Some players would be virtually impossible for the St. Louis Cardinals to have on their team. Take Alex Bregman, for instance. The Houston Astros superstar third baseman was drafted in 2015 before the Cardinals ever had a draft pick, he was never considered a player realistically on the trading block, and he signed an extension through 2024 well before he reached free agency.
Many more players, however, could be St. Louis Cardinals. In the wake of a Ben Frederickson St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about a notable almost-Cardinal, Chicago White Sox outfielder Luis Robert (more on him later), I put out a question to St. Louis Bullpen’s followers on Twitter:
I got seven unique replies, including many repeats of the same answers. In some of these cases, fan complaints are valid–the Cardinals should have known better, they didn’t, and they should be mocked for their ineptitude. In other cases, these critiques are being administered with jarring levels of historic revisionism.
I am all for criticizing the Cardinals when it is warranted, but I also think it’s worth focusing on the truly egregious cases. Baseball teams make hundreds of personnel decisions and non-decisions every year, and to fixate on every single one which could have marginally improved the team is a recipe for headaches. I do not encourage living your life that way.
Below is a list of tiers of revisionism that I encourage for each of the suggestions submitted. Thank you to all for not mentioning Nolan Arenado.
Tier One: The Legitimate Grievance
I had a few names I was expecting to hear, and I heard them, but here’s an example I had completely forgotten–Justin Turner. I had completely forgotten that not only was the Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman a free agent before eventually re-signing with the Dodgers, but he was the subject of some light rumors of coming to St. Louis. I think people who want to complain about the Cardinals’ front office should focus more on this one. Because it was a bad miss by the Cardinals.
Following the 2016 season, Justin Turner was an established MLB entity–although he was a late bloomer, he was a star at the plate and in the field for the previous three seasons. Now, the Cardinals already had a third baseman in Matt Carpenter, but they were planning on moving him to first base for the next season to accommodate Jhonny Peralta, who had a below-average season at the plate and in the field the year before.
It is important to note that Justin Turner, by all accounts, really liked playing for the Dodgers, so perhaps the Cardinals would have needed to semi-noticeably outbid them, but given that Turner has been worth far and beyond his four-year, $64 million contract, there is a lot of wiggle room. It especially hurts given that the Cardinals then turned around and spent more on Dexter Fowler, who has played well in 2020 and hasn’t been quite the disaster his reputation makes him out to be, but has certainly been a less valuable player than Justin Turner.
Tier Two: The Coin-Flip Error
Justin Turner was a known commodity. Luis Robert wasn’t. So I’m a bit more tolerant of the Cardinals missing out on him simply because there was a decent enough chance that he was going to turn into a Midwestern version of Rusney Castillo. But it doesn’t appear that he will.
In May 2017, Luis Robert was a highly coveted and anticipated 19 year-old in the international signing market and he signed with the Chicago White Sox for $26 million. A detail of note is that for the Cardinals, who had already spent internationally, the actual cost would have doubled, due to international signing caps. Of course, $52 million for a player who is currently putting up MVP-caliber numbers on the south side of Chicago is still a bargain, since he was effectively given a rookie contract (he has since signed a MLB extension, bringing the effective cost of his first six MLB years to $76 million, or $102 million if it were the Cardinals). But this wasn’t the cost of signing an MVP candidate; it was the cost of signing a 19 year-old who had only played in one particularly above-average professional baseball season.
Tier Three: The Outlier
In 2014, as he entered free agency, Max Scherzer was a big-ticket free agent that everybody in baseball knew was a star. Surely, a pitching-starved contender would pony up for a man of his talents. But the Cardinals weren’t pitching-starved at all. The year before, they had a Cy Young finalist in Adam Wainwright, and depth so thorough that the team felt comfortable trading 2013 Rookie of the Year finalist Shelby Miller to the Atlanta Braves in order to bolster their outfield. And in 2015, it worked! The Cardinals had five pitchers start at least twenty games and the one with the worst ERA came in at 3.38 and was an All-Star. The staff had the third-best collective ERA of any team this century.
The only way Max Scherzer, whose being from nearby Chesterfield is a major part of the narrative for why the Cardinals should have signed him (though I firmly reject the notion that he would have taken some massive salary discount to play in St. Louis), could remain such an object of fixation for Cardinals fans was by being the rare free agent signing who remained awesome on the latter half of his contract. The Cardinals didn’t need Scherzer in 2015, but they could use a guy like him down the road. Max Scherzer turned out to be arguably the greatest free agent signing since Barry Bonds.
In hindsight, he would have been a great signing, even beyond the obvious talent he had when he was available. But this is a distinct case of Cardinals Brain flaring up. Any team should have signed Max Scherzer, and fixating on one of the teams with the least pressing need to do so is a thing one only does when they view all of baseball through Cardinal Red-colored glasses.
Tier Four: Be Careful What You Wish For
The good thing about a lot of these transactions is that I was an active blogger when they happened, so I remember what the internet discourse was when the trades happened. And I remember the reactions during the Great Marlins Firesale of 2017. The Yankees’ acquiring of Giancarlo Stanton was a bargain in terms of assets changing hands. The Cardinals’ acquiring of Marcell Ozuna for a few spare prospects was an incredible coup for a team seeking a big bat in the middle of the lineup. And the Brewers’ acquisition of Christian Yelich was a bit of an overpay.
