Recent History of Cardinals’ Free Agent Acquisitions

Historically, the St Louis Cardinals have never been big spenders in the free agent market; that is, before they signed Matt Holliday to that huge long-term contract about a year or so ago; and before they potentially sign Albert Pujols to his gazillion dollar long-term pact. Word out of the Pujols camp is “It’s going take a gazillion dollars to keep Albert in St Louis.”

That is a lot of money (I googled it to be certain), but the Cardinals can afford it, despite the front office rhetoric we usually hear about the team’s modest financial wherewithal. Certainly, the Cardinals normally avoid the top-dollar superstars testing the free agent waters, but I think they will make an exception with Mr Pujols – the game’s greatest player. He has become almost as big an institution in St Louis as Stan Musial; and that is saying a lot.

As far as the team’s “financial strength” is concerned, I think we can all rest a little easier knowing that Forbes Magazine recently appraised the St Louis Cardinals franchise at a cool $488 million. Fifteen years ago, when Bill DeWitt and his partners purchased the team, they shelled out $150 million, and in that package came a couple of parking garages, which they promptly sold for $75 million. According to my brilliant accounting calculations, Cardinal Ownership is up $413 million from their original cash outlay; I wish my investment portfolio had the same kind of return over the past fifteen years; how about you? The “bean counters” out there may say my accounting guidelines are flawed; that the team’s “liquid assets” are nowhere near $413 million, blah, blah, blah. Maybe that is true; still, I think they can somehow scrape up enough dough to keep Number Five in a Redbird uniform for another seven to ten years. Knowing that makes me feel warm and fuzzy; and confident the “money issue” with Pujols will be a “non-issue”.

Perhaps the team’s apparent solid financial position made Ownership giddy enough to splurge on free agent-former Astros Cardinal killer-Lance Berkman for a one year deal worth a paltry $8 million – “chump change” by today’s salary standards. This move may seem insignificant to some casual observers who feel Berkman is over the hill, fat, and a defensive liability in left field or right field; or wherever he may be stationed. I disagree. He may not have a Gold Glove in his future, and he may need to shed a few pounds, but I think a return to the National League Central in 2011 is just what he needs to get his bat going again. This is a guy who has averaged over 100 RBIs, 30 home runs, and just under a .300 bating average in his career; not to mention an on-base percentage over .400 (4th best in MLB among active players).

Last season was not a good one for Lance, who hit a mere 13 home runs for the Astros in 85 games, before being shipped off to the Yankees, where he would hit only one more home run in limited duty. He obviously did not like American League pitching and/or playing for the Evil Empire. How many standing ovations did the Yankees fans give him when he strolled to the plate? My educated guess: Zero. Playing in front of fans who are notorious for giving former adversaries “standing ovations” on a regular basis has to be worth something. My educated guess: Over 20 home runs and close to 90 RBIs. Sure, he’ll probably botch a few balls in the outfield, but his bat should make up for any defensive liabilities; if he stays healthy. If he magically returns to the type of production closer to his career averages, that $8 million contract will be one of the biggest bargains the Cardinals will ever receive; and the team will likely be playing deep into the post season; perhaps “World Series deep”.

As I mentioned earlier, the Cardinals are normally quiet on the “free agent front”; the players they have signed in the past have typically been solid performers over their careers, but not the big name superstars. My curiosity got the better of me today, so I looked back on the team’s recent free agent acquisitions (since 2000) to see how things played out. Not surprisingly, most of the players who came on board via the free agent route were quite productive during their stints with St Louis. After all, the Cardinals have the best record in the National League since 2000; it was not an accident.

Here is a quick look back on the deals over the past ten years:

January 7, 2000 – Andy Benes returns for a second tour of duty with the Cardinals (from the Diamonbacks), posting a decent 24-20 record in three seasons, helping the team reach the post season each year.

February 3, 2000 – Shawon Dunston (formerly of the Mets) is acquired (one year deal), and also does his part to help the Cards make it into the post season.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that the Cards also made a sensational trade with the Angels, acquiring Jim Edmonds for Kent Bottenfield and Adam Kennedy. Holy cow!

January 5, 2001 – Bobby Bonilla (from the Braves), Bernard Gilkey (from the Red Sox), and John Mabry (from the Padres) are signed. Nothing spectacular, but solid role players who fit in nicely.

December 10, 2001 – Cards sign closer Jason Isringhausen (from Oakland); in seven seasons through 2008, he racked up a franchise record 217 saves. How about that?

