Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. Last Wednesday, we published the honorable mentions. Last Thursday, we looked at our #25 player, Todd Stottlemyre. And last Friday, we looked at our #24 player, David Freese.
Like every employee in every industry, professional baseball players should switch jobs unapologetically whenever they see fit. A team will take advantage of any opportunity to pay you less, so you should take what you can get. “Loyalty” is an illusion from the team end, so it ought to be from the player end.
That said, it does feel nice when a player clearly really, really wants to play for your favorite team. And for the St. Louis Cardinals, they got one of those players in Andy Benes.
In reality, that Andy Benes would naturally gravitate towards the Cardinals when he became a free agent following the 1995 season was obvious. He was born, raised, and attended college in Evansville, Indiana, about two-and-a-half hours away from St. Louis and firmly in the informal geographic region known as Cardinals Nation. His younger brother Alan had debuted for the Cardinals in 1995 and was expected to compete for a spot in the team’s starting rotation in 1996, and another younger brother, Adam, had been drafted by the Cardinals the previous year (Adam never pitched above AA, and never particularly well above high-A, but was a well-known part of the organization on the strength of his brothers, despite being the franchise’s equivalent to Cooper Manning). And the Cardinals were a team searching for an ace for a refurbished pitching staff upon the arrival of Tony LaRussa as manager.
Prior to his signing with the Cardinals on December 23, 1995, Benes had a perfectly fine six-and-a-half year MLB career, but a somewhat strange one. Andy Benes was the first overall pick in the 1988 MLB Draft, a fact which doesn’t seem to fit at all with his career nor his persona. It’s not even that he was bad–his 31.5 career Wins Above Replacement are 15th in history among #1 overall draft picks, putting him above both the median and average marks for top picks. Brien Taylor or Mark Appel, legendary busts who never made the Majors despite first overall status as pitchers, somehow make more sense because there was something, even if negative, that could be described as “legendary” about them. And yet Benes could not even be reasonably labeled a disappointment as only one other player drafted in the first three rounds in 1988–Robin Ventura–could be conclusively deemed to have the superior career.
But because Andy Benes was drafted by the San Diego Padres, there was something oddly exceptional about his career. This is the franchise that, fifty-two seasons into its existence, still has Nate Colbert as its all-time home run leader–it doesn’t take that much to be a Padres legend. By Wins Above Replacement, depending on which version you choose to examine, Benes left San Diego in 1995 as the greatest or second-greatest pitcher in franchise history, with only Randy Jones particularly close. Even today, over a quarter-century later, only two starting pitchers have surpassed Benes in Padres WAR of the Baseball Reference variety–Jake Peavy and Andy Ashby (though reliever Trevor Hoffman also passed him). And then Benes went to the Seattle Mariners, where despite an immediate decline in performance, he started the winner-take-all final game of the first postseason series in franchise history; while Benes did not pitch especially well, they got the win.
Benes, who was 28 at the time, signed for just two years with a third-year option, and he certainly fit the mold of what a team looking to make a splash would want–he was a hulking 6’6″ and had just led the National League in strikeouts in 1994, he was a former number-one overall pick in seemingly the prime of his career, and he spoke of growing up and dreaming of playing for the Cardinals. He had been a number-one pick, one of the greatest pitchers of a Major League franchise, and a pitcher counted upon to throw the biggest game in a different franchise’s history. And he made it sound like being a Cardinal was the real dream come true.
By modern metrics, Benes was a decent-to-solid starter, relatively interchangeable with Todd Stottlemyre and Donovan Osborne. But 1996 was still a time in which pitcher wins reigned supreme, and he tallied 18 of them. Did Andy Benes deserve to finish third, behind John Smoltz and Kevin Brown, in Cy Young balloting? Probably not. That the Cardinals opted for Todd Stottlemyre and not Benes in Game 1 of the NLDS implied that even they viewed Benes as, at best, among their good pitchers rather than their unquestioned ace. But those kinds of pitchers have value, too. The Cardinals had some intriguing young pitchers, namely Matt Morris, on the verge of making it to the big leagues, so to have a trio of solid, even if unspectacular veterans, was a great way to raise the floor on the team.
The 1997 Cardinals regressed, and they regressed hard, but Andy Benes did not. Despite a more moderate 10-7 record (which sounds a lot better when considering it was on a 73-win team), his ERA fell to 3.10–second-best on the team behind brother Alan–and he regained his strikeout form, fanning 8.9 per nine innings. Benes opted out of his 1998 contract, but he wanted to play for the Cardinals, agreeing instead to a five-year, $30 million contract. But because of a now-obsolete rule, Benes’s contract was voided as a deadline for players to re-sign with their 1997 teams had passed and he now couldn’t sign a contract until May 1. Wanting to pitch somewhere if not St. Louis, Benes agreed to a three-year, $18 million contract with the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks, and in keeping with his tradition of being a surprisingly major figure in as many younger franchises as possible, he started the first game in franchise history.
With Benes, the Diamondbacks because a legitimate contender, winning the NL West in their second season. But he had been displaced as staff ace by Randy Johnson and didn’t even crack the team’s starting rotation in the 1999 NLDS. Benes opted out of his contract for the 2000 season and once again became a free agent, where he once again wanted to play for the team of his youth. On the field, the signing paid an immediate dividend in that his presence made Kent Bottenfield expendable, paving the way for Jim Edmonds to join the Cardinals, but on the field, things went far rockier for Benes the second time around. In the first year of his two-year contract (with a mutual option for 2002), Benes was no longer a top of the rotation pitcher–outpitched by Darryl Kile, Rick Ankiel, Garrett Stephenson, and Pat Hentgen–but not incompetent. 2001 was a disaster–he was in and out of the rotation and finished the season with a 7.38 ERA, courtesy of a skyrocketing walk rate and allowing over two-and-a-half home runs per nine innings.
In modern terms (and even in early-aughts terms), it seems inconceivable that a team would pick up Benes’s 2002 option. Perhaps the Cardinals would bring him back for a Spring Training tryout as a nod to his accomplishments with the Cardinals, but to pay him over $6 million in 2002 seems impossible today. But it worked. You can chalk it up to luck–opponents had a .244 BABIP, only 7.6% of fly balls turned into home runs, and he left 79.5% of runners on base–but the end result was that Andy Benes, who seemed destined to wash out of baseball unceremoniously, had a 2.78 ERA in 97 innings for a Cardinals team that desperately needed rotation depth for reasons both typical and tragic. He earned a spot in the postseason rotation, with his first start, in Game 3 of the NLDS, dethroning the defending World Series champions and his former team, the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Benes allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings in his lone NLCS start, a game against the San Francisco Giants which the team eventually lost. While the 2002 Cardinals fell short of a National League pennant, Andy Benes was able to rehabilitate his career from its nadir. And then he was able to retire on his own terms.
Andy Benes feels emblematic of the Cardinals despite the fact that, objectively, his Cardinals tenures were a relative footnote in his career. Like a lesser version of Roy Halladay, the long-time Toronto Blue Jays ace who became beloved in Philadelphia for his productive but much shorter tenure with the Phillies, Andy Benes became a comforting icon for the fans of St. Louis. Benes continues to make his home in the St. Louis area and has served as an ambassador of the Cardinals organization in multiple formal and informal capacities, including hosting Cardinals Kids on Fox Sports Midwest. Benes may not have been the greatest player in franchise history, but he embodies a type of player that Cardinals fans love to celebrate–one who seems as happy to be here as they would be.