As promised yesterday, I will present twelve recent Cardinals who just barely missed out on my list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years. Starting tomorrow, the stories will get quite a bit longer.
Carlos Beltran–He was only a Cardinal for two years, but his impact as the de facto replacement for Albert Pujols was felt in ways both obvious and subtle. An All-Star and the team’s home run leader in both of his seasons in St. Louis, Beltran may be best remembered as the team’s greatest post-2011 postseason hero. Although overshadowed at the time by Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma’s Game 5 heroics, it was Beltran who was the team’s greatest offensive tour-de-force in the 2012 NLDS against the Washington Nationals, and in the 2013 NLCS, he came through with a key outfield assist to throw out a potential go-ahead run in extra innings in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Dodgers and with a game-winning hit later in the game. Despite mostly lackluster defense which particularly revealed itself in 2013, Beltran was productive enough at the plate to garner a qualifying offer, and with the draft pick the Cardinals received as compensation from the New York Yankees, the Cardinals were able to select Jack Flaherty, which is perhaps a better bit of aftermath directly attributable to Carlos Beltran than what the Houston Astros got.
Jack Flaherty–Flaherty’s legacy as a Cardinal is still being written, so I can only go off of what we’ve seen so far. And his 2019 season, particularly the latter half of it, remains one of the most awe-inspiring runs of the last quarter-century. At just twenty-three, Flaherty became appointment television in ways with which he flirted as a 22 year-old but which seems unfathomable for such a long stretch. Despite a 2020 season, abbreviated as it was, which certainly didn’t live up to Flaherty’s 2019, he remains the team’s most effective starting pitcher and will likely feel like a glaring omission from the top twenty-five a generation from now.
Jaime Garcia–He will always have the dubious distinction of being a Rookie of the Year finalist in a crop with two players who went on to much better careers than him (Buster Posey and Jason Heyward), being chased after three innings in the most iconic game in franchise history–Game 6 of the 2011 World Series (while his dominant Game 2 performance is now lost to history after Jason Motte allowed two runs in the ninth inning), and never being the best pitcher on the Cardinals. But despite constantly battling injuries, Garcia gritted his way to a productive near-decade in St. Louis. His finest season came in 2015, when after three consecutive seasons ended prematurely by injury (and beginning the season on the then-Disabled List), Garcia was a pivotal cog of a starting rotation which guided the Cardinals to 100 wins. In 129 2/3 innings, Garcia sailed to a 2.43 ERA, and while a lackluster 2016 led to him being traded to the Atlanta Braves, history will hopefully be able to remember him as a case of perseverance.
Jason Heyward–The only one-year player who even came particularly close to making this list was Jason Heyward. A pending free agent for a rebuilding Atlanta Braves team, Heyward was assigned the unenviable task of replacing the late Oscar Taveras in right field, and the cost appeared steep–Shelby Miller was a year removed from an excellent rookie campaign and he seemed destined to be a rotation mainstay. But Heyward had perhaps his best season in the Majors in 2015–his 121 wRC+ equaled his best offensive output since his rookie season of 2010, he stole a career-high 23 bases and was caught just three times, and he remained the most feared defensive right fielder in the sport. Heyward’s departure to the arch-rival Chicago Cubs, which was met with plenty of mythology about Heyward taking less money to go to Chicago, left many Cardinals fans with a sour taste in their mouths, but his 2015 production was undeniable. And as much as Heyward and John Lackey, arguably the best position player and pitcher of the 100-win 2015 Cardinals, heading to the Cubs of all teams may have been an ego blow, the compensatory draft picks the Cardinals received, Dylan Carlson and Dakota Hudson, could make the whole ordeal worth it in the end.
Jon Jay–Anybody who knows me knows that Jon Jay is arguably my favorite Cardinal ever. He spent every second he was in a Cardinals uniform with the possible exception of a few months in late 2012 being questioned or compared to an alternative choice, be it Ryan Ludwick, Colby Rasmus, Skip Schumaker, Shane Robinson, Peter Bourjos, Tommy Pham, or Randal Grichuk. But he, a non-prospect who arrived in 2010 to little fanfare, spent six seasons in St. Louis, and for the first five–even I, the unapologetic Jon Jay stan that I am, can acknowledge how awul he was in 2015–he was an above-average hitter who was no worse than serviceable in all three outfield positions. Jay never had the peaks to crack the top 25, but he was a thoroughly productive outfielder whose Cardinals career includes a game-tying run in extra innings of an elimination World Series game, so it wasn’t as though his career was strictly based on accumulation. Jon Jay, an overachiever who was beloved by his teammates, is the kind of player that old-timers love to claim they’d love to have a whole roster of, and while I wouldn’t quite go that far, he is the kind of player any good team would have loved to have somewhere in the puzzle.
