Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
18. Ryan Ludwick
17. Kolten Wong
16. Carlos Martínez
15. Woody Williams
Only by making his Major League Baseball debut on the Tuesday night on which Mark McGwire hit his record-setting 62nd home run of the 1998 season could the arrival of J.D. Drew to the St. Louis Cardinals be considered an under-the-radar affair. And even then, it didn’t last long.
When J.D. Drew arrived in St. Louis, he was far more famous than the typical minor leaguer, and not merely because he was a major prospect, though he certainly was that too. As a twenty-one year-old at Florida State University, he was the best player in college baseball, hitting 31 home runs and stealing 30 bases during his team’s sixty-seven game season, on top of leading the nation in walks. Additionally, he was an acclaimed defensive outfielder and was widely perceived as a potential five-tool superstar in the Majors. The Philadelphia Phillies, enamored with Drew’s talents, selected him with the number two overall pick in the 1997 MLB Draft.
J.D. Drew, in conjunction with agent Scott Boras, had vowed to not sign with a team for less than $10 million in signing bonus, as was his wont to do. The Phillies also had the right to draft Drew second overall and offer him barely a fourth of what he had previously demanded. And Drew, despite the controversy and career-long hatred from Phillies fans which ensued, had the right to instead sign with the independent St. Paul Saints. Unsurprisingly, Drew dominated the much-lower level league and re-entered the draft in 1998, where he went fifth overall to the Cardinals.
The Cardinals were acutely aware of Drew’s risk–when he said he wanted to get paid, there was ample evidence that he was a man of his word. But they also knew that J.D. Drew was arguably an MLB-ready player at 22 despite zero experience in MLB-affiliated baseball. And while Drew didn’t quite get to the eight figures he had previously demanded, he accepted $7 million over the next four years.
Drew began in AA and was quickly promoted to AAA, and over two months in minor league baseball, he looked like a superstar. His 1.028 OPS was eclipsed that season at the Major League only by Mark McGwire, Larry Walker, Albert Belle, and Barry Bonds. The rock-solid outfield trio of Ron Gant, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan meant that the Cardinals did not need J.D. Drew in their everyday MLB lineup, but once the minor league season ended, Drew was called up to the big leagues. The nature of his contract gave the Cardinals incentive, if not obligation, to bring up J.D. Drew as soon as possible. And while Drew was 0-for-2 in one of the most easily ignorable debuts in baseball history, he immediately turned that around. In 41 plate appearances over 14 games, Drew batted .417 and got on base in 46.3% of plate appearances. Yes, a .455 batting average on balls in play was never going to be sustainable, but he hit five home runs. Nobody in their right mind believed that those forty-one plate appearances reflected Drew’s true talent, but his spectacular performance didn’t exactly turn people away from his pre-debut hype. The next season, both Gant and Jordan were gone, and the aging Lankford was largely relegated to left field. Mark McGwire remained the biggest topic in baseball and certainly on the Cardinals, but the team’s new starting center fielder, Baseball America’s #1 prospect entering the 1999 season, was the team’s respectable #2 story.
The 1999 season was a bit of a letdown for Drew. For a 23 year-old rookie to excel in the field and gravitate around league-average at the plate in his second season of affiliated baseball was, in a vacuum, a very good sign, but Drew was burdened with sky-high expectations. The most notable moment of Drew’s rookie campaign, however, was not something he did on the field, but rather, something done to him on the field. In August, Drew made his first-ever visit to Veterans Stadium, before the notoriously vicious Philadelphia Phillies fans who had felt rejected by Drew two years earlier. Most fans lustily booed Drew–an action one could argue was a bit silly and overwrought but which was ultimately harmless and in the spirit of the dumb and contrived heroes and villians storylines of professional sports–but some took it much further, with some fans throwing debris at Drew as he stood in the outfield. Most notoriously, a pair of Phillies fans threw batteries at Drew. The battery throwing was widely condemned and was never repeated, but J.D. Drew remained widely hated in Philadelphia.
