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Retrospective: The 1995-96 Cardinals Off-Season

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It took one of the franchise’s best off-seasons to turn the 1995 squad into a 1996 contender. Walt Jocketty was up to the task.

St. Louis Cardinals Ron Gant (R) is congratulated Photo credit should read Bian BAHR/AFP via Getty Images

I’ve covered a lot of off-seasons through the years. It’s a perfect type of article in January when the hot stove cools off. Can’t look forward? Look backward. In the past, I’ve looked at a few pivotal off-seasons of the 1980s, some frustrating ones from the 90s, and a few off-seasons in the 2000s. The one I haven’t reviewed- until today- is the magical four month run that ushered in the DeWitt era in St. Louis, arguably one of the best off-season hauls in franchise history. Let’s finally give that off-seasons its due. Today, we’ll hop in the time machine and look back at the 1995-1996 off-season.

Recapping 1995

The 1995 season was a disaster for the Cardinals. They finished 62-81, a .434 winning percentage, the franchise’s fourth worst since 1920. If we go by pythagorean winning percentage- .429- it’s the worst the franchise has done since 1920. They were awful, and it wasn’t a matter of bad luck. Their performance cost manager Joe Torre his job. It was a transition year for baseball in general and the Cardinals especially. Because of the 1994 strike, the 1995 season started late. Economics of the game were hazy at best entering the year.

The franchise was for sale for most of the 1995 season. They had just hired Walt Jocketty as their general manager during the previous off-season, and the ownership group led by Bill DeWitt didn’t finalize their purchase of the team until just before Christmas in 1995. DeWitt rightly saw an undervalued asset- a model franchise neglected by the brewery in the early 90s, allowed to decline but sure to rebound with a little effort.

Positives

As bad as the Cardinals were, a young core emerged. The outfield had been one of the best in baseball. Their blend of hitting and defense made them the fourth most productive outfield by fWAR. The trio- Bernard Gilkey, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan- were all entering their age-29 season. John Mabry, a respectable corner utility player, had been average at age 24.

On the pitching side, Mark Petkovsek and Donovan Osborne turned in solid seasons under the age of 30. Tom Henke was splendid as the closer. The bullpen had been the fourth best in baseball. The team’s defense was one of the best in baseball thanks to standout performances from Jordan, catcher Tom Pagnozzi, second baseman Jose Oquendo, and the combination of the oft-injured Ozzie Smith and his fill-in Tripp Cromer at shortstop.

They weren’t bursting with prospects, but Alan Benes was the 5th best prospect in baseball entering 1996 and Dmitri Young had been a Baseball America top 100 prospect in 1994. John Frascatore was technically 97th on that list entering 1996, and Matt Morris was 56th (albeit unlikely to help the Cardinals at the MLB level).

Negatives

Despite the outfield trio, the offense was dreadful. They had an 86 (non-pitcher) wRC+, tied for worst in baseball. The starting pitching had a 4.90 ERA (4.78 FIP), which was 8th worst. A lack of innings gave them the second worst fWAR in the league.

Three of the biggest offenders on the offensive side were holdovers from the Whitey Herzog era- Oquendo (68 wRC+), Ozzie (46 in 182 plate appearances), and Pagnozzi (49). Cromer was a black hole at the plate (51 wRC+). Third baseman Scott Cooper- a St. Louis native who was one of the previous off-season’s major acquisitions- was a total bust (73 wRC+). The bench offered no respite. The club gave 952 plate appearances to Darnell Coles, Danny Sheaffer, Allen Battle, mid-season acquisition David Bell, something called Ramon Caraballo, Scott Hemond, Ramon Oliva, and Gerald Perry. Battle was the only one over an 80 wRC+, and the last four were under 60(!). The club finally gave up on Todd Zeile as the future of the franchise, dealing him for starting pitcher Mike Morgan.

Danny Jackson- one of the previous year’s big acquisitions- had a hideous 5.90 ERA. Allen Watson wasn’t much better at 4.96 (5.39 FIP). Ken Hill had a 5.06 ERA before he was traded to Cleveland for Bell.

Areas of need for 1996

Let’s say everything besides outfielders and a few starting pitchers. When the 1995 season ended, they needed a new owner, new manager, and better production from (deep breath): catcher, second base, shortstop, third base, the bench, and at least two or three pieces of the rotation. They would also need to figure out how to deal with an aging, increasingly fragile Ozzie Smith now in his 40s. Even the ballpark- increasingly looking like an astroturf concrete donut relic of the 70s and 80s- needed some sprucing up. Oh, and after Tom Henke retired, they also needed high leverage help in the back of the bullpen.

Former Oakland Athletics manager Tony LaRussa disc Photo credit should read PETER NEWCOMB/AFP via Getty Images

The Off-Season

Jocketty started by hiring a manager. Jocketty’s Oakland ties gave him an inside track with Tony LaRussa. After some convincing, he poached the A’s skipper, bringing a future Hall of Famer to St. Louis. He continued with a trio of re-signings, bringing back Morgan, Oquendo, and reliever Jeff Parrett.

Then he dropped the first bomb. Jocketty flipped Watson, reliever Rich DeLucia, and quad-A pitcher Doug Creek to the Giants for shortstop Royce Clayton. He was entering his age 26 season and had been one of the league’s best defensive shortstops since his full-season debut in 1992. His offense was poor (77 wRC+ from 1992 to 1995) but still represented a step up from the Ozzie/Cromer combo in 1995 with no loss on the defensive side at this stage of Ozzie’s career.

