There are twenty-six letters of the alphabet. There are twenty-six players on a Major League Baseball active roster. So I had an idea.
How good of a baseball team could I compile in which every player’s last name begins with a different letter? It’s pretty simple—I get one guy whose last name begins with A. One guy whose last name begins with B. So on and so forth until I’m throwing in mediocre middle relievers to fill in the “U” spot.
So how does one start this exercise, if one were to create an all-time Cardinals team that fit this criteria? I think it makes the most sense to build a team from the top down. I want to make my roster functional and of a realistic baseball team construction, but I’m going to prioritize the top players in my lineup or my staff ace over the #5 reliever on it. So let’s go position by position.
Catcher! Well, there’s two schools of thought over who the best catcher in St. Louis Cardinals history is—Baby Boomers and older Gen-X extoll the virtues of Ted Simmons, while younger folks, such as those who fit my demographics, often side with Yadier Molina. As much as I’d like to turn this team into generational warfare, I won’t—they are both great players and I can put these two aside and see which name better fits the rest of my roster construction. I’m sure either S or M will be conducive to my roster…
…so as it turns out, M is the first letter of the last name of the greatest player in franchise history, and S is the first letter of the last name of by far the greatest shortstop in franchise history. Can I pick either of these catchers given that doing so will mean I have to exclude Stan Musial or Ozzie Smith? Maybe, but I’d rather not, so let’s keep going down the line. By Wins Above Replacement, the next catcher up is…Tim McCarver. So I run into the same problem as with Molina. Next down is Darrell Porter. Perfect! Then all I’ll have to exclude is…Albert Pujols. This is going to be tricky.
In case your sole quest is to find out my roster and then yell at me about it, scroll a little bit further. I’m going to rationalize my picks first. Because there are a few that need some explaining. And no, I didn’t forget the letter X, which to this point has never been represented by a Cardinal.
A—Rick Ankiel: This isn’t as strong of a letter as you might think—the only other player I seriously considered was Pete Alexander, a Hall of Fame pitcher who was a bit past his prime in St. Louis (Matty Alou ranks third by WAR). But Ankiel gives me versatility—he is both a capable lefty reliever, especially if I end up with the 2000 version, and a competent utility outfielder.
B—Ken Boyer: It’s really tough to exclude Lou Brock, a player who, if I had a bonus B, would be my starter in left field. But Boyer is the best third baseman in franchise history and you don’t exactly have to twist my arm to include him on the roster.
C—Matt Carpenter: There’s an argument for Mort Cooper, Steve Carlton, or Chris Carpenter, who were each really good starting pitchers, but Carpenter poses quite the mix-and-match bench option. He’s a premium bench bat on this team as well as a player who can fill in serviceably at second or third base.
D—Dizzy Dean: With all due respect to J.D. Drew, who could have been a bench bat—I’m not passing a mid-to-top of the rotation starter where I can get one.
E—Jim Edmonds: One of the more lopsided letters in the alphabet (my #2, to the extent there was one, was David Eckstein), Edmonds is a no-brainer on this roster. The only question was whether to start him. More on that later.
F—Curt Flood: …speaking of Edmonds as a starting candidate, here’s his competition. My take on Edmonds has always been that Cardinals fans overrate his glove (which was very good—just not all-all-time level) but somewhat underrate his bat—he was a terrific power hitter who drew a lot of walks before we cherished them like we do today. Flood is sort of the Edmonds stereotype—he didn’t have Jimmy’s bat but he’s one of the five greatest defensive center fielders of all time.
G—Bob Gibson: I am not confident about more than a few of my picks on this team. If you don’t have Bob Gibson on your roster, I am requesting a formal explanation of why not.
H—Rogers Hornsby: In a vacuum, including Keith Hernandez or Jesse Haines on an all-time roster of this sort is completely defensible. But Rogers Hornsby, arguably the greatest hitter of all-time at an up-the-middle defensive position, is undeniable. Having a second baseman as great as Hornsby bolsters any all-time Cardinals team. It feels like cheating.
I—Jason Isringhausen: While I admittedly sacrificed much of the bullpen for the sake of improving the starting lineup and rotation, unless I really wanted to throw Dane Iorg into the lineup for some reason, there wasn’t much of a choice here. Picking one of the franchise’s better closers was a no-brainer.
J—Larry Jackson: If I didn’t have a backlog of excellent outfielders, I might have considered Brian Jordan, but the deeply underrated Larry Jackson will be a welcome addition to my starting rotation.
K—Whitey Kurowski: There’s a case that this is overkill—Kurowski, while great, joins the likes of Ken Boyer and Matt Carpenter at the third base position. But in the end, I didn’t need 19th century workhorse pitcher/William Jennings Bryan dream Silver King nor pre-Hornsby franchise legend Ed Konetchy, so I opted for the “modern” pick of a third baseman whose prime years came during World War II.
