace Lansford, but he wasn’t deemed quite ready on Opening Day so they signed Kevin Seitzer until he was. When June came around and Seitzer had a 78 wRC+ and not especially good defense, they called up Paquette.
Small problem. Paquette wasn’t good. At all. You see here’s the thing about his fast rise to the big leagues: his minor league numbers weren’t good. He was in AA by 1991 not because he earned his way there but because the Athletics just kept promoting him. He had a .698 OPS in High A in 1990, and they pushed him to AA. In AA, he had 19 HRs in 553 PAs, but had a .303 OBP. He was about the same the next year when they pushed him to AAA anyway. In the first two months of the season in AAA in 1993, he batted .268/.320/.443. He struck out 27% of the time and walked just 7% of the time in those first two months.
But all the Athletics saw was .268 and 8 HRs in 50 games, so he was called up. And honestly things went pretty much exactly as you expect. He struck out 26.8% of the time and walked just 3.4%. He hit 12 HRs in 105 games and had a decent .163 ISO, but all of that added up to a 67 wRC+. He was saved by favorable defensive metrics to even reach 0.1 WAR in those first 409 PAs. He was outplayed by Scott Brosius which is why Brosius took over the starting duties in 1994, and Paquette spent most of that year in AAA, appearing in only 14 games and 50 PAs (-22 wRC+).
In 1995, the Athletics gave him one more shot, but he had fully lost the job to Brosius, who wasn’t yet good himself. He saw time at 1B, LF, SS, RF, and of course 3B. He wasn’t better. He hit 13 HRs this time, but had a 70 wRC+ and the defensive numbers abandoned him. He was worth -1 WAR and the Athletics let him test free agency at the end of the year.
He found his way to another bad team for the 1996 season. He was able to fool the Royals into playing him a lot more than he should have because of a decent looking average and home runs. He batted .259 with 22 HRs in 462 PAs. But he had a .296 OBP and this is the height of the steroid era, so he was just an 81 wRC+. The Royals had him splitting time at LF and 3B. He was exactly replacement level. He played less for them in 1997, because he had a .263 OBP and a 65 wRC+ in 267 PAs.
He was officially out of MLB options when the Royals let him go. The Mets signed him to a minor league deal and he actually found his way back to the majors in May, but after 7 games, he sprained his ankle. Obviously news reports of a Craig Paquette injury were not breaking news, so the last update was that the x-rays were negative. But he never came back. He was injured the rest of the year.
The Mets signed him to another minor league deal in 1999, but he never got that call up this season. At the trading deadline, the Cardinals traded utility man Shawon Dunston for Paquette. The Cardinals were out of contention and thought they were doing Dunston a favor, because Dunston was 36 and the Mets ended up winning 97 games and making it to the NLCS. With Paquette, they basically used him how they used Dunston: everywhere.
And for the first time, Paquette was above average with the bat. He didn’t change his batting approach or anything: he just got hot. He still never walked and struck out too much, but he hit 10 homers in 48 games and had a .315 BABIP. (career BABIP: .274). He had a 102 wRC+ and 0.8 fWAR at the end of the year. He returned to his old self in 2000 - 79 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR, but his 15 HRs off the bench convinced the Cardinals to bring him back.
And in 2001, he rewarded them with a career year. He struck out only 18.1% of the time this season and once again hit 15 HRs, but he did it in 50 less PAs than in 2000. Although he still had less power overall than in 2000, his BABIP jumped from .271 to .312 and he had a 104 wRC+ and a 1.1 fWAR season. It was at this point that he finally reached free agency without getting released having finally gotten six years of service time.
The Cardinals did not re-sign him though. That’s because, and it honestly hurts me to type this, the Detroit Tigers signed him to a 2 year, $5 million deal. It really boggles the mind how the Tigers went 55-105 that year and then 43-119 the year after. Just they made all the right moves. Paquette was 33 at this point and had a 37 wRC+ in 2002. He was worth -1.9 fWAR. He was released after 11 games in 2003, but in those 11 games, he managed to be worth -0.7 fWAR, which was a -12.7 fWAR per 600 PAs pace. So he really made his mark on that 43 win team.
His 1999 and 2001 seasons - that’s real Cardinals devil magic. In those two years and two months he played for the Cardinals, he started 31 games at 1B, 13 games at 2B, 75 games at 3B, 38 games in LF, and 46 games in RF. And I’m going to take a wild guess that he was double switched into a fair amount of games since there is a decent disparity between games played and games started in those years.
Can you just imagine Craig Paquette on a Cardinal team now, used the way he was used with the career stats he had? I think there would be a lot of outrage. Granted, who the Cardinals could have played instead of Paquette is very different than now, so hard to compare, but I’m glad I watched him before I became an adult. Because he is really my least favorite type of hitter: the guy who never walks and strikes out a lot.
In any case, here’s to Paquette, the extremely unlikely good bench player the Cardinals had once upon a time.