You’ve heard this stat before, but it bears repeating: the Cardinals have had a winning record for 13 straight seasons now and while we’re all unhappy with the lack of moves the Cardinals have made this offseason, they’re set up well for a 14th straight. A large, large reason for that is because they have been pretty good at drafting.
However, there’s another stat everyone’s heard too. The Cardinals have not had consecutive losing seasons in non-shortened years since the 1950s. And having gone through every draft since its inception, I can confidently say that drafting was not why. If you’re more familiar with modern baseball like myself, it can be utterly shocking how few players the Cardinals drafted that actually made the majors. I’m estimating, but from the first draft until 2004, the Cardinals probably averaged two players drafted who actually made the majors not counting players who didn’t end up signing. I’m talking made the majors, not like made a meaningful contribution.
Which is why one draft in particular stuck out at me. Now, this is far from their greatest draft. The Cardinals had a lot of drafts where they hit gold on one player and that was enough. They drafted Bob Forsch, Ted Simmons, Andy Van Slyke, Joe Magrane, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan in years where they were the only real contributor from their draft. If one were to judge a draft back in those days, it would simply be “Did you draft a player like that?” Didn’t need more than one to be a good draft.
But the 1982 MLB Draft stands out for two reasons. First, I was getting used to only seeing one player pop up per draft of significance. If I happened to see more than one, it was usually someone like Paul Molitor - someone who didn’t end up signing with the Cardinals. The 1982 draft has three players. Secondly, how quickly all three players ended up contributing.
Drafting is a long-term practice, not a short term one. You don’t draft someone expecting them to help the current team. But the Cardinals drafted three players in 1982 who helped lead the Cardinals to the 1985 NL Pennant. I haven’t looked at other teams’ drafts from around this period, but there is nothing remotely close to this in any other draft pre-2005.
With the 21st overall pick of the 1982 draft, the Cardinals drafted Todd Worrell. Worrell was drafted as a starter, but as he rose through the Cardinals system, his walks were becoming a problem. He walked 4.7 batters per 9 innings in both AA and AAA in 1983, and when he repeated AA in 1984, that number got worse. A lot worse. They kept him at starter going in 1985 despite the 6 BB/9 in AA. But eventually they converted him to reliever. He finished his AAA season with nearly as many games finished (17) as games started (15).
He wasn’t on the 1985 squad for long. Despite starting 17 games and appearing in 17 games as a reliever in AAA, he somehow also appeared in 17 games in the majors. Not a complete surprise he later needed Tommy John surgery I suppose. He was pretty good, but nothing special in his 21.1 innings of work for the big club. In the postseason though, he ended up pitching 11 innings with just three earned runs. That’s all I’ll say about that postseason.
Worrell made a bigger contribution to the 1987 squad. After a 2.5 bWAR season in 1986, Worrell had a career high 3.2 bWAR purely out of the bullpen in 1987. He 11 innings in that postseason too. He made the All-Stat team in 1988 though he had his worst full season with 1.4 bWAR. His 1989 season was cut short. He missed the 1990 season, then had a 1.9 bWAR season in 1991. He had just one more season like that for the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom he pitched for the next five seasons. What’s not to love here?
In the 7th round of that same draft, the Cardinals drafted second baseman Terry Pendleton. He may have been drafted as a shortstop but he began his Cardinal career as a 2B. The Cardinals aggressively promoted him to AA by the start of the 1984 season. After just a few games at 2B, they moved him over to 3B. Calling the transition a success would be an understatement. The Cardinals traded Ken Oberkfell, their longtime 3B, to make room for him before the 1984 season was over.
Pendleton rewarded that decision. He finished the year with a 118 wRC+ and 2 fWAR in just 67 games played. That proved to be a fluke however. Pendleton struggled mightily with the bat. He followed that up with a 67 wRC+ and then a 57 wRC+. He did this at third base. However, his defense was so good that he had a 2 fWAR season and a 1.1 fWAR despite those abysmal batting lines.