Kyle Lohse–Lohse joined the Cardinals as a 29 year-old reclamation project in 2008 and he surpassed all reasonable expectations of him, logged 200 above-average innings on his way to a four-year, $41 million contract. The first two years of the contract were a bit rocky, but he started to turn things around in 2011 (I choose to believe the time he impersonated Tony LaRussa was what did the trick), when he won a team-high 14 games, and in his final year in St. Louis of 2012, Lohse was even better, with a career-best 16-3 record and 2.86 ERA, after which he received his only career Cy Young Award votes. The Cardinals were more than happy to let Lohse cash in with the Milwaukee Brewers in order to pave the way for their ascending young pitchers, and Lohse was never the same again (for what it’s worth, Rob Kaminsky, a shockingly effective reliever for the Cardinals in 2020 who was once traded for Brandon Moss, was the Lohse compensation pick). But Lohse, the winning pitcher in the first-ever Wild Card Game, was an effective pitcher and an important part of the team’s 2011 World Series run.
Miles Mikolas–When Miles Mikolas, a nearly thirty-year-old MLB washout who had rebuilt himself as an effective starting pitcher in Japan over his previous three seasons, signed with the Cardinals for two years and $15.5 million in December 2017, the expectation was that he would serve as a decent back-end starting pitcher, but in 2018, Mikolas was not only the best pitcher on the Cardinals, but he was one of the best pitchers in the sport as a whole. Mikolas tied for the National League lead in wins and cruised to a 2.83 ERA in over 200 innings. He was a throwback to the Dave Duncan era of Cardinals starter–not especially overpowering but an expert in avoiding walks and forcing weakly hit ground balls, on his way to a sixth place Cy Young finished. Mikolas regressed in 2019, leading the NL instead in losses (though this exaggerates his regression; he was a league average-ish pitcher whose run support luck ran out), but he pitched well in the postseason, to the tune of a 1.50 ERA. Although Mikolas arguably pitched above his actual talent in 2018, he seems to be a solid starter when healthy.
Jhonny Peralta–It’s hard to be a more perfect fit as a free agent signing than Jhonny Peralta when the Cardinals, coming off a 97-win season in which the team’s starting shortstop, Pete Kozma, hit like a glorified pitcher, inked the veteran to a four-year contract in 2013. It is often said that, when signing a veteran, a team should expect performance beyond his salary expectations early on and for the back half of the contract to be a bit of an overpay, and it’s hard to remember a player who was a more exaggerated version of this prototype than Peralta. In 2014, Jhonny Peralta went beyond merely being an improvement at the plate over Kozma–he led the team in home runs, was easily the team’s most valuable position player by Wins Above Replacement (choose your version), and was a top-two shortstop in all of baseball by the same metric. Despite not looking the part in a conventional sense (though, having met him in person, television made him look pudgier than what he actually was, which was absurdly jacked), Peralta was a slick defender–he positioned himself wisely and rarely made mistakes, making him a precursor for Paul DeJong. In 2015, Peralta got off to another solid start, earning a second consecutive All-Star Game appearance, but his production slipped down the stretch–on the whole, he was still a tick above-average, but he was not the down-ballot MVP candidate he had been the year prior. And in 2016, Peralta began to decline more rapidly–he was a below-average hitter and his defense regressed to a point where a move to third base was necessary. But in 2017, his offense was nowhere near third base levels, and after 58 plate appearances with a .259 on-base percentage and a .204 slugging percentage which matched his batting average, the Cardinals designated Peralta for assignment. It was an anticlimactic conclusion to Peralta’s MLB career, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that he was a true star at a position of dire need in the mid-2010s for the Cardinals.
Placido Polanco–Sometimes, the trade which brought Scott Rolen to St. Louis will be regarded as an act of grand larceny by Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, but while Placido Polanco didn’t reach Scott Rolen’s Hall of Fame-caliber career, he was an extremely useful infielder who went on to a long and solid MLB career with the Philadelphia Phillies and Detroit Tigers, a career which even culminated with some Hall of Fame votes. And while the Cardinals version of Polanco wasn’t quite the All-Star or Gold Glove version of him, he was a worthy centerpiece of the Scott Rolen trade. After a pair of rough years as a utility infielder, Polanco broke through in 2000 as an oft-played 2B/3B/SS, with a strong glove and a serviceable bat, and was a 4+ WAR player as the team’s primary third baseman in 2001. The analytical revolution has been increasingly kind to Polanco, one of the finest defensive players of his era with enough of a bat to be a very valuable player for any good team to have.
