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Retrospective: The 2005-2006 Cardinals Off-Season

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The follow-up to two brilliant seasons led to a championship... by accident

Pittsburgh Pirates v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Late last summer, my wife and I adopted a dog. We were hoping for a bulldog, but also knew that it would be difficult for various reasons. Instead, we shifted our focus to dogs that fit our other criteria. We decided to adopt a short, stocky guy that looks like someone crammed a German shepherd into a pug’s body. We found out later that he is, in fact, a puggle- half pug, half beagle. Neither of us had ever heard of puggles at the time, and it’s a good thing we hadn’t. For all of the good things about puggles, the wrong one can be stubborn and barky. Had we known that, we probably wouldn’t have adopted Tito- named after Titos Landrum and Puente. Now that we’ve had him for six months, we know that barking is his only vice. He doesn’t cause us any problems, he’s as friendly as can be both with people and other animals, he looks sharp in a Lebowski sweater, and he has a quirky personality. You see, Tito was a happy accident. I told you that story so I could tell you this one, about another happy accident- the 2005-2006 off-season that led to a Cardinals World Series title.

Note: I wrote this before the Cardinals re-signed Adam Wainwright, and before the Ken Rosenthal report that they were in talks with the Rockies about Nolan Arenado. Forgive me if it’s a bit tone deaf.

The 2005 Season

The Cardinals were the uncrowned kings of the National League from 2000 to 2005, reaching the NLCS four times, winning the pennant once, and only missing the playoffs one time. The 2005 squad was, arguably, the second best of the era. They won 100 games in 2005. They took over first place in the NL Central on April 16th and never relinquished the lead, winning the division by 11 games. They demolished the Padres in the NLDS. Then, they fizzled out in a six game NLCS loss to the Astros despite Albert Pujols launching one of the franchise’s most memorable homeruns off of Brad Lidge into orbit. That is to say, he launched it into outer space, and not into Orbit, the Astros mascot.

Positives

The Cardinals swept the MVP and Cy Young awards thanks to Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter. Jim Edmonds was still amazing (6.1 fWAR) in his follow-up to the MV3 season. David Eckstein was acquired as a replacement for Edgar Renteria, and he actually improved upon Renteria’s 2004 performance. Mark Grudzielanek was another infield addition and added 2.8 fWAR at second base thanks in part to above average defense.

Beyond the brilliant Carpenter, the rotation was steady if unspectacular. The quintet (Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, Matt Morris) only missed two starts all season. New acquisition Mulder wasn’t the front of the rotation starter the team wanted when they acquired him, and the trade was obviously a bad one, but 2005 was his lone productive year in St. Louis. The bullpen had the second best ERA in baseball, although their FIP was 10th best. Mulder and the bullpen could overachieve their underlying metrics because the team’s defense was top notch, second in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved.

Negatives

Considering the franchise had won 205 games over the last two seasons, it’s hard to identify things that went wrong in 2005. Scott Rolen fought injuries all season and only amasssed 223 plate appearances. Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, two-thirds of the team’s preferred outfield, also had injury problems. They were limited to a combined 696 plate appearances. As impressive as Yadier Molina was behind the plate, his bat lagged far behind with a 71 wRC+. John Mabry, who had been so effective the year before as a corner super-sub, faltered at the plate (81 wRC+). Other than Chris Carpenter, the pitching staff’s sterling ERA and RA was a mirage generated by tremendous team defense.

Areas of Need

As well as everything had gone for the Cardinals over the past two seasons, there were quite a few difficult decisions to be made. Sanders was entering his age 38 season and hit free agency. Larry Walker chose to retire. Franchise stalwart Matt Morris was allowed to reach free agency, as was second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. Two righties from the bullpen- Julian Tavarez and Al Reyes- left via free agency after combining for 128.1 innings and a 2.81 ERA in 2005. Abraham O. Nunez, everyone’s favorite Irishman, had filled in admirably (1.2 fWAR) for Rolen. He left via free agency along with Mabry, leaving two bench spots open.

Even though they hadn’t lost any major core members, they had holes all over the roster. They needed to replace some 700 very productive plate appearances in the outfield, find an everyday second baseman, fill two productive right-handed slots in the bullpen, find a mid-rotation starting pitcher, and replace approximately 350 bench plate appearances... and that assumed that Rolen would rebound to stay healthy throughout the following season. On top of everything else, it would have behooved the Cardinals to find some pitchers who were less reliant on defense, though the concepts behind FIP were only just finding traction at the time. It’s unlikely the Cardinals were aware of how risky it was to go with such a contact-heavy profile. It was a tall order for GM Walt Jocketty.

Cincinnati Reds vs St. Louis Cardinals - April 15, 2006 Photo by G. N. Lowrance/Getty Images

The Off-Season

Walt Jocketty had several brilliant off-seasons in his tenure in St. Louis. The 1995-1996, 1999-2000, and 2003-2004 winter months all come to mind. The segue between 2005 and 2006 was... not one of those. Granted, the issues were not necessarily in letting Sanders, Morris, Mabry, Tavarez, Reyes, Grudzielanek, and Nunez walk. There were sound reasons for not re-signing most of those players. The issues were with the replacements.