Jocketty signed Gary Gaetti to fix third base. He was 37 at the time but had been a steady performer for a few years with an average bat and above average glove. Like shortstop, simply improving to average represented a major upgrade. Rick Honeycutt- still effective as a LOOGY- was purchased from the Yankees to feed LaRussa’s orgy of late game matchups.

Jocketty signed starter Andy Benes and outfielder Ron Gant two days before Christmas. Benes had been one of baseball’s most reliable starting pitchers, something the Cardinals desperately needed. Gant added some sock to the lineup, albeit with injury concerns.

Gant gave them an outfield surplus. Jocketty resolved that logjam by flipping Gilkey (and his cameo in Men in Black) to the Mets for Erik Hiljus and Ryan Ludwick’s brother, Eric.

After the Gant/Benes extravaganza, Jocketty traded Battle and several minor leaguers for Todd Stottlemyre. LaRussa and pitching coach Dave Duncan helped Stottlemyre author a bounceback season in Oakland in 1995. Like Benes, Stottlemyre had been durable, though with more erratic results. His peripherals spiked in 1995. With Benes and Stottlemyre joining Osborne, Morgan, his kid brother Alan, and Danny Jackson, Jocketty had depth for a much improved rotation.

The Cardinals allowed Geronimo Pena, Scotts Cooper and Hemond, and struggling reliever Vicente Palacios to explore free agency. Only Pena would re-sign as a minor leaguer before being released again in July.

Pat Borders was signed as depth at catcher and Mike Gallego and Luis Alicea were the same in the middle infield. Willie McGee, now a glove-first bench outfielder, was brought back to the franchise as a fourth outfielder. Jocketty replaced Henke by trading for Dennis Eckersley, now 41 but modestly effective.

It was a stunning transformation. While it hardly made the Cardinals a juggernaut, they had flooded the roster with depth and average production at 3B, SS, two SP slots, and the bullpen, plus a Hall of Fame manager and a committed owner. They had also (seemingly) upgraded from Gilkey to Gant, and given themselves four(!) options for second base.

Braves v Cardinals

The Results

A lot of the results can be summed up with a simple table.

Cardinal Upgrades, 1995 vs. 1996

1995 Player 1996 Replacement 1995 fWAR 1996 fWAR
1995 Player 1996 Replacement 1995 fWAR 1996 fWAR
Cooper Gaetti 0.2 2.1
Cromer Clayton -0.2 1.9
Oquendo Alicea 1.0 1.1
Bell, Pena Gallego -0.2 -0.5
Gilkey Gant 2.8 3.3
Sheaffer/Hemond Borders -0.3 0.3
Battle McGee 0.4 0.6
Hill/Urbani Stottlemyre 0.5 2.3
Watson/Palacios Benes -0.6 2.4
DeLucia Honeycutt 0.2 0.9
Henke Eckersley 1.3 0.7
TOTAL TOTAL 5.1 15.1

The net effect was about 8.8 fWAR once pro-rated for the strike-truncated 1995. The 1995 squad played at a true talent 69.5-win pace by pythag. Jocketty’s frantic off-season had lifted the Cardinals to 78 wins (rounding up). As great as his off-season was, those moves alone did not make them a contender. What did the trick was incremental gains all over the roster. Lankford improved by 1.2 fWAR and Jordan by 0.9. For both, they were over 5 wins in 1996, basically fringe MVP candidates. With the burden of everyday play removed with Clayton in the fold, Ozzie upped his output by 1.8 fWAR. Pagnozzi played more and enjoyed a BABIP-fueled bounce at the plate, a combo that gave him 2.2 more fWAR. Donovan Osborne shaved half a run off of his FIP for an additional 1.9 fWAR.

Pro-rate out the internal gains (about 7 additional wins) and the off-season enhancements (8.8 additional wins) and you can see how the Cardinals became an 86-win true talent team. As it turns out, their pythagorean record in 1996 was... 86-76. On top of that, most of the rest of the division undershot their 1995 performance to varying degrees. That’s the formula for an easy division title with 88 wins.

The only move that truly backfired was Gilkey. Gant held up his end of the bargain with a very solid season, but Gilkey exploded in 1996 with 7.6 fWAR. Some of it was fluky with a .356 BABIP, but some of it- his huge bump in slugging- was not. By 1997, he reverted back to form.

They swept the Padres in the NLDS and took a 3-1 lead in the NLCS over the juggernaut Braves. Talented farm product Dmitri Young- then in his debut season- gave us all this moment in a memorable game 4:

Then... the wheels fell off. The Braves outscored them 32-1 over the next three games, ending the Cardinals’ season.

If that sounds familiar, it should. The Cardinals were a team with a true talent level of 85 to 90 wins and they won a division full of duds and underachievers. A little devil magic gave fans some October thrills. Aspects have changed, but all of those pieces I mentioned are a great description of probably half or more of the seasons since DeWitt took over the franchise. Little did fans know in 1996 that it was a template.

If we take the net gains and losses from that 1995-96 off-season with some basic next-season forecasting (including a very basic aging curve), it was the second best Cardinals off-season since 1988. It trails only 2000 (Darryl Kile, Jim Edmonds), and ranks by my estimation as the 33rd best in baseball from 1988 to 2019. That’s 96th percentile. When you throw in the off-field additions (LaRussa and DeWitt), plus refreshing the ballpark with grass and honoring team history, and I’m comfortable saying it was the best off-season in the last 30 years of Cardinals history, a transformative one that would set the stage for the massive success of the DeWitt era.