This has all been scrambled over the last few years. Giancarlo Stanton has been plagued by injuries. Marcell Ozuna was inconsistent and Zac Gallen turned out surprisingly effective. Christian Yelich became an MVP. At the time of the trade, it wasn’t even an absolute consensus that Yelich was a better player than Ozuna, and he certainly wasn’t viewed as better than Stanton. And then he went and had by far his two best professional seasons in Milwaukee.
The Christian Yelich trade became a major, major win for the Brewers because none of the prospects they sent to Miami, particularly package headliner Lewis Brinson, have materialized in any meaningful way. But wishcasting that the Cardinals had acquired Christian Yelich doesn’t mean they get to send off prospects who turn out to be overrated–maybe the Cardinals’ equivalent ends up being the similarly ranked Alex Reyes, but the next two prospects down the list were Carson Kelly, who was a major part of the Paul Goldschmidt trade, and Jack Flaherty, who is history’s greatest hero. A Yelich trade would have been risky, and it’s very possible that even if Yelich turned into what he became in Milwaukee, it wouldn’t have been a true win for the Cardinals.
Tier Five: The Draft Hindsight All-Stars
Two submissions are too similar to separate here–that the Cardinals didn’t draft Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton.
Trout, the best player in the world, was the twenty-fifth overall pick of the 2009 MLB Draft, and six picks earlier, the Cardinals drafted Shelby Miller, who is not as good as Mike Trout. Not to belabor an obvious point, but yes, drafting Mike Trout would have been preferable. But it wasn’t as though the Cardinals, or any team (even the Angels, who drafted Randal Grichuk one pick earlier) knew what Mike Trout was going to become. He was an intriguing enough prospect to go in the first round, but while the 2009 draft had a generationally-hyped prospect, that prospect went #1 overall (Stephen Strasburg). And Miller turned out pretty valuable for the Cardinals–the pick led to Miller’s 5.6 WAR as a Cardinal, Jason Heyward’s 6.9 WAR as a Cardinal, and Dakota Hudson’s (the compensation pick for losing Heyward in free agency) 2.7 and counting WAR as a Cardinal. The only two picks before Trout who have produced that much value so far have been Stephen Strasburg and A.J. Pollock. Not picking him worked out way worse for almost every other team.
As for Giancarlo Stanton, the suggestion was that the Cardinals’ mistake was selecting Pete Kozma over him. Strangely, Kozma wasn’t even the most recent Cardinals pick before Stanton, a second rounder, was selected. The Cardinals also selected Clayton Mortensen, a Matt Holliday trade throw-in, and David Kopp, a guy who never made it to the Majors. Kopp, selected five picks before Stanton, is the real whiff to the extent that one exists, but this game can be played with anybody. I wrote an entire post about it before the season. It will exhaust you and eat away at your soul.
Tier Six: The “I can’t even conceive of another MLB team existing” tier
In 1999, St. Louis had one of the greatest findings in sports history when Kurt Warner, a journeyman who had bounced around various minor football leagues and had even been exposed in that Spring’s Expansion Draft for the Cleveland Browns, became an NFL and Super Bowl MVP-winning quarterback for the Rams. Now, the Rams obviously didn’t think Kurt Warner was this good. They may have had a marginally higher opinion of him than most or even all NFL teams, but if they thought he was an MVP, they never would have left him exposed for an expansion draft, even if they were reasonably certain he wouldn’t be taken. They never would have signed Trent Green to be the starting quarterback. The Rams got lucky.
Now imagine being a fan of one of the other thirty teams (at the time) in the NFL and taking the stance that your team had screwed up. You could, I guess, but everybody screwed up. Crazy things happen and surprises come about. It’s what makes sports magical and not purely analytics. Sports would be incredibly boring if surprises never happened. But there is a certain tier of extremely boring person out there. And these are the people who fixate on the fact that the Cardinals did not sign Fernando Tatis Jr.
Fernando Tatis Jr. is an extraordinarily exciting player for the San Diego Padres, just twenty-one years old but the current front-runner for National League MVP. And it turns out the Cardinals scouted him and considered signing him. But they didn’t.
A future St. Louis Cardinals Mandela effect, a false memory that becomes viewed as fact in the mind’s eye, is that the Cardinals lost out on signing Fernando Tatis Jr. to the Padres. But they didn’t. They lost out to the White Sox.
Before the 2015 season, James Shields signed with the San Diego Padres as a free agent as part of A.J. Preller’s ill-conceived bid to turn the Padres into instant contenders by adding a bunch of established MLB stars who were still absolutely nowhere close to as good as the Los Angeles Dodgers. And Shields was instantly underwhelming. Not horrible, but not great, and not what the Padres were expecting. For the first two months of 2016, he was even worse. And this is when the Chicago White Sox decided to trade MLB pitcher Erik Johnson and Fernando Tatis Jr. for him.
This was obviously a horrendous trade for the Chicago White Sox, but keep that in perspective–this is the level of prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. was after he had began his professional baseball career. The kind of guy you could throw into a trade for a guy you could probably get for free. It is very cool as a baseball fan that Fernando Tatis Jr. was able to boost his prospect status so much over the next few years. This should be appreciated on its own terms, not regarded as some sort of obvious blemish on the resume of a front office that, like every other front office (including, probably, the Padres) didn’t think Fernando Tatis Jr. would be this good.