In 1987, Pendleton’s bat broke out. He finally had an above average offensive season. In what is ultimately a bit of a bizarre season in the context of his career, he largely was able to have a 106 wRC+ thanks to walking a lot. Which he never did before or after. He walked in 10.5% of his plate appearances in 1987, by far a career high. He never exceeded 7% in any other season except for a 125 sample at the end of his career with the Royals.
In 1988, his season was cut short by injuries (110 games), but he returned to from in 1989 with a 4.3 WAR season. His 1990 was dreadful and also cut short to injuries. The Cardinals let him go to free agency, the Braves signed him, and he immediately won an MVP. Finished in second place in MVP voting the next year. He found power when he previously had little with seasons of 141 and 128 wRC+. He became the hitter he was on the Cardinals after those two seasons, but with not as good of defense, so his peak was behind him.
Lastly, the Cardinals drafted Vince Coleman in the 10th round. Coleman is one of those players whose impact was probably overrated at the time, but he was nonetheless a valuable player in two NL pennant seasons. Coleman flew through the minors on the strength of stealing bases. He was, to use a modern day comparison, the Billy Hamilton of his day.
In A ball, he batted .350 with a .431 OBP and 145 stolen bases. 145 stolen bases. I’m repeating it so you know that wasn’t a typo. He only got caught 31 times. He did this in 113 games. Again 145 stolen bases in 113 games. They skipped him all the way to AAA after this season, where he was... honestly not very good. He had a .657 OPS. He did however steal 101 bases. This time he got caught 36 times. Still a 73% success rate, but he would have been more efficient if he picked his spots a little better.
He was in just 5 games in AAA before being called up to the majors. And I wasn’t alive then, so people in the comments will have to write about his impact. But he stole 110 bases in his rookie season. Thanks to no power, a high for its time K rate, and a middling BB rate, Coleman was just an 88 wRC+ hitter. For one season at least, Total Zone believed he was an elite fielder, hence his 2.6 fWAR.
Much like Pendleton, his value to the club rose and fell with his bat. In 1986, his bat completely collapsed and he was a 66 wRC+ hitter. He stole an absurd 107 bases to 14 caught stealing despite a .301 OBP. He got on base in some capacity 220 times, which includes a homer, 10 triples, and 20 doubles. Which means he more or less stole a base just about every time he got on base, and they still couldn’t stop him. Despite +3 defense in LF and that bad of a bat, his fWAR was still 0.9. Without his baserunning, he would have straight up been a below replacement player. He was worth over a win and a half entirely from running the bases in 1986.
His bat recovered in 1987, but he was -4 on defense at LF in 1987. Which didn’t end up matter because he was worth over a win on baserunning alone again. With a 99 wRC+ and 109 steals to 22 caught stealing, Coleman was worth 2.4 fWAR in 1987. His wRC+ fell to the 80s and his baserunning contibutions declined to just over half a win in 1988 and just under a win the next two seasons. The whims of TZ dictated his 0.5 fWAR season in 1988 and his 2.1 fWAR season in 1989 despite similar offensive seasons.
In 1990, he had one last gasp. Thanks primarily to a .344 BABIP, Coleman one of two seasons with an above average hitting line. And the other season was just 261 PAs. With a 105 wRC+, his baserunning, and another boost from Total Zone, he had his career best 3.3 fWAR season despite only playing in 124 games. He, like Pendleton, left the Cardinals for free agency after the 1990 season.
He signed with the Mets and things went poorly. He missed nearly half the games to injury or suspension and didn’t finish out his contract after getting charged with 200 hours of community service for throwing a lit firecracker at fans waiting for autographs in the parking lot, which injured three children. I won’t get into the other stuff, but there were other non-baseball related problems during the Mets years as well.
Coleman returned to the Cardinals prior to the 1998 season, doing well in spring training, and choosing to go to AAA to begin the year. But after he wasn’t called up after a month, he just retired. By that point, he hadn’t been valuable in five years of baseball, so it’s understandable why the Cardnals never called him up.
So there you have it. Time has made this draft less valuable than it once was - a reliever and guy whose main contribution was stolen bases will due that. But nonetheless, it still stood out as a unusually good drafting year for the Cardinals for its time.