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The Busted Veteran Hail Mary: A History

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Introducing the BVHM, a time-honored Cardinals tradition

St. Louis Cardinals v Atlanta Braves Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Last week at the trade deadline, the St. Louis Cardinals made their own version of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. We’ll call it Mo and Girsch’s Bogus Journey in which they traveled back in time to acquire Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. The lefty duo was solid... from 2012 through 2018. Unfortunately, the Cardinals didn’t acquire those guys. Instead, they got the 37 and 38 year old versions, respectively. Neither has an ERA or FIP under 5 this season. While their acquisitions were surely puzzling, there’s an important point. They represent 25 years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Fernando Valenzuela. Allow me to explain.

Every team starts their season filling out a rotation with five guys, plus depth. Usually one of those five guys gets hurt. Sometimes, several of them get hurt by June and July. For contenders, this leads to desperation. They’re taking on water, frantically grabbing anything that can help them patch the crack on their flailing contender. They throw up a Hail Mary, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, reaching out to anything they can find. Invariably they find freely available veterans throwing pus at home plate and getting lit up every five days who have worn out their welcome with their current teams. These are pitchers who would be released but their teams have to look for a trade partner first. And they find that desperate trade partner. “Here... maybe this will work?,” they say as they toss the burnt husk of a veteran pitcher at the frantic GM. They get a busted veteran Hail Mary- a BVHM. The Cardinals have made this move a lot in my lifetime.

What is a BVHM? It doesn’t have to be an old pitcher. But it certainly has to be a pitcher with multiple years of experience, one seemingly reaching the end of his career, acquired mid-season. And it has to be a team frantically trying to hold on to their hopes of contention. What qualifies?

1997: Fernando Valenzuela

Most of these are a bit more straightforward than the multi-player Valenzuela deal, but Valenzuela in 1997 was the perfect embodiment of a BVHM. Fernando was 36 at the time and had a 4.75 ERA (5.16 FIP). His FIP and ERA were both 20+ percent worse than average. His record was 2-8 in an era when people cared about it. The Cardinals were six games under .500 at the time of the deal (mid-June), but just 2 games back while trying to defend their 1996 NL Central title. The rotation had taken on several injuries. Walt Jocketty spackled together his own BVHM (Danny Jackson) along with quad-A chaff (Rich Batchelor) and career bench player Mark Sweeney. In return, he got the fumes of Valenzuela’s career, plus the fumes of Phil Plantier’s career, and another bench bat near the end of his career (Scott Livingstone).

If not for the career caché of Fernando, this deal would belong in the dustbin of history. It went about like you’d expect. Valenzuela lasted just over a month in Cardinal red, going 0-4 with a 5.56 ERA. They released him in July and he’d never pitch in another MLB game.

2001: Woody Williams

This is the BVHM pipe dream. It’s probably not fair to categorize Williams as a BVHM, but he was certainly trending down. He was 34 years old and had a 4.97 ERA/5.02 FIP at the time. Other than a successful 2000 season, he’d had ERAs and FIPs consistently over 4.40 since 1996. He wasn’t the kind of pitcher who would ordinarily get several more chances to correct a 5-point-something ERA at age 34. It wasn’t the end of the line, but it sure looked like it was approaching. And the Cardinals had auditioned two Beneses, Mike Mathews, and post-yips Rick Ankiel trying to fill innings with little luck. Jocketty flipped Lankford- whose own career had stallled in 2000 and 2001- for the chance to find out if Williams was a fixable BVHM. He was and then some, racking up 10.8 fWAR in a little more than three seasons in St. Louis.

2003: Sterling Hitchcock

The Cardinals rotation in 2003 was a dumpster fire. Half of their games started went to Brett Tomko, Garret %#&ing Stephenson, Jeff Fassero(!), and Jason Simontacchi. By late August, they were willing to try anything. Sterling Hitchock had been relegated mostly to the bullpen in 2002 and 2003 on the Yankees’ obscenely paid staff. Not that he’d earned a rotation spot with a 5.88 ERA since coming to New York in 2001. The Yankees practically gave him away. He did well in St. Louis, winning five of his six starts with a 3.79 ERA. Granted, it was fool’s gold- his FIP in St. Louis was worse than it was in New York. But as BVHMs go, Hitchcock succeeded. Then he was out of MLB by 2005.

