Merry Christmas, everyone, and I hope you’re enjoying your holiday season. It’s a slow news day, and week, and month, which makes this the perfect opportunity for a cheesy Buzzfeed-style listicle. Today, let’s take a look at historical Cardinal trades and identify the ten best. Thanks to The Baseball Gauge’s trade database, we can put some real numbers to Cardinal trades- they use Baseball Reference’s version of WAR- and quickly identify which trades included the most future production changing hands.
That’s my methodology here. I’ve collected the most obvious contenders since 1892, then tabulated the future WAR provided to the Cardinals and the future WAR their trade partners received from the Cardinals. From there, I subtracted the bWAR traded from the bWAR acquired by the Cardinals for a net value. If you’d like a real example, the Cardinals traded Braden Looper, Armando Almanza, and Pablo Ozuna to the Marlins for Edgar Renteria in December 1998. Renteria put up 16.6 bWAR in St. Louis while the sampler platter acquired by the Marlins collectively put up 3.0 bWAR in Miami. The net value to the Cardinals in that deal was 13.6 bWAR. Their raw value acquired, of course, was the 16.6 bWAR from Renteria. There are 19 trades identified as contenders for the best in franchise history.
Obviously, raw value acquired is important but it’s even better to aqcuire that talent without giving up much future value in return. As such, I ranked each of the 19 trades by raw value acquired, then by net value acquired, then created a simple formula that gave net value more weight. ((3*Net Value Rank)+(1*Raw Value Rank))/4)
Here are the 10 best Cardinal trades in history in reverse order.
10. John Tudor
The Trade: Tudor and Brian Harper from the Pirates for George Hendrick and Steve Barnard
When: December 1984
Net bWAR: 21.2
This trade just barely edged out a 1910 trade involving Miller Huggins to make the top 10. The raw value acquired lags behind a bit, ranking just 14th in our 19 trades. Where the Tudor trade differentiates itself is just how much the Cardinals swindled the Pirates in the deal. Hendrick ran up a nasty -1.4 bWAR through early August, at which point the Pirates traded him again. Barnard never reached MLB. On the other side of the deal, Tudor finished 2nd in Cy Young voting in 1985 and would put up 19.9 bWAR with the Cardinals from 1985-1988 and 1990. Harper’s -0.1 bWAR didn’t exactly help, but the Tudor/Hendrick gap was more than enough to make this trade the tenth best in Cardinal history.
9. Jim Edmonds
The Trade: Jim Edmonds from the Angels for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy
When: March 2000
Net bWAR: 18.8
This is commonly thought of as the Edmonds for Bottenfield trade, wherein Walt Jocketty dealt a journeyman pitcher fresh off of an 18-win season for an MVP candidate and borderline Hall of Famer. Like Hendrick in the Tudor trade, Bottenfield didn’t even last a full season with the acquiring team. He put up a 5.71 ERA and 0.5 bWAR before the Angels traded him at the deadline for late-career Ron Gant. Edmonds, in the meantime, found a rhythm he never found in Anaheim. He had six consecutive 6+ fWAR seasons, multiple Gold Gloves, two top 5 MVP finishes, and 37.9 bWAR in a Cardinals uniform. From 2000 to 2005, he trailed only Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds amongst position players in fWAR. The only reason this trade isn’t much higher on the list is Adam Kennedy, who crafted a respectable 18.3 bWAR himself in an Angels uniform, which diminishes the net value. Still, Edmonds’ raw value provided to the Cardinals is 5th best for any trade target in franchise history. The four ahead of him will rank very high on this list.
8. Bill White
The Trade: Bill White from the Giants for Sam Jones and Don Choate
When: March 1959
Net bWAR: 21.5
The irony with the Bill White trade is that the Cardinals likely took a lot of heat for it when it was made. Sam Jones, 33 at the time, had been the Cardinals best pitcher. His 2.88 ERA was fourth best in baseball in 1958 and his 225 strikeouts led the league. White was a highly regarded young player, but had missed all of 1957 and most of 1958 while serving in the Army. The Giants had plenty of talent at the corners and needed pitching help. Bing Devine thought his Cardinal team needed more punch, so he made the deal. Jones was fine for the Giants- a little better than average over his three seasons there. However, White stepped forward and gave the Cardinals a rock steady presence both in the lineup and the clubhouse. He was part of the heart of the 1964 World Series champion. He amassed 28 bWAR in a Cardinals uniform before he was traded to the Phillies following the 1965 season.
