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Two trades and three late blooming pitchers

The world before free agency led to extremely strange, evidently common careers

St. Louis Cardinals v New York Mets

Today is the 55th anniversary of the first ever MLB Draft, which was held on June 8th and 9th in 1965. This provides a very easy topic to talk about except for one small little detail: the Cardinals didn’t draft anyone of note or even remotely interesting in that draft. They drafted six players who ultimately ended up making the majors. Three of them didn’t sign. Two of the three who did made their MLB debuts with another team. The only guy who stuck around to play for the Cardinals pitched 27.1 IP total for them. All six players were at best bench players, so there’s not even a “missed opportunity” angle here.

I also saw a suggested article while reading something entirely different that said it was the 45th anniversary of Dock Ellis pitching his no hitter, which would also have been a good topic, except that Dock Ellis didn’t pitch for the Cardinals and neither did the team he faced. Also that article was written five years ago and the anniversary is on Friday, June 12th. But that happened in 1970, and well, I have very little idea what else to write, so I decided to pick a random Cardinal from the forgettable 1970 season.

The 1970 Cardinals, if they were famous for anything and they are not, would probably be famous for having a losing record (76-86) with a 10 win Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton (4.4 bWAR). Joe Torre also had a 6 win season. In addition to those three, they had a fourth guy have a better season than should be Hall of Famer Dick Allen and actual Hall of Famer Lou Brock. If you’re wondering how this team was bad, well they weren’t. They had a pythag of 81-81, which is still worse than it should be with this group of players, but they were also pretty unlucky.

This fairly random player to me is Chuck Taylor, who functioned as a very effective swingman. This post will only be partially about Chuck Taylor. Taylor is indicative of my overall confusion as to how player development worked back in the 1960s and 1970s, because it was not at all unusual for a player to make his major league debut at 27 and then have a fairly good career, which would be highly unusual now. Or maybe not. Maybe this very specific set of trades, two of which Taylor was involved in, are a highly unlikely confluence of events that involved multiple late blooming “prospects.”

Taylor was one such player. He made his MLB debut at 27-years-old in 1969, but his route to the big leagues is genuinely a different world than modern day MLB. Before the 1961 season, which predated the draft, Taylor was signed by the Cardinals as a 19-year-old. He stayed in the minor league system until February of 1964 when he was traded to the Houston Colt .45s (now called the Astros). He was paired with a 24-year-old 1B/OF who had made his MLB debut the season before, but only batted 3 times in 4 games and didn’t get a hit while striking out twice. Jim Beauchamp played in at least one MLB game for nine of the next ten seasons, while never getting above 175 PAs and frequently getting well under 100 per season.

Both of them were effectively prospects and they were traded for a 27-year-old OFer, who was coming off 0.9 and 0.7 fWAR seasons as a full-time starter. I don’t know why they traded for Carl Warwick, but they were at least partially aware he wasn’t good, because he was instantly relegated to bench duty as his PAs went from 583 to 172. He was traded in the middle of the next season and his MLB career was over after just 22 PAs in 1966.

You must be wondering how Taylor ended up back on the Cardinals if I just said he was traded away. Well just 14 months later, he traded back to the Cardinals. This time he was paired with veteran reliever and former one-time All-Star Hal Woodeshick. The 32-year-old lefty was on the downslope of his career, or so it seemed, but had made the All-Star game just two years prior with a 4.6 bWAR season purely in the bullpen. He had a 1.97 ERA over 114 innings. He “only” pitched in 78.1 IP the following season and actually led the league in saves five years before it became an official statistic.

Which is essentially the role he had for the Cardinals upon being traded midseason of 1965. He was about as good with the Cardinals as he had been in 1963. In just 59.2 IP, he had a 1.81 ERA and was worth 2.5 bWAR and also saved 15 games. He had an inferior 1966, with more innings and less bWAR, but less bWAR was still 2.1 bWAR out of the bullpen, so still pretty elite. In 1967, he fell of a cliff and was barely used (41.2 IP) while being worth -1.3 bWAR. 1967 is a year away from being the Year of the Pitcher, but the offensive environment wasn’t drastically different in 1967, which is how you can be considered that bad with a 5.18 ERA.

The Cardinals themselves traded a 27-year-old swingman who just had his rookie season in 1964 and didn’t pitch an inning for the Cards in 1965. He was worth -0.5 bWAR in his rookie season. This dude, with the unremarkable to that point resume, ended up with 29.2 career bWAR. This dude is Mike Cuellar, who has a very strange career. His MLB debut was in 1959, at 21-years-old and after just 2 games and 4 bad innings, he was sent down and didn’t make the majors again for five years. He then had the not great season for the Cardinals, I suppose started 1965 in the minors, and then ended up with 0.8 bWAR with the now Houston Astros as a swingman. Based off that, they moved him into the rotation full-time where he remained for the next 10 years, winning a Cy Young award, making four All-Star teams, and getting MVP votes in 4 seasons. He was an absolute workhorse, pitching at least 246 innings eight times with a high of 297.2 IP.

Also in that trade was 27-year-old Ron Taylor, this one with more of a resume at the time of the trade, although it was a sketchy one. At 25 and as a swingman in 1963, he had a 2.8 bWAR season, but followed that up with a -0.5 bWAR season and was effectively replacement level by the point of the 1965 trade. For the Astros, he was terrible, with -2.1 bWAR over the next 1.5 seasons, at which point they traded him and he rebounded into a solid reliever for the Mets for the next few seasons. So the Cardinals traded away a replacement reliever and what ended up being a workhorse starter for an elite, older reliever and someone who was apparently still four years away from the MLB.

