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A brief history of Cardinals one-year wonders

With big names potentially available as one-year rentals, here is a look at the best players to spend exactly one year in St. Louis

St. Louis Cardinals v Colorado Rockies Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Forty-six players donned a St. Louis Cardinals uniform during their 2011 World Series-winning campaign. 2011 doesn’t seem that long ago, and yet only three players from that season also played for the Cardinals in 2017. One of them, Matt Carpenter, made nineteen plate appearances and did not appear in the postseason. Another, Lance Lynn, barely exhausted his rookie eligibility and probably will not be on the Cardinals in 2018. Only Yadier Molina truly fits the spirit of being a Cardinal from 2011 to the present (Adam Wainwright missed the 2011 season recovering from Tommy John surgery, so he might too).

But forty-three players have since left the Cardinals. For some, leaving the Cardinals was a big deal (Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, notably) but for most, they just kind of left. This is the nature of the business for most baseball players—transience is akin to survival because most baseball players can be replaced relatively easily.

Most players who play exactly one season with a franchise did not have a particularly profound impact with said franchise. They are, say, mid-to-late twenties pitchers who come up after an overachieving run in AAA, make a few appearances in relief, go back to the minors, and stay there. But in some cases, one-year wonders are significant contributors.

Many of the most exciting rumors of the Cardinals’ off-season have surrounded Josh Donaldson and Manny Machado, either of whom is a candidate to be a one-year wonder—each player is scheduled for free agency following the 2018 season and each will likely test the market. And while some dismiss trading for one of them as a mistake if an extension does not follow, either would be a strong candidate to be among the greatest one-year wonders in the history of the Cardinals.

Here is a position-by-position list of the greatest one-year wonders for the Cardinals. The list is limited to post-1947 for a few reasons: it is the integration era, it is within a relatively modern era of player transactions (it is well past the era of barnstorming teams, for instance), and, frankly, these lists are more fun when there’s players you know. But many of these players you may not know and it will be a learning opportunity!

Note: Baseball Reference’s Play Index was an indispensable asset in compiling this list.

Pitcher: Ron Reed, 1975

Following a decade with the Atlanta Braves, the Cardinals acquired the former All-Star (and former Detroit Pistons basketball player) in May and Reed rewarded the Cardinals’ confidence in him with a 3.23 ERA in 175 23 innings. He was even better by fielding-independent pitching, scoring a mark of 2.46—his combined FIP on the season of 2.42 was second only to Tom Seaver among qualified pitchers. Honorable mention: 2014 relief pitching revelation Pat Neshek.

Catcher: Johnny Edwards, 1968

Formerly an All-Star with the Cincinnati Reds, Edwards was a vital player throughout the Cardinals’ pennant-winning 1968 campaign, as regular starter Tim McCarver battled injuries. Although he only had one plate appearance in the World Series and was traded to the Houston Astros literally the day after the Fall Classic ended, Edwards was a decent catcher, producing enough to keep the Cardinals afloat throughout the summer.

First Base: Dick Allen, 1970

Dick Allen was one of the greatest hitters and most underrated players of his era, and his acquisition by the Cardinals from the Philadelphia Phillies is historically overshadowed by the ripple effects of the trade—the Cardinals sent Curt Flood, whose refusal to report to the Phillies paved the way for free agency. And in his lone season in St. Louis, Allen was an All-Star who hit 34 home runs and posted a sterling triple-slash line of .279/.377/.560. After the season, Allen was traded to the Dodgers. A very honorable mention for this position is Will Clark, who trailed Allen by WAR but was so productive in St. Louis that he pulled his season OPS from his 8th best to his career high in the last two months of his 15th and final season.

Second Base: Mark Grudzielanek, 2005

Amazingly, one of the greatest one-year wonder seasons in franchise history came from a second baseman the year before, as well, as 2004 Tony Womack had a career year in his lone season in St. Louis. But the former Chicago Cubs second baseman Grudzielanek was even better, totaling a career-high 4.1 Wins Above Replacement. This was mostly a matter of his defense—Grudzielanek trailed only Craig Counsell in defensive WAR among second basemen that season.

Third Base: Abraham Nunez, 2005

Cardinals Devil Magic isn’t a good player becoming a great player with the Cardinals: that’s just a thing that happens in baseball. Cardinals Devil Magic is franchise third baseman Scott Rolen being injured, having to replace him with long-time mediocre Pirates middle infielder Abraham Nunez (entering 2005: 1679 plate appearances, 1.1 WAR, 61 OPS+), and Nunez having a career year at the plate and in the field on the way to a 100-win season. Nunez followed a 2.3 WAR season in St. Louis with three sub-replacement level seasons and as a result, amassed 256% of his career value in the sixth of his career plate appearances compiled with the Cardinals.

Shortstop: Cesar Izturis, 2008

Following the non-tendering of David Eckstein after the 2007 season, the Cardinals opted for the veteran shortstop Izturis in 2008, who signed a one-year contract. At 1.7 WAR, Izturis was far from great, though he did have his second-best season in the Majors, providing solid defense for the 86-win Cardinals.

Left Field: George Altman, 1963

Technically, Altman spent most of the season playing right field, but generally if a player can handle right field, he can also handle left. And Altman handled the corner outfield spots well following four years with the Chicago Cubs. Altman was above-average at the plate and playing solid defense before being packaged to the New York Mets for Roger Craig following the season.

Center Field: Willie Davis, 1975

The formerly elite defensive center fielder Davis was a bit past his prime when he joined the Cardinals at age 35, acquired via trade from the Texas Rangers in June, but Davis was above-average at the plate, OPSing .751 with the Cardinals. Davis played some center field but, like Altman, played more games in right field—if you insist on somebody who was primarily a center fielder, the leader in WAR is 1999 Darren Bragg.

Right Field: Jason Heyward, 2015

It feels appropriate that this lineup is rounded out by Heyward, the prototype for the prospective Donaldson or Machado trades. Jason Heyward, in his one year in St. Louis, was the most valuable one-year player in Cardinals history, winning a well-deserved Gold Glove to go along with a 117 OPS+. Heyward finished 15th in National League MVP voting and, by WAR, deserved to finish in the top ten. He is the archetype of what a one-year wonder can be for the Cardinals.