World Series Game 5: Detroit Tigers v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

2006: Jeff Weaver

Knowing how it ends, it’s kind of funny to think of Jeff Weaver as a BVHM. And Weaver wasn’t exactly close to the end of his career. There was a lot more hope to Weaver than there is to the rest of this list. That said, Weaver had a 6.29 ERA and a 5.23 FIP when the Cardinals traded for him. The ERA looked worse than the performance, but this wasn’t bad luck. He was legitimately awful and having the worst year of his career. He was busted, he was a veteran, and trying to fix him was a Hail Mary. But the Cardinals that year had a rotation littered with hot garbage beyond Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan, so the need was there. They got Weaver for low-regarded prospect Terry Evans... and Weaver continued to suck, albeit a little less (at least by ERA; by FIP, he was actually worse). Then he somehow put it all together in October en route to an unlikely World Series title.

2007: Mike Maroth

The Cardinals got burned yet again by banking on Mark Mulder and Anthony Reyes, let alone Kip Wells, and found themselves in desperate need of rotation help. Enter Mike Maroth. He had been the valiant innings-eater for some dreadful early 2000s Tigers teams, providing mediocre (but not totally terrible) innings for a team drowning in craptastic pitching. Then when the Tigers became good in 2006, he got hurt. He was dreadful when he returned in 2007, sporting a 5.06 ERA and 6.39 FIP. The Tigers gave him up for Chris Lambert, which... meh. Maroth was demolished for a 10.66 ERA in 38 innings as a Cardinal. That he amassed 38 innings in 14 appearances (7 starts) should tell you how ineffective he was.

San Francisco Giants v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

2007: Joel Pineiro

Pineiro broke into the majors in 2000 and 2001 with the Mariners, and was quite solid early in his career. He was 36-20 from 2001 through 2003 with both ERAs and FIPs better than league average each year. Over the next three and a half years, he’d run up a 5.58 ERA and 4.69 FIP. At the time of the trade, he was in Boston and relegated to the bullpen. His 2005 and 2006 seasons had been especially poor, with 5.62 and 6.36 ERAs respectively. He as absolutely a BVHM, albeit a young one. He completely turned it around in St. Louis with a respectable finish to 2007, a... not great 2008 but a very good 2009. All told, he had a 4.14 ERA and 4.01 FIP as a Cardinal. That’s pretty damn good for a BVHM.

2014: Justin Masterson

Masterson had been perfectly fine for several years, alternating between good and mediocre seasons. He had 11.6 fWAR from 2011 to 2013, quite a respectable figure. Then all hell broke loose in 2014. His walk rate crept up, his BABIP against exploded to .350, and he came to the Cardinals sporting a 5.51 ERA. The Cardinals had been holding tryouts for two rotation spots all season- Jaime Garcia (7 GS), Carlos Martinez (7), Joe Kelly (7), Marco Gonzales (5), and Tyler Lyons (4) all got chances. Only mid-season Michael Wacha could hold down a spot. They acquired Masterson and gave him a shot. It backfired gloriously. His velocity collapsed in St. Louis. His BABIP issues went away, but his K rate collapsed as his HR rate mushroomed. By the time the smoke cleared, he had contributed 6 starts, 30.2 innings, and a 7.04 ERA (5.84 FIP).

Honorable Mentions

1987: Randy O’Neal

The Cardinals were without John Tudor until August. The two internal patches they had used- Lee Tunnell (5.01 ERA as a SP, also being used in the bullpen) and Tim Conroy (5.58 ERA as a SP)- had faltered. They reached out to the Braves to try... literally anything else than Tunnell and Conroy. What they got was Randy O’Neal. He made one effective start, and then Tudor returned. His age kept him off of the list.

1993: Todd Burns

Burns was 29 and in his final MLB season, although he didn’t know it at the time. He would have made the list- he was given away by Oakland for something called Duff Brumley- except he was a bullpen patch, not one for the rotation.

2006: Jorge Sosa

It was tempting to include Jorge Sosa from 2006, but implicit in the BVHM concept is the notion that the acquisition had been successful at least at some point. Other than accidentally winning 13 games with a 2.55 ERA as a swing-man the year before, that’s not the case for Sosa. He was more of a SCVHM- still crappy veteran Hail Mary.

2010: Jake Westbrook

Westbrook wasn’t busted in the sense we’re using here so much as he had been physically busted. He missed most of 2008 and all of 2009, making just five starts in those two years. He had returned and performed respectably enough in 2010 that the Cardinals acquired him for Ryan Ludwick.