Cardinals Hall of Famer Ray Lankford was drafted by the Cardinals in the 3rd round of the 1987 draft. He spent 15 years in the Cardinals organization, three of which were spent spent exclusively in the minor leagues and one of which where he wasn’t a Cardinal at the end of the year. But it’s the time he didn’t spend with the Cardinals that impacted the 2004 squad in an interesting and unexpected way.
Lankford was perfectly happy to remain a Cardinal for life. The year before he hit free agency, he signed a three year extension. The year before that extension ended, he signed another 5-year extension. There was probably no reason to believe Lankford wouldn’t end that extension as a Cardinal.
It all started in 2000, which would have been the second year of that second extension. Previously, Lankford had built up quite the extended run of success. After breaking out in 1992, he struggled in the next couple seasons, and struggle in his case still meant being an above 2 fWAR player who accomplished that feat with less than a full slate of games played. In 1995, he broke out a second time, this time as a truly elite player, with 21.6 fWAR over the next four years.
Things went somewhat poorly almost as soon as he signed the extension. In 1999, he dropped to a 3.8 fWAR player, and it came with a .381 BABIP, a number he never even remotely came to close to at any other point in his career. In 2000, Lankford was a man ahead of the time, deciding to sacrifice strikeouts for a return to his previous power. Now I can’t say for sure that’s what he did, but his strikeout rate really did balloon. He was always a guy who struck out a lot - for the time anyway - but his 2000 K rate would be sky high in 2020 too with a 31.4 K%.
He didn’t get any worse as a hitter though. In fact, it was probably better for him. As I said, he had a .381 BABIP in 1999, which resulted in “only” a 121 wRC+. His 2000 wRC+ was 119. That’s because his ISO rose from .187 in 1999 to .255 in 2000. He played in 6 more games and hit 11 more homers. It probably goes without saying, but if he had remained the 1999 version of himself, he’d have been a worse player, because he wouldn’t have had a .381 BABIP again. Even the sell out for power version of Lankford had a .326 BABIP.
Here’s the problem: Tony La Russa was not a fan of those strikeouts, not one bit. In Tony’s defense, Lankford was a worse player in 2000, but it had nothing to do with his offense. Defensive numbers pre-UZR are not reliable, but starting in 2000 and continuing for his next three seasons, his defensive numbers are horrible. People who watched him at the time would have to help me out there on if this was a known thing. Typically players don’t go from a +9 fielder to a -11 fielder from one season to the next, which usually makes me disinclined to believe either number, but I think it’s fair to say he wasn’t the fielder he used to be at the least.
Lankford complained about a lack of respect and La Russa was very, VERY vocal about his anger at Lankford. “’He gets all the respect he earns. He’s just got into a rut the last couple years where the swings and misses are driving him to the bench.’’
“They’re getting advice and it’s like a champion’s entourage,” La Russa said. “He knows the light’s red, but it must be green and he walks out and gets run over.” (I’ll be honest. I have no idea what this is supposed to mean). Rick Hummel wrote “Lankford had voiced displeasure over what he termed La Russa’s lack of communication about his limited playing time. La Russa wondered if Lankford’s dedication had waned in the midst of a multiyear deal that paid him $35.5 million over five years.”
Lankford left the team. Cardinals couldn’t get a deal done before the trading deadline, so they put him on waivers and for the next few days, he was in limbo. The Cardinals traded him for Woody Williams, who is a relevant part of the 2004 team. Lankford was paid more, evidently $2.8 million more from August of 2001 until the end of 2002, because the money the Cardinals threw in was designed to offset the different costs.
Woody seemed to be a bit of an odd choice at the time. The Cardinals didn’t really need Lankford with JD Drew, Jim Edmonds, and some guy named Albert Pujols manning the outfield. And they had a rather significant hole in the rotation. Andy Benes had a 7.06 ERA at the time. But if I put myself in August of 2001, Woody Williams seems like an old Mike Leake to me. Williams was going to turn 35 in a matter of a couple weeks, had a 4.97 ERA and 5.02 FIP in 2001 and hadn’t really been anything better than average ever. Actually Mike Leake seems like a positive outcome for him.
But if there’s evidence that Dave Duncan is a magician, look no further than Woody Williams. He instantly became a different pitcher. For the rest of 2001, he had a 2.28 ERA in 11 starts, and while that was a bit lucky, his 3.76 FIP was still worth 1.5 fWAR, which gives you an idea of how insane the steroid ERA was. He had a very similar 2002 - 2.53 ERA, 3.59 FIP - that was cut short by injuries.
Going into his age 36 season, Williams signed a 2 year deal for $14 million, if Baseball Reference is to believed, and I believe he had a team option for a third year that didn’t end up getting accepted. Williams had a 4.5 WAR season in 2003 and a 2.9 WAR season in 2004. It’s weird that they were willing to rely on 36 and 37-year-old Williams, but not 38-year-old Williams coming off a 2.9 WAR season, but it proved to be a good decision as Williams pitched three more years with 2.9 fWAR combined.
Williams was an important part of the 2004 team. Him and Morris were considered the bedrock of the rotation, and though Morris made every start, he had his worst season as a Cardinal. Chris Carpenter ended up taking his place but nobody at the time knew that would happen. Jason Marquis was freshly acquired from the JD Drew trade and Jeff Suppan was a recently signed free agent.
How does Lankford fit into this? Lankford had a good finish to the season for the Padres in 2001, but his 2002 was horrendous. He only played in 81 games, but that was enough to be worth -1.3 fWAR. He took 2003 off to recover from injuries. Walt Jocketty wanted a left-handed bat off the bench and Lankford expressed interest in returning. The Cardinals signed him to a minor league deal and Lankford said enough to where he and LaRussa were old pals again.
“I’ve moved on. What’s in the past is in the past. Kids hold grudges. Grown men move forward. I’m moving forward. I’m sure Tony’s doing the same thing. I want to win. He wants to win. I’m going to camp with eyes wide open and try to make the team. I’ve never been in a situation where I had to try to make a team.”
Well he made the team. Not only did he make the team, he got off to an unbelievably hot start. He ended up getting most of the playing time in LF thanks to a 147 wRC+ in April. He cooled down considerably after that and understandably lost playing time. He got 235 PAs, most of which were in the first few months of the season. He may have even helped motivate the Cardinals to get Larry Walker. He had a 6 wRC+ in July before getting injured, and by the time he returned in September, he was nothing more than a pinch-hitter. (I assume it was injury. He didn’t appear in a single game from July 22nd to September 1st). He was left off the postseason roster, but he did more than reasonably expected already.
Ray Lankford struck out a lot in 2001 and because of that, the Cardinals ended up trading him. The 2004 team received 3.5 fWAR from that action (and Cardinals clearly got the better end of the deal). Woody probably isn’t on the 2004 team if he’s not traded to the Cards and Lankford probably isn’t either. A Lankford having the season he had with the Padres in 2002 and then missing 2003 - I’m not sure the goodwill would have been there for a minor league signing unless a couple years had passed to give distance to the feud. Like I said with my Tony Womack post, it’s not the reason they were great, but it was just another reason why it was possibly the best Cardinals team in history.
(Credit to “comments by ebo” on VEB for giving me the idea for this post)