7. Matt Holliday
The Trade: Matt Holliday from the Athletics for Brett Wallace, Clayton Mortensen, and Shane Peterson
When: July 2009
Net bWAR: 24.1
This trade carried more risk than most on this list. In the middle of a pennant race and in need of a long-term core player to protect Albert Pujols, the Cardinals traded a top 50 prospect and two lottery tickets for a very good hitter on a contract set to expire at the end of the season. If Wallace had lived up to his prospect hype or if Peterson and Mortensen had materialized as cheap contributors, the balance of this deal would look different. More importantly, had the Cardinals not re-signed Holliday following the season, they would have dealt 18 years of player control for a short-lived playoff appearance. Instead, Wallace amassed negative fWAR in 1400 career plate appearances. He never played for the A’s. Peterson played in 2 games for the A’s and Mortensen pitched 7 times as an Athletic. The Cardinals did re-sign Holliday and he became a rock for the franchise. With Holliday as a key contributor (23.2 bWAR in St. Louis), the Cardinals won one World Series in 2011 and played for another in 2013. He also embedded himself in the community, using his fame to make a long-lasting charitable impact.
6. Frankie Frisch
The Trade: Frankie Frisch and Jimmy Ring from the Giants for Rogers Hornsby
When: December 1926
Net bWAR: 21.9
Great trades come in all shapes and sizes, and this one is certainly one of the most unique. Rogers Hornsby was a Hall of Famer in the prime of his career. He had also managed the Cardinals in 1926, but he was at odds with owner Sam Breadon and general manager Branch Rickey. Breadon gave Rickey the task of dealing Hornsby. He found a taker in John McGraw’s Giants, and received Frankie Frisch in return. Frisch was a star in his own right, and was also at odds with his skipper (McGraw). It was a classic “I’ll give you my problem if you give me yours” trade. Ring was just shrapnel, a fading 33 year old pitcher. Hornsby was a monster as a Giant after the trade, leading MLB in bWAR in 1927 at 10.2. It took just one year for Giants ownership to tire of Hornsby and they dealt him to the Braves. Frisch, on the other hand, was very good in eight seasons in St. Louis. He trailed only Hornsby in bWAR in 1927, and won four pennants and two World Series as a Cardinal. His 32 bWAR in a Cardinals uniform was impressive enough, and looks even better when considering that the 10.2 the Giants received from Hornsby in 1927 would be all they’d get from their part of the trade.
5. Willie McGee
The Trade: Willie McGee from the Yankees for Bob Sykes
When: October 1981
Net bWAR: 25.6
Other players acquired in trades were more impactful for the Cardinals than Willie McGee, but the asking price of Bob Sykes- a pitcher who never played for the Yankees- makes this trade a heist. As for McGee’s contributions, he was the starting center fielder on three pennant winners, one World Series champion, won an MVP award in 1985, and is one of history’s most universally beloved Cardinals. If you want to know what he was like as a player, I’ll simply point you to Spencer Hall’s review of McGee, one of my all-time favorite pieces of sports writing, in particular my favorite block of the article:
[...]McGee would lurch forward and begin running on the balls of his feet, always at a ridiculously pitched angle like he had an invisible drag chute bolted directly to his shoulder blades. [...] It looked fast in motion, but let’s specify what kind of fast. There is the fast of a Usain Bolt, the kind of effortless, long-striding speed, and there is the bull-strong intimidation of a Lamborghini you get when someone with giant traps can also run a 4.4 second 40 yard dash. (Think Bo Jackson in his prime.) Then there is the kind of fast that terrifies you for all the wrong reasons, like when a toddler in a grocery cart gets loose and begins rolling downhill in a busy parking lot. That is the kind of speed Willie McGee had: something that once in motion begs for a merciful stop, and the immediate intervention of safety authorities.
4. Adam Wainwright
The Trade: Jason Marquis, Ray King, and Adam Wainwright from the Braves for J.D. Drew and Eli Marrero
When: December 2003
Net bWAR: 34.9
At the time, the Cardinals had the highly talented Drew just one season away from free agency, but needed to fill multiple holes in the pitching staff. Moreover, they needed to augment a quickly deteriorating farm system. General manager Walt Jocketty brokered a deal with Atlanta that sent Drew and utility player Eli Marrero to the Braves in exchange for starting pitcher Jason Marquis and lefty reliever Ray King. While Marquis and King were nice players to have, they weren’t worth Drew, even just one season of him. To balance the ledger, Jocketty insisted on a highly regarded pitching prospect named Adam Wainwright. Drew was an 8.3 bWAR player in his lone season in Atlanta, and Marrero’s 2.3 bWAR as a Brave were a fine accompaniment. Marquis and King never stood out as Cardinals but they did provide the franchise with much needed average performance on the mound en route to back-to-back 100 win seasons. None of those players mentioned ended up as the star of the trade. Wainwright arrived as a roster fixture in 2006, posterized Carlos Beltran in the NLCS, and closed out a World Series, all at the age of 24. Since then, he’s had the best career in franchise history for any pitcher not named Bob Gibson, complete with countless memorable moments. Like his teammate, Matt Holliday, Wainwright has also made a name for himself with his charitable efforts. Not bad for a prospect throw-in.
