If you’ve been near a TV or internet browser in the past few days, you know that Bryce Harper has signed an enormous deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, thus ending any pipe dreams of Harper suiting up for the St. Louis Cardinals.
The Cardinals could still sign Dallas Keuchel (as this blog has previously advocated) or bring in Craig Kimbrel, but since both of those moves would be out of character for this front office, it seems pretty safe to say that the team is done signing new players in this free agency period.
Harper’s signing, and the Cardinals’ apparent indifference to his free agency, have sparked debate about the team’s free agent philosophy and whether or not they can build a championship team in this day and age. As we debate these things, now seems like a good time to look back at the best and worst free agent signings the Cardinals have made over the last 20 years.
For the purpose of this series, we’ll only be looking at players who first arrived in St. Louis via free agency. This means that players like like Matt Holliday (who was initially a trade acquisition before signing his mega deal) won’t be eligible.
Today, let’s get to the best of the best:
- Chris Carpenter (2002, 1 year/$1 million)
In terms of bang for your buck, no free agent on this list delivered more than Carpenter. The righty had battled injuries and inconsistency during his first few years with the Toronto Blue Jays before the Cardinals gave him a second chance in 2002. After spending 2003 recovering from injury, the Cardinals re-signed him to another short-term deal. A revitalized Carpenter went 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA to win NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2004.
And that was just the beginning.
The following year, he won the NL Cy Young. Then came the first of two World Series titles a year later. He was absolutely nails in the postseason, with a 10-4 record and a 3.00 ERA over 18 starts, including his duel with Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the 2011 NLDS and his gutsy performance in Game 7 of the 2011 World Series. He was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame in 2016.
- Carlos Beltran (2012, 2 years/$26 million)
After years of making Cardinals pitchers miserable in October (most of the time, anyway), Beltran came to St. Louis as a “counter move” to the departure of Albert Pujols. His bat helped keep the team a title contender.
Beltran was an All-Star in both of his seasons with the Cards and was a force in both postseasons, batting .306 with five home runs and driving in 21 runs. In Game 1 of the 2013 NLDS, Beltran turned a critical double play in the outfield and hit a walk-off line drive in the 13th. A model teammate, he also won the Roberto Clemente Award in 2013.
Even though the Cardinals came up just short in their quest to get Beltran his first World Series ring, it was a thrilling to see him do damage to other teams in October for a change.
- Lance Berkman (2011, 1 year/$8 million)
The other member of the Killer B’s to join the Cardinals, Berkman’s one year deal proved to be a very wise investment. At age 35, Berkman batted .301 with 34 home runs and 95 RBI, earning his sixth career All-Star bid and the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.
Berkman was also the unsung hero of the 2011 World Series, hitting a game-tying RBI in the bottom of the 10th with, yep, one strike left. He did sign a one-year extension following the season, but injuries limited him to just 32 games.
- Jeff Suppan (2004, 2 years/$4 million)
Suppan played for seven different teams in his career, but his best years came during his first stint with the Cardinals in the mid-2000s.
“Supp” would win 16 games in each of his first two seasons in St. Louis, and it’s entirely possible that the Cards do not win the World Series in 2006 (or at least advance past the Mets) without him. He posted a 3.00 ERA in nine postseason starts with the Redbirds, and was named MVP of the 2006 NLCS.
- David Eckstein (2005, 3 years/$10.25 million)
When the Cardinals needed a big hit, Eckstein always seemed to deliver. In the 2006 World Series, Eckstein shook off a 1 for 11 start to go 8 for 22 the rest of the way, including hitting three doubles in Game 4 to win the World Series MVP award and a brand new Corvette.
Even though the 2006 postseason would prove to be his career peak, Eckstein quickly became a fan favorite for his clutch hitting and aggressive style of play. He also may or may not have left a little bit of Devil Magic behind when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch before Game 6 of the 2011 World Series.
- Jason Isringhausen (2002, 4 years/$27 million)
Izzy’s deal was the richest contract the Cardinals had ever given to a free agent pitcher before Brett Cecil came along. Unlike Cecil, this deal for the former Oakland closer turned out to be worth it.
He had a flair for the dramatic at times (often loading the bases before shutting the door), but Izzy held down the closer role for seven seasons, recording a franchise record 217 saves with a 2.98 ERA. He led the National League with 47 saves in 2004, tying single-season club record that stood until Trevor Rosenthal broke it in 2015.
Side note: Isringhausen’s departure from the A’s is documented in the movie Moneyball, along with the departures of Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi that same year. But unlike Damon (who went to the Red Sox) and Giambi (who went to the Yankees), the movie never mentions where Isringhausen signed. It bothers me to this day.
- Jhonny Peralta (2004, 4 years/$53 million)
Pete Kozma wasn’t exactly cutting it at shortstop, so the Cardinals turned to Peralta to fill one of the only weak spots on their roster. There was some controversy about signing a guy who had recently been suspended for PED use, but the gamble ended up paying big dividends.
Peralta had a career year in 2014, posting a 120 wRC+ and becoming one of the best defenders in the National League. A hot start to the 2015 season earned Peralta his third career All Star bid. Injuries rendered him completely ineffective during his final two years in St. Louis, but by that time, he had more than earned his contract.
He also did this.
- Miles Mikolas (2018, 2 years/$15 million)
In need of a starter, the Cardinals found Mikolas pitching in Japan and decided to give him a two-year deal. Nobody could have expected what was to come.
In his first year, Mikolas finished 6th in NL Cy Young voting, lead all NL pitchers with 18 wins, and posted a 2.83 ERA in 200 innings. Whether or not that kind of production is sustainable remains to be seen, but that’s still not bad for a guy who hadn’t pitched in MLB since 2014.
- Kyle Lohse (2008, 1 year/$4.25 million)
Lohse was a journeyman pitcher before signing his one-year deal with the Redbirds in 2008, but he quickly found a home in St. Louis.
After going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA, Lohse spent the next four years with the Cardinals and had the best year of his career in 2012, going 16-3 with a a 2.86 ERA, good enough to finish 7th in NL Cy Young voting. In total, he had five years of very solid production in St. Louis, starting 136 games with a 3.90 ERA and 504 strikeouts.
- Mike Matheny (2000, 1 year/$750,000)
Matheny had two stints in a Cardinals uniform, and needless to say, the first one went a lot better than the second.
As a catcher, Matheny provided stellar defense behind the plate, winning three Gold Gloves and once played over 250 games without committing an error. He also mentored a young Yadier Molina and proved to be a calming voice in the clubhouse following the death of teammate Darryl Kile in 2002. He became a free agent after 2004, but made a strong enough impression on the organization to be brought back a few years later as a special adviser in Spring Training and then….well, you get the idea.