The arrival of Jim Edmonds in St. Louis meant a move to right field for Drew. Playing in right field lowered his overall upside, but Drew excelled defensively in right field, and in 2000, his offense took a big step forward, hitting 18 home runs and becoming, when healthy, the team’s most feared hitter outside of Jim Edmonds or Mark McGwire. In 2001, Drew went up another level. Although injuries limited him to 443 plate appearances, he combined power (27 home runs) with bat control (walking in a fairly economical 16.9% of plate appearances) and wound up with a 1.027 OPS, the highest mark on a team which included the aforementioned Edmonds and McGwire, not to mention Albert Pujols. When healthy, given his newfound offensive prowess and his reliable fielding and base running, Drew was shaping into an MVP candidate, and he was still only 25 at the end of the season.
Drew’s 496 plate appearances in 2002 were the most of his Cardinals career, but his offense took a dip–his home runs and walk rate dropped while his strikeout rate skyrocketed. Still though, Drew was a plus hitter, and in 2003, his offense bounced back not quite to his 2001 level, but enough that despite once again battling injuries and only reaching 100 games played, he remained an indispensable part of the Cardinals lineup. But a couple months after the end of the season, in which the Cardinals missed the playoffs due largely to inefficient pitching, Drew suddenly was dispensed.
J.D. Drew had a rocky relationship with manager Tony LaRussa. LaRussa viewed Drew as spoiled by the size of his signing bonus and as a player whose immense natural talents were being squandered by a man perfectly content to exist in a sport that LaRussa believed he could dominate. Tony LaRussa is not exactly a man known for being a players’ coach with progressive views on player empowerment, and he certainly isn’t known for getting along with all of his best players, so while there may be some level of truth to LaRussa’s words, I am not exactly willing to take these claims on face value. There is such a thing as a player susceptible to injuries, and injuries are not necessarily (or even usually) a reflection of a lack of effort. But regardless of its fairness, LaRussa’s hostility paid off for the Cardinals in the end.
In December 2003, the Cardinals traded Drew, who would become a free agent at the end of the 2004 season, and Eli Marrero to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Marquis, Ray King, and a minor league pitcher. And while Marquis was an integral part of the 2004 team’s rotation and King was at times a dominant lefty specialist, there was no question that for that season, Atlanta had gotten the better of the trade. J.D. Drew stayed healthy and became the MVP candidate that LaRussa always believed he could become. Drew busted through with 31 home runs, a career-high 18.3% walk rate that surpassed his strikeout rate, and stellar right field defense. Had Drew remained a Cardinal and repeated his production and renown in St. Louis, the Cardinals would have had four of the National League’s six leading MVP vote-getters.
But at the end of the day, the Cardinals were going to run away with the division with or without J.D. Drew, and Drew alone wasn’t going to salvage the 2004 World Series. And that off-season, Drew signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Braves would get seven more MLB appearances out of the Drew/Marrero trade tree beyond 2004–seven okay relief appearances from Jorge Vasquez, the return from the Kansas City Royals in a trade for Eli Marrero. Meanwhile, the Cardinals got Adam Wainwright.
Without question, the Cardinals won this trade. I understand why the Braves made the trade, and for a while, it worked. But I hate the idea that J.D. Drew could go down in Cardinals history as merely the guy they traded for Adam Wainwright. But there’s a real chance that Drew becomes his generation’s Ernie Broglio despite the fact that Drew went on to a long MLB career. Drew had nearly 4,000 more plate appearances in the Major Leagues after he left St. Louis. He received MVP votes, was an All-Star, and won a World Series with the 2007 Boston Red Sox. In the same way that Cardinals fans lie to themselves about Albert Pujols destroying Brad Lidge in the 2005 NLCS (Lidge received first place MVP votes and finished fourth in Cy Young voting for a World Series-winning team three seasons later), Cardinals fans could easily tell themselves that Drew, who was an above-average hitter for his first seven post-St. Louis seasons, was some kind of bust. Yes, St. Louis should remember the J.D. Drew trade ecstatically. But that’s because of what they gained, not what they lost. Because what they lost was a tremendous player.