Baseball seems to be rousing from its slumber but there are still a lot of issues to work through. Rather than stumbling through CBAs and negotiations and the respective merits of billionaires vs. their employees, today I’m going to look back at another off-season retrospective. Today, we’ll turn back the clock to a season that began with high hopes but quickly devolved into the end of an era. When it was over, the team had a new manager, a new owner, had traded a former MVP winner and let a future MVP winner walk in free agency, and the core of the 1980s success was almost completely gone. What happened?
Before the San Francisco Giants claimed every-other-year magic in the 2010s, the Cardinals were close to staking a claim in the 80s. The 1985 team stormed to the World Series before getting Denkingered, the 1987 squad fell one victory shy of a World Series title, and there was a general assumption before 1989 that Whitey Herzog and the gang had one more odd year trick up their sleeve.
It didn’t quite work that way. They lurked around fourth place in the competitive NL East for much of the season as the Expos, Mets, and Cubs vied for first. The Cardinals eventually made a late-season push. A 15-7 stretch entering September 7th vaulted them to second place, just a half game back of the Cubs for first place and a weekend series in Chicago coming up. The dark cloud that had arrived was a season-ending arm injury to closer Todd Worrell, an injury that would prevent him from logging any Major League innings until 1992.
A thrilling come-from-behind victory at Wrigley in the opener left them still a half game back. They faded hard after that, dropping their next six games and 12 of their final 21. They ended up 86-76, seven games back in third place. It was no fluke, either. Their pythagorean record was 84-78. Adding further turmoil to the end of the season, owner Gussie Busch died on September 29.
The Cardinals led baseball in position player fWAR in 1989 thanks to the 12th best defensive season (by Fangraphs’ DEF) from 1900-1989. Their BsR was also a tremendous help, landing third in baseball that season. That was the classic Herzog-era formula, as the team’s non-pitcher wRC+ (103) was respectable but not the true engine behind the value provided.
The lineup was set, with almost every player coming off of solid, healthy seasons. Their 1988 acquisition, Pedro Guerrero, had effectively replaced Jack Clark. His performance in 1989 earned him down ballot MVP votes. He was surrounded in the infield by an ascendant, young Jose Oquendo (117 wRC+, 5.7 fWAR), Ozzie Smith (102, 6.7), and Terry Pendleton (101, 4.3). The outfield received a boost from Milt Thompson (110, 4.5) while Vince Coleman (89, 2.1) and Tom Brunansky (107, 2.4) offered respectability.
The starting pitching had the third best FIP in baseball thanks to major contributions by Jose DeLeon (4.6 fWAR) and Joe Magrane (4.7). Youngster Ken Hill flashed occasional promise beyond his 7-15 record (which people cared about in 1989). The bullpen had been solid and deep thanks to Dan Quisenberry, Frank DiPino, Ken Dayley, Worrell, and John Costello.
Worrell’s injury left the Cardinals without a closer entering the off-season. Catcher Tony Pena struggled at the plate (80 wRC+) and was about to become a free agent. Fan favorite and 80s stalwart Willie McGee struggled mightily with injuries and performance (211 PAs, 79 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR). The starting pitching was thin beyond Magrane, DeLeon, and to a lesser degree Hill.
Areas of need for 1990
It was a pretty short shopping list for the Cardinals entering 1990. They needed a replacement for Worrell. They also needed starting pitching depth, lest they want to rely on Scott Terry, Ricky Horton, and Ted Power to magically improve. They also had Greg Matthews, a once promising pitch-to-contact lefty, working his way back from injury.
As for Pena, the ready-made replacement was already on the roster. Todd Zeile was a much ballyhooed prospect, 7th overall in Baseball America’s Top 100 entering the season.
The braintrust looked at the roster, trusted the sustainability of the 1989 performances, and dipped into free agency to address their problems. GM Dal Maxvill signed Bryn Smith away from the rival Expos early in the off-season. Smith, who looked more like a host of a PBS home repair show than a professional athlete, fit the Cardinals modus operandi of the era to a tee. He was a control artist, relied on his defense, and reliably made 26 or so starts per year.
Maxvill doubled down on the rotation depth by bringing back John Tudor. He had been a Dodger since the Pedro Guerrero trade in August 1988. However, injuries had limited Tudor to just 14 innings in 1989. Maxvill also brought back Ricky Horton and rehabbing Danny Cox, each having been granted free agency early in the off-season. The rotation would be DeLeon, Magrane, Smith, and Hill, and the fifth spot would go to whoever completed rehab first- Tudor, Cox, or Matthews. Diamond in the rough Bob Tewksbury, another control artist, also awaited a turn.
Nothing was done to help the bullpen. Quisenberry was released while Horton and DiPino were brought back. Mike Perez, a AA reliever, was available for depth and Scott Terry’s starting innings could move back to the bullpen. Eventually, Tom Niedenfuer- “star” of the 1985 NLCS for Cardinal fans- was released by the Mariners in early April and Maxvill signed him. They found a solution at closer eventually but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
As it turns out, the lack of closer entering the season didn’t matter.
Let’s play a game. We have an 86-win Cardinals from 1989. They add John Tudor, who has a 2.40 ERA and 2.3 fWAR in 1990. They replace Tony Pena, a weak spot from the year before, with Todd Zeile, who finishes 6th in NL Rookie of the Year voting. Willie McGee stays healthy and goes from -0.1 fWAR to 4.3. How many games do you think that team would win? You’d probably assume that the the follow-up to 1989 would be a playoff team. You would be wrong.
The season was a disaster. They were 7.5 games out of first on May 7th. With McGee healthy and a logjam in the outfield, Maxvill flipped Brunansky to the Red Sox for Lee Smith a week later to address the closer situation. While Smith pitched well enough, it was irrelevant. They were 33-47 on July 5th, buried 15 games back of the runaway PIrates. It was enough to make Herzog quit. Red Schoendienst took over in the interim and eventually they hired Joe Torre, who was working broadcasts for the Angels at the time.
They were bad enough that they traded McGee at the end of August to the A’s for Felix Jose, Stan Royer, and Daryl Green. From July 16th until the end of the season, they spent exactly four days out of last place in the NL East. The season wrapped up with a 70-92 record. It was the worst season they’d had since 1978 and the second worst going all the way back to 1925. You know it’s bad when Rex Hudler’s scrappiness is the biggest draw for the fans.
You might be asking how all of this happened. This table tells quite a story:
Cardinals wRC+, 1989 vs. 1990
Or how about this one?
Cardinals Fangraphs DEF, 1989 vs. 1990
I’d add in the fWAR table but, well, you get the idea. Let’s do one more, though- BABIP this time.
Cardinals BABIP, 1989 vs. 1990
If it could go wrong, it did. The pitching staff also took a hit. Magrane (down 1.3 fWAR from 1989) and DeLeon (down 1.8) each slipped from their 1989 heights. Tewksbury and Tudor did great work in the middle of the rotation but Terry, Horton, and DiPino struggled in the bullpen. Even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been enough to overcome the collective loss of 17.4 fWAR from returning players.
The 80s dynasty tripped over their entry into the 90s. The end of the season saw Coleman and Pendleton depart. Tudor retired. McGee and Herzog were gone already. Adding insult to injury, Pendleton won the MVP the following season in Atlanta. With the end of one era, a new one began- one with youngsters like Ray Lankford, Bernard Gilkey, and Brian Jordan learning the ropes with Torre at the helm. They wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1996.