Wikipedia tells me that he posted unremarkable stats in the minors until 1968, when he had a 2.30 ERA in 230 innings playing for the AAA Tulsa Oilers, which was apparently managed by Hall of Famer Warren Spahn? Who knew? He also managed the 1967 squad so I can’t properly credit Spahn here, but it probably doesn’t hurt to have to have a Hall of Fame pitcher be your manager.

He made the majors in late May and never looked back, starting 13 games and appearing in 27 of them. He pitched five complete games, including one shutout, and had a 2.56 ERA in 126.2 IP for a 3.1 bWAR season. He had a worse ERA (3.11) in two less innings in 1970, but the offensive environment had evidently changed drastically, since he was credited with a better season at 3.5 bWAR. In 1971, he only started one game and declined with 0.9 bWAR in 71.1 IP before being traded. At which point, he pitched just 63 innings over the next three years before a bounceback season with the Expos in 1974 at 32-years-old. He lasted just two more unremarkable years after that.

About that trade, well, it’s a confusing one. It’s a confusing one because it’s an eight player trade with barely anyone of importance, at least at the time of the trade. Taylor was paired with, of all people, Beauchamp, who had found his way back on the Cardinals by 1971. He was no longer a 24-year-old with at least the veneer of having potential, but was now 32-years-old with 529 PAs of being a 70 OPS+ hitter. He had a 75 OPS+ with the Cardinals 1971 with what was and remained his career best in PAs with 175. Also in the trade was Chip Coulter, who had all of 21 career PAs, which happened three years prior in 1969. By the time of the trade, he was 27. Lastly, there was Harry Parker, who is the only one who could be called a prospect, being 24 at the time of the trade with 27.1 career innings of being very bad. He was a solid reliever for two years with the Mets, but didn’t pitch an inning in 1972.

Like I said, 1972 trades were a different world than now. Taylor would have a bit of value actually, although he wouldn’t have been used that way now. Parker probably wouldn’t, seeing as there was never any pretense that he would become a starter, but under 25 reliever isn’t nothing. Beauchamp and Coulter would never be in a trade, they’d be released and possibly re-signed by someone else. The Mets received two solid seasons of relief work from this eight player trade, which is a laughably poor return. Although did the Cardinals do better?

The equivalent to Beauchamp is Art Shamsky, who at least had a career 110 wRC+ with 6.8 fWAR in nearly 2,000 PAs, but by 1972, he was coming off a 93 wRC+ season and a .185 average. The Cardinals released him before he played an inning. The other three were pitchers, so there is no Coulter analogue in this trade. I do not know why the Mets wanted that guy.

The first, and most successful, was Jim Bibby, who was 27-years-old with zero MLB experience at the time of the trade. He had a. not great season with the Cards and didn’t start 1973 well and was traded after just three starts... and proceeded to have a 4 bWAR season with the Rangers after being traded. He was never as good as that after but finished with 18.6 bWAR. That’s two pitchers now who were old when they debuted for the Cards, not good with the Cards, and traded away where they enjoyed a high level of success for a different team. The second pitcher, 26-year-old Rich Folkers, had two straight 1+ bWAR seasons before being traded at exactly the right time, as he was not particularly good for the next three years of his short career.

The last guy was a semi-legitimate pitching prospect, being 22 at the time, but Charlie Hudson pitched in just 12.1 IP before being traded to the Rangers. He was replacement level for the Rangers at 23, and pitched just 5.2 IP after that in his career. Amusingly, he was traded with a player to be named later for a player to be named later to the Rangers. So Charlie Hudson was literally the only known player, which has to be a weird thing to learn as the player being traded. The Cardinals added Mike Nagy, who was 25 and had already burned out as a starter. He was also traded for a player to be named later to get on the Cardinals and later traded that year by the Rangers with another guy for Jim Bibby. So Hudson comes to the Cardinals with Bibby, gets traded with Nagy, who gets traded for Bibby. Confused? I certainly am!

So like, how bad were the pitching coaches for the Cardinals then because it seems impossible to have two guys debut at 27, leave your team, and go on to enjoy wildly successful careers for other teams. Was this a common thing, or were the 1970 Cards just that inept? I’m never going to stop being fascinated by the Cardinals trading patterns during this period of time, and also I don’t think I’ll ever not be confused by it either. It doesn’t matter what player they had, they could be traded, even if you could think of a good reason why any team would trade that player... they would just trade you an equivalent worthless player. Why? I have no idea.

So right, this post was about Chuck Taylor. Well, Chuck, who died in 2018 so I don’t know why I’m addressing you directly, thanks for having a weird career and intersecting with a couple players who also had weird careers. Like how did three separate pitchers, involved in just two trades, make their debuts at 27 and go on to have great careers? That is just straight up not really a thing nowadays! I’m going to blame the reserve clause I guess? It doesn’t seem like they were that great prior to their age 27 seasons, so that doesn’t feel like a good answer though. In any case, I’m sure some of you older folks remember Chuck Taylor and possibly other players mentioned here, and any context you can provide would be very helpful.