3. Curt Flood
The Trade: Curt Flood and Joe Taylor from the Reds for Willard Schmidt, Marty Kutyna, and Ted Wieand
When: December 1957
Net bWAR: 40.9
Curt Flood is best known for a very different trade- the October 1969 deal that resulted in Flood challenging the Reserve Clause. Before that, he became a Cardinal prior to the 1958 season when the Cardinals sent a flotilla of pitching mediocrities to the Reds for a talented teenage Flood and depth outfielder Joe Taylor. Flood remained a Cardinal for over a decade, racking up 42.3 bWAR and holding down center field for three pennant winners and two World Series champions. Of our 19 best Cardinal trade nominees, Flood supplied the Cardinals with the third most production by bWAR. That’s quite a feat considering the names on this list. As for the talent going the other way, Kutyna never pitched for the Reds. Wieand pitched a total of 6 innings with an ERA near 10. Schmidt was the lone useful piece that the Cardinals gave up, and it only amounted to two generic seasons of a swing man for a pitching staff. Imagine the Edmonds trade if Edmonds had stretched his production out for 12 seasons in St. Louis, and the Cardinals had given up Brad Thompson instead of Adam Kennedy. That’s the Flood trade.
Flood will always rightly be remembered for challenging the Reserve Clause, but his on-field contributions are impressive enough in their own right. And his acquisition was a steal.
2. Lou Brock
The Trade: Lou Brock, Paul Toth, and Jack Spring from the Cubs for Ernie Broglio, Doug Clemens, and Bobby Shantz,
When: June 1964
Net bWAR: 42.2
This is a trade that was so effective, it’s synonymous in baseball for a trade heist. Simply say “Brock for Broglio” to students of the game and they’ll understand that you’re referring to a swindle. Both teams were stumbling along close to .500 when the deal was made in June, 1964. The Cardinals had a hole in the outfield and a sluggish lineup, and the Cubs wanted pitching help. Clemens, Spring, Toth, and Shantz were merely spectators in the deal- miscellaneous parts used to balance the ledger in whatever way the two franchises saw fit. Brock was a 25 year old outfielder just finding his legs at the beginning of what would become a Hall of Fame career. The deal gave the talented mid-1960s Cardinals the final piece they needed, and they stormed back to win both the National League pennant and the World Series in an improbable fashion.
Broglio had been a solid enough pitcher, but would last just two and a half more seasons at the Major League level after the trade. Brock played 16 seasons and amassed over 3,000 hits as a Cardinal. Along the way, he set the Major League record for stolen bases in a single season with 118 (1974) and retired as the all-time stolen base leader. He made six All-Star teams, finished in the top 10 of MVP voting five times (including 1964, the season in which he was traded), and served as the spark to the Cardinals’ 1960s dynasty. He amassed 41.8 bWAR as a Cardinal, made all the more impressive by the scant -0.8 bWAR that the Cubs acquired in return.
1. Ozzie Smith
The Trade: Ozzie Smith, Al Olmsted, and Steve Mura from the Padres for Garry Templeton, Sixto Lezcano, and Luis DeLeon
When: December 1981 (completed February 1982)
Net bWAR: 46.4
I won’t begrudge anyone who wants to flip flop numbers one and two on this list to preserve the Brock-for-Broglio lore. That said, as impressive as the Brock trade was, the trade for Ozzie Smith was even better. In many ways, the Ozzie Smith deal is a combination of several other trades on this list.
- Like the Brock trade, the Cardinals acquired a young, game-changing MLB player who was undervalued by his own team, still coming into their own.
- It’s similar to the Edmonds and Wainwright trades in that the Cardinals did give up some value to get the player they wanted, unlike some other lopsided deals on this list. Templeton and Lezcano were hardly slouches at the time of the deal.
- It’s a lot like the Frisch-for-Hornsby trade in that both key pieces of the deal were at odds with their respective team’s management. Both played the same position and both were at similar points of their career.
Where the Ozzie trade stands out is in the raw value the Cardinals acquired. The Wizard supplied 65.8 bWAR to the Cardinals from 1982 to 1996. No other player acquired by the Cardinals via trade even cracks 50. The Templeton package is the most the Cardinals traded by bWAR in any of the 19 most impactful trades, with 19.4 bWAR going over to the Padres. Yet the Smith deal still ranks highest in net value returned. That’s how good Ozzie was. He became a one-named legend in a baseball mad town, the best player on the decade’s best team, and did things defensively that no player ever had or likely will again. For all of these reasons, the Ozzie Smith trade ranks as the best in Cardinal history.