December 18, 2001 – Oops, the Cards sign former Yankee Tino Martinez to play first base in the wake of Mark McGwire’s retirement; he responds with a disappointing .267 batting average and 37 home runs in two seasons with St Louis; plus, he didn’t even like playing for the greatest fans in the world. Jerk.

December 13, 2002 – Bingo! The Cards sign a 27 year old sore-armed pitcher by the name of Chris Carpenter (from the Blue Jays), who had a career 49-50 record. He would miss the entire 2003 season, following shoulder surgery, but since 2004, has been one of the best pitchers in baseball, winning the NL Cy Young Award in ’05, and coming close every other year. That’s a winner!

December 17 – 18, 2002 – Catcher Joe Girardi (formerly with the Rockies) and pitcher Cal Eldred (formerly with the White Sox), climb on board and do little to help their new team. Girardi apparently learned enough to become a pretty good manager, however.

December 16, 2003 – Reggie Sanders (formerly with the Pirates) and Jeff Suppan (formerly with the Red Sox) climb on board in time to help the Cardinals reach the World Series; ironically, against the Red Sox, where Suppan would put on a clinic in Game 3 on how to not score from third base on a ground ball to second base. I was fortunate enough to have witnessed that travesty, first-hand; to this day, I still don’t believe what I saw!

January 9, 2004 – Sentimental favorite Ray Lankford returns to the Cardinals (from the Padres), and plays quite well in limited action for the pennant winning Redbirds.

December 23, 2004 – After losing shortstop Edgar Renteria to free agency (the Red Sox), the Cards sign future ’06 World Series hero David Eckstein (from the Angels) to replace him; he becomes a fan favorite right off the bat, hitting .294 as a lead-off hitter, while playing solid defense up the middle. Nice commodities!

January 6, 2005 – Former Cubs second baseman Mark Grudzielanek gives the Cards a solid bat (he’s the last Cardinal to hit for the cycle) and adequate defense, to boot. I hated to see him leave.

December 13, 2005 – Ricardo Rincon (formerly with Oakland) signs a two-year deal for under $3 million, then disappears, while still dressed up like a Cardinal. The pay scale has edged up slightly over the past five years, eh?

December 15, 2005 – Braden Looper (formerly with the Mets) signs a three year deal ($13.5 million) to try to save a few games every now and then. I actually witnessed, first-hand, one of his saves in ’06, against the mighty Diamondbacks. They needed that save; otherwise, no post season; no World Series. Thanks, Braden!

December 23, 2005 – In the wake of Larry Walker’s retirement, the Cards sign Juan Encarnacion (formerly with the Marlins) to a three-year, $15 million contract, and earns his keep; especially in ’06. They also signed Junior Spivey (formerly with the Nationals) to a one year deal to play second base, after Mark Grudzielanek signs with Kansas City, of all teams!

February 17, 2006 – Former Mariners third baseman, Scott Spezio hooks on with the future World Champions, and plays a huge role in helping the Cards reach The Promised Land; with late-season and post season heroics, which made Spezio and his little red goatee a folk hero in St Louis.

October 28, 2006 – The day after winning their National League record tenth World Series championship, the Cards sign second baseman Adam Kennedy (formerly with the Angels) and pitcher Kip Wells (formerly with the Pirates); both deals backfire; Kennedy hit .219 in ’07, while Wells went 7-17 with an ERA of 5.70. “Good luck” went on a temporary hiatus after the Cards knocked off Detroit in just five games, huh?

December 1, 2006 – But wait! The Cards sign free agent Ryan Ludwick to provide some home run power, and he responds with 37 dingers in an otherwise dreadful ’07 season for the team. Everything seemed to go wrong that season for the Redbirds.

October 31, 2007 – Jason LaRue (formerly with the Royals) signs a contract as back-up catcher for the Cards, but his career is now over; thanks to an injury sustained in last season’s August brawl in Cincinnati.

March 14, 2008 – Pitcher Kyle Lohse (formerly with the Phillies) is added to the roster; he responds with a 15-6 record and 3.78 ERA in his first season with the team. It’s been all downhill since for Kyle.

For the most part, the Cardinals have fared well when dabbling in free agency, spending wisely and generally receiving good value for their millions. When this season is over, I hope we can look back on the Lance Berkman deal and say, “I knew he could still play! Hooray for the World Champion Cardinals, and hooray for gazillionaire Albert Pujols for agreeing to stay in St Louis for something less than ‘top dollar’!”

Is this a great team, or what?

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