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
14. J.D. Drew
13. Brian Jordan
Royce Clayton was a perfectly okay Major League Baseball shortstop. As was typical of the era, he wasn’t a great hitter, but he was reliable defensively. In that sense, he was the perfect candidate to replace Ozzie Smith as the starting shortstop of the St. Louis Cardinals. But, like literally every shortstop in history, he wasn’t quite Ozzie defensively, and the pressure of being that guy meant he only spent 2 1/2 years with the Cardinals before being traded to the Texas Rangers.
Luis Ordaz was the primary shortstop following Clayton’s departure, but the long-term replacement came in late 1998, when the Cardinals acquired Florida Marlins shortstop Edgar Renteria. Unlike Clayton, who could be neatly compared, however inevitably unfavorably, to Ozzie Smith, Renteria was more of an offensive threat. At the time just twenty-two years old, Renteria was an above-average hitter in his age-19 rookie season and whose greatest MLB highlight came when, at 21, he hit a World Series-winning walk-off single to defeat the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 World Series. The season before the Cardinals had acquired him, Renteria was an All-Star.
A player such as Edgar Renteria did not come cheap. The prospect package sent to the Marlins included Braden Looper, two years removed from being drafted third overall by the Cardinals, future MLB reliever Armando Almanza, and future MLB utility player Pablo Ozuna. That Looper became a semi-bust, relegated to relief duty until he was 32 years old, made this trade look like a giveaway in retrospect, but in the moment, it was clear that the Cardinals must have believed in Edgar Renteria.
In 1999, Renteria did see a jump in his power numbers, reaching double-digit home runs for the first time in his career. A .734 OPS is a bit tricky to evaluate when weighing two extenuating factors–the fact that he was doing this while playing shortstop (an offensive suppressor) and the fact that he was doing this while playing in 1999 (an offensive inflator). He made it to his second All-Star Game in 2000, but by and large, Renteria spent his first three seasons in St. Louis treading water. He was fine–mostly good defensively, mostly adequate offensively–but in a generation of superb offensive shortstops (albeit mostly in the American League, with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Miguel Tejada), the Edgar Renteria Experience was, if you were feeling greedy, a bit underwhelming.
In 2002, however, Edgar Renteria took a step forward. His walk rate jumped above his career mark and his strikeout rate fell into the single digits. He did so without losing power or speed, and defensively, Renteria was as good as ever. He won a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and received his first career MVP votes. And in 2003, across the board, Renteria was even better. The 2003 Cardinals were arguably the best offensive Cardinals team of the last twenty-five years–they rank second in runs scored, and by Offensive Runs Above Average, which helps weigh for era, they rank first–and Renteria was a huge part of why. No, he wasn’t Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, or even J.D. Drew, but for your Gold Glove-winning shortstop to hit 28% above league average almost feels like cheating. There are legitimately great baseball teams that are perfectly content to play shortstops who hit terribly but can field like Renteria; the Cardinals got the luxury of playing a shortstop who could draw more walks than strikeouts. For the 2002-2003 two-year stretch, the best shortstops in baseball by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement were Alex Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, and Edgar Renteria.
2004 was a down year for Renteria, if few other Cardinals. His walks went down and his strikeouts went up without any sort of power bump. He was still certainly worth playing–he was good defensively and his offense, while lesser, was around what you might expect from a shortstop. But this would be his final season in St. Louis–a now-28 year-old free agent, Renteria signed with the Boston Red Sox and he began what became something of a transient MLB career. He spent just one season with the Red Sox before being traded to the Atlanta Braves, after which he had stints with the Detroit Tigers, San Francisco Giants, and Cincinnati Reds.
The Cardinals did get a pair of compensation picks for Edgar Renteria–Mark McCormick, a college pitcher who topped out at AA and was out of profesional baseball altogether within three years, and more notably, Colby Rasmus, who was covered in the Honorable Mentions. Rasmus alone likely provided more value for the Cardinals than what the three players traded in 1998 for Renteria ever would have garnered in St. Louis. Edgar Renteria has been a Cardinals Hall of Fame finalist but has not been enshrined, and I suspect probably won’t be any time soon. While Renteria is remembered more positively than negatively in St. Louis, he has the disadvantage of never having been all that close to the best player on his team. But I suppose getting to play in a bunch of playoff games was probably a sufficient consolation prize.
Two things summarize Edgar Renteria’s career, and despite spending more time and producing more value with the Cardinals than any other team by far, neither happened in St. Louis. One was his aforementioned walk-off hit for the Florida Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series; the other happened six years after the conclusion of Renteria’s Cardinals career, when he made an astonishing run with the San Francisco Giants, with two home runs and a 1.209 OPS on his way to winning 2010 World Series MVP. The World Series highlight of Renteria’s Cardinals career is grounding out to Keith Foulke to end the 2004 World Series, a month and a half before he would sign with the team that had just defeated him. Despite his accomplishments, Edgar Renteria will always mean more to fans of other teams than he does to the Cardinals, and that’s fine–this just makes him more beloved on the whole. But he will always have a spot in the hearts of fans of the early 2000s Cardinals, some of the most dominant teams in franchise history.