Last week, on Twitter, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus suggested a mental exercise of sorts on creating a coherent roster for an MLB team of your choice. Here are the rules as outlined by Carleton.
- Pick an MLB franchise
- Pick one player from each of the last 25 seasons
- No repeated players
- Picks must form a coherent 25-man roster
- Don’t cheat on positions
Here is a St. Louis Cardinals roster I created. Please feel free to argue among yourselves in the comments. This is all in good fun and there are no wrong answers. There is, however, a right answer, and it is this one. The first eight batters are listed according to my proposed batting order.
Second Base—2013 Matt Carpenter
He isn’t the best player on this team, but he was the name that immediately jumped to mind. It was a totally ridiculous season, the one in which third baseman Matt Carpenter switched to an essentially brand new position and produced easily the best Cardinals second base season since 1993. The Cardinals hoped for good offense and non-horrendous defense and were rewarded with great offense (.318/.392/.481 AVG/OBP/SLG in a low offensive environment, good for a career-high 146 wRC+) and roughly league-average defense. Carpenter led the team in Wins Above Replacement and also started games at first base, third base, and right field.
Left Field—2003 Albert Pujols
Although somewhat overshadowed nationally by the video game glitch that was early-aughts Barry Bonds, the soon-to-be first baseman posted his best season by FanGraphs WAR as a left fielder in 2003. Pujols won a batting title with a .359 average, hit 43 home runs, posted a 184 wRC+ that he would never surpass, and even had his best base running season, accounting for 5.6 runs above average per FanGraphs on the bases.
Center Field—2002 Jim Edmonds
In his eleven seasons in St. Louis, only two players posted a higher WAR than Albert Pujols, and one was 2002 Jim Edmonds. Edmonds had a then-career high 157 wRC+ thanks to a .311/.420/.561 triple-slash line, and provided sterling defense which led to a third consecutive Gold Glove award.
First Base—1998 Mark McGwire
It was the most celebrated individual season in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals, and yet we may still underrate just what a force Mark McGwire was. Opposing pitchers were terrified of McGwire, but rather than swing at their numerous outside pitches, Big Mac accepted his 23.8% walk rate. McGwire’s three-true-outcomes rate (percentage of plate appearances resulting in a walk, a strikeout, or a home run) was 56.8%. Yes, in 1998 everybody was destroying baseballs, but none did it quite as thoroughly as McGwire, whose 205 wRC+ meant he was more than double as productive as the average hitter. And I haven’t even mentioned his most famous number of that season.
Third Base—2004 Scott Rolen
2004 was also the best season of Jim Edmonds, but it was impossible to resist the best season of Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame-worthy career. By WAR, Rolen was even better that season than peak-of-their-powers Albert Pujols or Jim Edmonds, posting a career-best mark at all three triple-slash categories (.314/.409/.598) while winning a Gold Glove at the hot corner.
Catcher—2012 Yadier Molina
Long acclaimed defensively, Molina had a few-year stretch where he was also among the game’s best hitters, and 2012 was the best of the bunch. In addition to his typically excellent defense (most noticeably, Molina caught nearly 48% of would-be base stealers), Molina had a career-high 22 home runs and a 138 wRC+; for perspective, while also being the best defensive player at the most important non-pitching defensive position, Molina was offensively as good relative to his league/environment as Sam Crawford, a below-average defensive outfielder who is in the Hall of Fame.
Right Field—2015 Jason Heyward
For one glorious season, Jason Heyward was a highlight reel in right field for the Cardinals. His defense was his most obvious quality, and he deservedly won that year’s NL Gold Glove at his position, but he was a well-rounded player, posting a 121 wRC+ and stealing 23 bases while finishing in the top ten in baseball by Baserunning Runs Above Average.
Shortstop—2014 Jhonny Peralta
Coming off the heels of the season-long Pete Kozma experiment, free agent signing Jhonny Peralta hit a team-high 21 home runs for the Cardinals and, despite not particularly looking the part, was well above-average defensively. Peralta had a 2.4 WAR lead over Matt Holliday for the title of most valuable position player on a team which won 90 games and advanced to the National League Championship Series.
Catcher—1994 Tom Pagnozzi
In the strike-shortened 1994 season, Pagnozzi won his third career Gold Glove and posted a career-high .743 OPS. Although his offense isn’t quite to the level of the other position players on this team, he is a worthy understudy to Molina defensively, catching half of all potential base stealers in 1994.
Second Base—2005 Mark Grudzielanek
Matt Carpenter was okay defensively, but is starting for his bat. Grudzielanek could be a useful defensive replacement, posting a career-best 2.7 Defensive WAR (a higher total than in either of the next two seasons, in which he was rewarded with a Gold Glove) in his lone season in St. Louis.
Shortstop—1996 Ozzie Smith
Two Cardinals shortstops tied in WAR in 1996—the long-time Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith and the man controversially hand-picked to replace him, Royce Clayton. Although I am tempted to poke the bear and pick Royce for this spot, Ozzie put up his production in less playing time and despite being 41 years old, he was nearly a league-average hitter while still providing good defense. Also, veteran leadership.
Third Base—2008 Troy Glaus
Glaus, who was acquired via trade for Scott Rolen, the man he is backing up on this team, has the misfortune in Cardinals history of having his one great season in a relatively lackluster one for the team. The 86-win Cardinals team, which won three more games than the iteration two years prior which went on to win the World Series, finish fourth and thus the .270/.372/.483 triple-slash with good defense season of Troy Glaus is relegated to footnote.