L—Ray Lankford: Max Lanier has a case, but in the end, I didn’t really want him over any of my regular starting pitchers, and there’s always room for Ray Lankford. In fact, not to get ahead of myself, but there’s room for him in my starting lineup. While he was primarily a center fielder, I already have two great ones, so I can throw him in left and know that I’m going to have a stellar defensive outfielder, not to mention one that can rake.
M—Stan Musial: The only argument would be that there’s a lot of really good players who could play one of Stan Musial’s positions and that Yadier Molina plays a thinner one. That said, it’s Stan Musial.
N—Pat Neshek: It seems weird to pick a “the six letters they give you in Wheel of Fortune” letter’s player to be a relief pitcher who only spent one year in St. Louis. But Neshek was lights-out in 2014 to such an extent that I’m pretty thrilled to have him on a team where most of the people on it are way more famous than he is.
O—Jose Oquendo: Perhaps Oquendo isn’t quite as useful on a roster where there are a ton of position players and most positions are covered two-fold, but a player as productive and versatile as Jose Oquendo is nevertheless enjoyable to have around. Honorable mentions are Tip O’Neill, who had a gargantuan 1887 for St. Louis, and Ken Oberkfell, a very good player who isn’t quite to the Boyer/Carpenter/Kurowski tier of third basemen.
P—Albert Pujols: There are some guys where it’s just so much easier to not overthink it and here is one of them.
Q—Dan Quisenberry: He was primarily known for his time as a relief pitcher with the Kansas City Royals, and he wasn’t especially good with St. Louis, but there was one very important area at which Dan Quisenberry excelled with the Cardinals—having a last name that begins with the letter Q.
R—Trevor Rosenthal: There’s a case for Scott Rolen. There’s really a case for Edgar Renteria because, well, see below. But Trevor Rosenthal is one of the best relievers in franchise history and there are only so many of them one can include without excluding a player who is impossible to neglect.
S—Ted Simmons: I hate omitting Ozzie Smith for self-explanatory reasons, but if I didn’t, I’d hate omitting Ted Simmons. And that’s not even to mention Enos Slaughter, a guy who has his number retired that I didn’t even seriously consider for this roster because he has such a loaded letter. But I felt like, in order to have a catcher who didn’t seem wildly unqualified, I was going to have to cut Ozzie Smith, Stan Musial, or maybe Albert Pujols. In the end, I think this was the right cut.
T—Garry Templeton: He wasn’t as good as Ozzie Smith. He became a pariah of sorts in St. Louis because of the way his time with the Cardinals ended. But Garry Templeton was a really good shortstop. He’s probably a top five shortstop in franchise history even without excluding guys for this absurd alphabet premise. He was a plus hitter whose defense, while far from Ozzie-like, was still solid. In his five full seasons in St. Louis, Templeton received MVP votes twice. He’s a footnote in St. Louis while Petco Park, as of 2018 when I was there at least, still sold Garry Templeton throwback jerseys. And he was better in St. Louis.
U—Tom Urbani: Urbani was a pretty bad swingman who threw enough innings as a reliever that I’m justifying his presence here (also, he’s a lefty, which is nice). But the option is either him or Bob Uecker as a backup catcher. Uecker isn’t any worse of a choice, but I have another option in the back of my mind for that role.
V—Fernando Vina: There are several cromulent options—Pete Vuckovich, Dave Veres, Andy Van Slyke. But Vina fills a role of very good defensive second baseman who I trust more as a backup to Hornsby in the field than I do Matt Carpenter. I can’t argue against Veres, a relief pitcher, but I will never forgive him for blowing a save in 2002 against the Marlins during a day game I got to attend on a field trip. I deserve a personal apology for this.
W—Adam Wainwright: Bill White and Kolten Wong would be backups (albeit very good backups) to Albert Pujols and Rogers Hornsby. Adam Wainwright makes my starting rotation. It’s no contest.
Y—Cy Young: As I prepped my research for the letter Y, I thought I was going to have to settle for Dmitri Young, a short-lived Cardinal who is best known for one hit against the Braves one time, punching a fan while in the minor leagues, and looking like Cedric the Entertainer. And then I remembered that the guy they named the pitching award was a Cardinal, and a quite good one too.
Z—Todd Zeile: As a third baseman, he’s completely redundant for reasons I won’t relitigate. But Zeile was also a catcher, and is a far more admirable option in this role than Bob Uecker would have been.
So here is how I am constructing my lineup and pitching.
Bench: Matt Carpenter, Curt Flood, Whitey Kurowski, Jose Oquendo, Fernado Vina, Todd Zeile
Starting Rotation: Bob Gibson, Dizzy Dean, Adam Wainwright, Cy Young, Larry Jackson
Bullpen: Rick Ankiel, Jason Isringhausen, Pat Neshek, Dan Quisenberry, Trevor Rosenthal, Tom Urbani