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
12. Edgar Renteria
It is by sequential coincidence that Ray Lankford’s prime years correlated almost precisely with a discrete decade, but it remains undeniable that Ray Lankford was the greatest player of the 1990s for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Lankford debuted in 1990, was a Rookie of the Year finalist in 1991, and was one of the two or three best position players on the Cardinals into the next millennium. He was rarely the very best player on the Cardinals–only once, in 1997, did he lead the team in Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement–but he was consistent well into his thirties.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Modesto, California, in the Bay Area, Ray Lankford didn’t exactly scream out Midwestern folk hero by biography, but he did by temperament–he was a quiet and well-rounded player, pleasant but not exactly dynamic in interviews, who let his stellar play do the talking. In some ways, his calm demeanor made him a natural successor to Willie McGee, the fan favorite whom Lankford replaced in center field for the Cardinals, but while McGee had tremendous highs (an MVP season, a batting title), he also had relative lows (in the four seasons between his MVP and batting title seasons, McGee’s best season by wRC+ was 100–precisely league average). Ray Lankford was an above-average hitter for eight consecutive season with the Cardinals.
Of course, on a list of the greatest Cardinals in which players are limited to LaRussa-era and beyond accomplishments, Lankford is somewhat restricted. 1996 was Lankford’s age-29 season–he wasn’t past his prime, but he was firmly into it, which is why he ranks eleventh and not in the top five of this list. 1996 was the first of three consecutive seasons in which the Cardinals’ outfield consisted of Ron Gant, Ray Lankford, and Brian Jordan. Gant was the slugger and Jordan was the all-around defensive wizard, while Lankford was both. In 1996, Lankford had yet another typically strong season–he hit 21 home runs, led the team in walks, and was a defensive stalwart. Hobbled by injuries throughout the postseason, Lankford had a rough NLCS, but did score a go-ahead run in Game 3 of the NLDS against the San Diego Padres, the lone game in the series in which he appeared.
With Ozzie Smith’s retirement, Ray Lankford became the team’s de facto elder statesman in 1997, and he responded by taking another step forward offensively. While the mid-season acquisition of Mark McGwire relegated Lankford to second-banana status, he was an awfully good one–he hit a career-high 31 home runs and drew walks at an even higher rate (16.8%) than his generally quite high career norms. His .411 on-base percentage was eclipsed by only four different Cardinals players in a full 162-game season in the last quarter-century. Despite the team’s lackluster 73-89 record, Lankford received some recognition for his individual success–he earned his first career All-Star Game invitation and received some MVP votes.
1998 was Ray Lankford’s best season, and one which was, in typical Ray Lankford fashion, widely overlooked. He equalled his 1997 home run total of 31, an impressive mark if the guy next to him in the batting order weren’t showing off with 70, and while his overall offensive output was slightly down on a rate basis, he improved on the bases (stealing 26 bases in 31 attempts) and seeing a resurgence in his defensive metrics from a somewhat down 1997.
The new presence of hotshot prospect J.D. Drew relegated Lankford, still respectable in center field at 31, to left field. But Lankford took to the new position well, and at the plate, he sacrificed power for fewer strikeouts and on the whole; while he wasn’t quite the MVP-caliber player he had been the previous two seasons, Lankford remained a very good player. 2000 was a strange season for Lankford, as the acquisition of Jim Edmonds to play center field (moving Drew to right field) further marginalized Lankford’s status as one of the team’s pivotal defensive outfielders, but he did revitalize his power stroke, belting 26 home runs and improving upon his 1999 OPS.
Ray Lankford played well for the Cardinals in 2001, but the writing was on the wall that the veteran was past his prime. In 314 plate appearances with the Cardinals, he hit 15 home runs and still drew walks at a reasonable rate, but he was striking out at rapidly accelerating rates, he wasn’t stealing bases anymore, and he was now a defensive liability. The former five-tool center fielder was now a one-tool left fielder–not a bad player, by any stretch, but not an integral player, especially with the rise of Albert Pujols, a utility player in 2001 who fit comfortably in left field. On August 2, 2001, the Cardinals traded their player of the nineties to the San Diego Padres for Woody Williams.
While the trade worked out for the Cardinals, as Woody Williams found a new level in St. Louis, Lankford was seemingly rejuvenated by the trade himself–he cut down on strikeouts and his 132 wRC+ in San Diego would’ve made for his best mark since 1998. But once 2002 hit, Lankford was a shell of his former self. He drew walks, but his power was nowhere near his peak levels and his defense was disastrous. He missed two months following an injury in, of all places, St. Louis, and when he came back, mostly as a pinch-hitter, he was dreadful.
Ray Lankford deserved a better career coda than this, and thankfully, he got one. It wouldn’t have been very Ray Lankford-esque for him to do so dramatically or loudly, though–after taking off the 2003 season to recover from the lingering effects of his 2002 injury, he signed in February 2004 with the St. Louis Cardinals on a minor-league contract with a Spring Training invitation. The team had a hole in left field, and while Lankford made the team, he was merely in a timeshare situation with the likes of John Mabry and So Taguchi. But he was a league-average hitter. He even started a couple games in center field, for old time’s sake. A July injury and the team’s acquisition of Larry Walker (which pushed Reggie Sanders to full-time left fielder) made Lankford purely a bench player by the end of the season, and he didn’t make the postseason roster for any series the Cardinals played. In hindsight, it would’ve been nice to get him into the World Series, especially since it’s not like the team would have won any fewer World Series games with him than without him.
Ray Lankford is one of the three players you could make a relatively cogent case for being the team’s greatest center fielder ever, along with Curt Flood and Jim Edmonds, and he is easily the least famous. That he was the all-time leader in home runs at Busch Memorial Stadium is treated more as a bit of trivial curiosity than any kind of serious reflection on his excellence. But I suspect this doesn’t bother Lankford all that much. He had a great career, and despite his late-career adversity, the player of the nineties was able to go out on his own terms.