Left Field—2017 Tommy Pham
For whenever 2003 Pujols moves to first base (which he played enough that I consider him a more-than-reasonable backup option for McGwire), last season’s Tommy Pham breakthrough is more than capable of handling left field. And of handling other outfield positions. And of pinch-hitting, as reflected in his 148 wRC+. And of pinch-running, as reflected in his 25 stolen bases and strong advanced base-running metrics. One of the most obvious omissions from this roster is Matt Holliday, but consider that this team’s backup left fielder was worth more WAR in a season in which Matt Adams started a game in left field before he did than Holliday amassed in a single season in St. Louis.
Center FIeld—1997 Ray Lankford
The Player of the 1990s for the Cardinals, Lankford had his best offensive season in 1997, triple-slashing .295/.411/.585. He earned his lone (somehow) All-Star appearance and received MVP votes.
Starting Pitcher #1—2009 Chris Carpenter
He trailed Tim Lincecum by 32 2/3 innings and thus finished second in Cy Young voting, but Carpenter had an undeniably impressive 2009 campaign. He had an NL-best 2.24 ERA and his 2.78 fielding-independent pitching trailed only that of Lincecum and Javier Vazquez. Exempting his abbreviated 2008, it was the best season of Carpenter’s career by ERA and FIP.
Starting Pitcher #2—2010 Adam Wainwright
The year after finishing third in Cy Young voting behind Lincecum and Carpenter, Wainwright was even better in 2010, winning 20 games and improving by ERA, FIP, and xFIP. Although he finished a distant second behind Roy Halladay for the Cy Young Award, this was the season that firmly cemented Wainwright as an elite-level ace and made his 2011 Spring Training injury so devastating.
Starting Pitcher #3—2016 Carlos Martinez
The first season in which Martinez was undeniably going to remain in the starting rotation, 2016 saw the Cardinals ace going 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA. Although one could make a case for 2015 or, particularly when environment-adjusting, 2017 as the best Martinez season, 2016 is the best fit when considering the alternative players for that season—he had a 2.4 WAR edge over Aledmys Diaz for the team lead.
Starting Pitcher #4—2001 Darryl Kile
Sadly, 2001 was the final full season of Kile’s career, but it was also among his best. While he did not receive Cy Young votes like he did the year before, Kile improved his ERA from 3.91 to 3.09 and his FIP from 4.24 to 3.74. Although Matt Morris was the one who got the wins and therefore most of the attention, it was Kile who led Cardinals pitchers by ERA and WAR in 2001.
Starting Pitcher #5—2000 Rick Ankiel
In his age-20 season, the lefty posted a rotation-best 3.50 ERA and while he did exhibit some control issues even before his infamous postseason meltdown against the Atlanta Braves, Rick Ankiel struck out 9.98 batters per nine innings, which is still a franchise record among qualified pitchers. While it would violate the rules of this exercise to consider Ankiel’s evolution into a power-hitting outfielder who became the greatest two-way player since Babe Ruth, Ankiel did hit two home runs and was an above-average hitting pitcher, for what it’s worth.
Closer—1995 Tom Henke
So this is really more of a closer-by-committee situation, but if one player must be designated, it is 1995 Tom Henke. In his lone year in St. Louis before retiring, Henke posted 36 saves, earning the save in over 58% of the team’s wins during the strike-shortened season. He only pitched 54 1⁄3 innings but thanks to a 1.82 ERA, he was the most valuable non-outfielder on the team by WAR.
Relief Pitcher—2011 Fernando Salas
Yes, it feels weird picking a reliever who earned and then lost the closer role during a World Series-winning season, but Fernando Salas was really good by and large in 2011. Salas pitched in 68 games, earning a team-high 24 saves with a 2.28 ERA and 3.16 FIP. Only Chris Carpenter accumulated more WAR among the 2011 World Series champion pitchers than Fernando Salas.
Relief Pitcher—2006 Braden Looper
Yes, it feels weird picking another reliever from the other World Series champion during this time frame. While 2006 Jason Isringhausen spent most of the season as closer, his 5.70 FIP is too troubling for me and thus I must exclude him from the roster altogether. Looper pitched in 69 games for the Cardinals, with a solid 3.56 ERA and 3.46 FIP. He was second to Adam Wainwright in reliever WAR, but I opted for using Cy Young-caliber starter Waino rather than in middle relief.
Relief Pitcher—2007 Russ Springer
The 2007 Cardinals were, Rick Ankiel heroics and Albert Pujols remaining awesome aside, a largely uninspiring bunch. They won 78 games and the 2006 Devil Magic clearly wore off, thus inviting a mini-rebuild in the ensuing off-season. But 2007 did give us Russ Springer, fifth on the team in WAR behind four guys already on this roster (Pujols, Wainwright, Molina, Rolen). 2007 and 2008 were the best seasons of Springer’s career, though the edge goes to 2007, in which Springer posted a 2.18 ERA, a 2.83 FIP, and 66 innings in his age-38 season.
Lefty Reliever—1993 Paul Kilgus
The player whose presence on this roster will likely lead to the most frantic Baseball Reference searches, Kilgus pitched in only 22 games for the 1993 Cardinals, and while I am willing to accept that his ERA should be docked a little bit due to lack of sample size, a 0.63 ERA in 28 2/3 innings is irresistible.
Long Reliever/Spot Starter—1999 Darren Oliver
His 4.26 ERA and 4.28 FIP may not sound amazing today, but Darren Oliver’s 1999 was above-average for the era. Although one could also make an argument in this spot for Oliver’s teammate (and VEB reader!) Kent Bottenfield, this creates the added bonus of putting an additional lefty in the bullpen. And if you consider this cheating, you can always move 2000 Rick Ankiel (who did appear in relief) to the pen while putting Oliver in the rotation. The flexibility of this hypothetical team shall overwhelm its opponents.
What changes would you make for your All-Quarter Century Team? Feel free to yell at me in the comments!