For the Sanders/Walker conundrum, Jocketty signed Juan Encarnacion. He was a former Baseball America Top 100 prospect going back to 1998, when his profile ranked 15th, but he had yet to live up to the potential. He was coming off of the best season of his career, a 113 wRC+. For his career, though, it was a more modest 96 wRC+. He had been above average just three times, and one of those was his 175 plate appearance debut in 1998. He was reliably healthy and mediocre, the antithesis of what Sanders and Walker provided.

Morris was replaced with a competition between top prospect Anthony Reyes and a dumpster dive acquisition in Sidney Ponson. Like Encarnacion, Ponson’s talent wowed as a prospect. Unlike Encarnacion, he was coming off of his worst season of his career- a 6.21 ERA and 4.75 FIP. Throwing multiple solutions at empty roster slots was a theme of the off-season. Jocketty acquired Aaron Miles and Larry Bigbie for lovable lefty reliever Ray King, which gave him a low ceiling solution at second base to replace Grudzielanek. Miles had been below replacement level in his first two full-time seasons in Colorado, with a total -0.9 fWAR. He also brought in Deivi Cruz, another replacement level player, to compete with Miles. Last but not least, Junior Spivey was brought to camp. Spivey seemed to offer the most hope, having collected 2.5 fWAR total during an injury-riddled 2004-2005.

The corner replacement for Mabry was also a competition, this time between Bigbie and free agent Scott Spiezio. Bigbie had been an above average regular for the Orioles in 2003-2004, but declined badly in a 2005 split between the O’s and Rockies. Spiezio was dreadful in 2004 and an injury-riddled 2005 (-0.9 fWAR combined, 57 wRC+).

Finally, Jocketty brought former Cardinals prospect Braden Looper back to the organization to replace Tavarez. The dollars were a little silly for the era (3 years, $13.5M). Like almost every other acquisition other than Encarnacion, the Cardinals were betting on a rebound. Looper had been solidly above average in 2003 and 2004, but was below replacement level in 2005 (-0.6 fWAR, which makes the contract look even more ridiculous). The bullpen was rounded out by signing lefty Ricardo Rincon and righty Josh Hancock.

Detroit Tigers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Scott Rovak/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Results

The team that Jocketty built put up mixed results. They burst out of the gates with a 34-19 record through the end of May, best in the National League and second in baseball. Then the wheels fell off. They went 49-59 the rest of the way, winning a bad division with 83 wins. This tidbit explains a lot of what happened:

2005 fWAR for players who departed: 11.9
2006 fWAR for replacements acquired in the off-season: 2.8

Compounding matters, Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder had combined for 2.6 fWAR in 2005, a figure that collapsed to -1.0 in 2006. At the back end of games, Jason Isringhausen fell from a 0.7 fWAR in 2005 to -0.9 in 2006. Even Chris Carpenter slipped a little from 6.3 to 5.0. The rotation and closer were relative strengths in 2005, but they became poisonous in 2006, with Ponson and Anthony Reyes offering little respite. On the offensive side, Jim Edmonds dropped all the way from a 6.1 fWAR to 1.7 and missed significant time. That’s 10.9 fWAR lost just from incumbent players declining.

Given the histories of the acquisitions, it’s hard to be surprised. If anything, they got lucky (or made shrewd choices, to be fair). Spiezio was effective despite his ugly 2004-2005. Rolen played as much as he had in 2004. His fWAR rebound from 2005 made up for Edmonds’ decline. Looper returned to 2003-2004 form. Josh Hancock, Brad Thompson, and a rookie named Adam Wainwright combined with Looper to give the team a decent right-handed bridge to Isringhausen, even if Izzy borked a lot of his own outings. Chris Duncan arrived and mashed in a way that he never had as a prospect, collecting 2.3 fWAR and a 143 wRC+ in 90 games.

Jocketty frantically made moves throughout the summer to seal up the sinking ship with varying degrees of effectiveness. Call-ups and mid-season acquisitions like Duncan, Preston Wilson, Jose Vizcaino, and Ronnie Belliard raised the team floor with a collective 3.1 fWAR. Belliard in particular was merely average, but represented a major upgrade from Miles. The pitching acquisitions and call-ups were less effective, but not from lack of trying. Jeff Weaver, Jorge Sosa, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Kinney combined for a shockingly bad -0.8 fWAR. Weaver and Kinney were the best of the bunch. Much like Belliard, Weaver’s 0.0 fWAR represented an upgrade from Mulder’s -0.5. It was addition by subtraction.

The roller coaster ride ended when they clinched the division on the second to last day of the season. Clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the Astros and down 2-0 against Milwaukee in the 8th inning, Scott Spiezio pinch hit and delivered a bases loaded triple to take a 3-2 lead. Encarnacion scored the go-ahead run. Mid-season call-up Tyler Johnson picked up the win and newly-anointed closer Adam Wainwright earned the save.

Once in the post-season, several of the questionable moves paid off and the Cardinals regained their early season form. Ronnie Belliard was a monster in the NLDS victory over the Padres. Jeff Weaver went 3-2 with a 2.73 ERA in October. Looper, Johnson, Wainwright, and Kinney combined for 32 innings and a miniscule 1.40 ERA. Aaron Miles(!) OPS’ed .962 in 12 bench plate appearances. Anthony Reyes, the mid-season replacement for Ponson, threw a four-hitter across 8 innings to steal game 1 of the World Series in Detroit against the heavily favored Tigers. Somehow, they won the World Series, succeeding where two much better versions of the Cardinals had failed in 2004 and 2005.

In other words, it was a happy accident.