Colby Rasmus–Like Polanco, Colby Rasmus is better known today for his departure from the Cardinals than for his accomplishments with the team. But at least Polanco can say he was the centerpiece of a trade that brought a future Hall of Fame candidate to St. Louis–the Colby Rasmus story is now, fairly or unfairly, that he was such a toxic component of team chemistry that he had to be jettisoned for a handful of rental pitchers and that the team suddenly hit its stride en route to a World Series victory after his departure. But this is deeply unfair to Rasmus, who did clash with Tony LaRussa (not exactly an experience unique to Rasmus) but whose greatest sin to the 2011 roster’s construction was being redundant–the Cardinals had another center fielder (the aforementioned Jon Jay) who provided similar production, and the former top prospect could yield reinforcements Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Marc Rzepczynski, so the Cardinals made a win-now move that happened to work in spectacular fashion. But prior to the July 2011 trade which sent Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays, the annointed heir apparent to Jim Edmonds in center field at times looked like a burgeoning superstar. In 2009, the rookie belted 16 home runs and provided superior defense, scoring a third-place Rookie of the Year vote in the process. In 2010, he was even better, with 23 home runs and an increasingly disciplined eye leading to a .361 on-base percentage, and Rasmus asserted himself as the team’s next young star to follow the likes of Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina. And even his 2011 stats, though certainly down from 2010, were quite a bit better in St. Louis than his awful run with Toronto made them look in total–while his defensive numbers had taken a bit of a dip, he was still an above-average hitter in his 386 plate appearances with the Cardinals that season.
Fernando Viña–Second base was a notoriously weak position for the Cardinals for most of the last quarter-century, but the veteran Fernando Viña provided a temporary reprieve in the early 2000s. The definition of a slap hitter, Viña struck out in 6.5% of his plate appearances in 2000 and it was easily the most he struck out in any of his three full seasons in St. Louis. That he was later listed on the Mitchell Report for steroid use became arguably the report’s greatest meme, as Viña was most definitely not a power hitter, hitting just 18 home runs in his 2,221 plate appearances with the Cardinals at the height of the home run era. But this was really the only hole in his game in his first two seasons in St. Louis–his relative lack of walks weren’t really an issue given how often he put the ball in play, hence a .380 and .357 on-base percentage in 2000 and 2001. But more than anything, Fernando Viña’s trademark was his glove, winning Gold Gloves in 2001 and 2002 (although the metrics indicate 2000 as easily his best in a Cardinals uniform). He saw a dip in his offensive production in 2002, and in 2003, his defense followed. By 2004, Viña was on the Detroit Tigers and struggling to the finish line of his workmanlike twelve-year MLB career. It probably didn’t do many favors for his greater Cardinals legacy that the next two second basemen for the team were one-year rentals who each dramatically surpassed his production (Tony Womack and Mark Grudzielanek), Viña was a rightful fan favorite. Perhaps he gets some bonus points for appearing in the “Welcome to Atlanta (Coast to Coast Remix)” video, but I also wouldn’t put Fred Brathwaite on a list of the twenty-five greatest St. Louis Blues of the last twenty-five years.
Michael Wacha–It didn’t last as long as most of us had hoped, but for a while, Michael Wacha embodied what seemed to be the never-ending splendor of the early-2010s St. Louis Cardinals. Selected 19th overall out of Texas A&M as the compensatory pick received from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for the signing of Albert Pujols, Wacha immediately set the minor leagues on fire and he was with St. Louis less than a year after being drafted. He allowed one run in seven innings in his first start and tossed another quality start in his third appearance, and he more or less picked up where he left off when he returned to the big leagues for good in August–his sub-3 ERA and FIP bested the marks of the team’s more acclaimed rookie, Shelby Miller. Wacha crafted his legend in St. Louis in the postseason, carrying a no-hitter into the 8th inning in a must-win NLDS Game 4 and then tossing 13 2/3 innings without surrendering a run on his way to 2013 NLCS MVP against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and then helping to even the World Series at one game apiece with a six-inning, two-run outing against the Boston Red Sox. Because of how spectacularly his Cardinals career began, it was perhaps inevitable that the rest of his tenure would come across as a bit of a disappointment. But while Wacha battled injuries, he was mostly very good when healthy; in 2014, he was nearly as good in nineteen starts as he had been the previous year in nine, and in 2015, Wacha was an All-Star. Wacha had a 3.20 ERA in fifteen starts in 2018, but in 2019, his Cardinals career concluded unspectacularly, with a 4.76 ERA in a season sullied by increasing control issues. And while allowing a season-ending home run to Travis Ishikawa in 2014 in a game he absolutely never should have appeared in isn’t exactly a great highlight, even in his low moments, Wacha always factored into the biggest moments of the Cardinals era.