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
11. Ray Lankford
10. Matt Morris
7. Mark McGwire
5. Scott Rolen
In the history of the St. Louis Cardinals, center field is a quietly strong position for the franchise. It is one of two positions, along with third base, at which the Cardinals have never produced a Hall of Famer, but third base can at least boast Ken Boyer, easily the greatest Cardinal of all-time who is currently eligible for but not enshrined in Cooperstown. Center field, instead, has a steady stream of solid players. In the 1930s and 1940s, Terry Moore received MVP votes five times, and in the 1950s and 1960s, Curt Flood became one of the sport’s elite defensive center fielders. The 1970s saw a center fielder (Bake McBride) win Rookie of the Year, the 1980s saw a center fielder (Willie McGee) win MVP, and the 1990s saw a center fielder (Ray Lankford) become hands down the franchise’s greatest player for the decade. And in the 2000s, Jim Edmonds became arguably the greatest center fielder in franchise history.
Jim Edmonds had been a very good center fielder for the California-turned-Anaheim Angels in the 1990s, receiving MVP votes in 1995 and winning Gold Gloves in 1997 and 1998. But 1999 was a bit of a lost age-29 season for Edmonds. Injuries limited Edmonds to 55 games, and when he did play, he had his worst offensive output since 1994. And while Edmonds had grown up in the Los Angeles suburbs and would seemingly be a natural fit to remain in Orange County for the rest of his career, he blocked 1995 first overall pick Darin Erstad from an outfield position, so with just one year left before he would hit free agency, the Angels were motivated sellers. Late in Spring Training, the Angels dealt Jim Edmonds to the Cardinals for pitcher Kent Bottenfield and second baseman Adam Kennedy.
The trade ended up working out just fine for the Angels. Darin Erstad was a breakout star for the 2000 team in Edmonds’s absence, and while Kent Bottenfield never again recaptured the glory of his 1999 All-Star campaign, Adam Kennedy became the team’s starting second baseman for the next seven seasons, including a career-best season in 2002, when the Angels won their first and to this point only World Series championship. As for the Cardinals, they received the player who would serve as the tipping point for one of the most successful eras in franchise history. Hard to get too picky about that.
In a textbook example of The Walt Jocketty Move–trade for a veteran nearing free agency, let him fall in love with playing for the Cardinals, sign him to a relatively team-friendly extension–Edmonds signed a six-year contract with a seventh-year team option that May. By this point, the center fielder was already fully immersed in what would become the first 90+ win team in thirteen years for the Cardinals. And at 30, Edmonds had the best season of his career. His offense resurged to the effect of career-highs in statistics both old and new school–runs, runs batted in, home runs, walk rate, and wRC+. Defensively, Edmonds remained a premium center fielder and he won yet another Gold Glove. On a team caught between peak, healthy Mark McGwire and the arrival of Albert Pujols, it was Edmonds who was the team’s best player, and his fourth-place MVP finish reflected his transition from good-to-very good player with the Angels to elite player with the Cardinals.
Although the arrival of Albert Pujols became the primary area of focus surrounding the 2001 Cardinals, Jim Edmonds remained superb. He continued to have a propensity for walks that hadn’t existed to nearly the same extent in Anaheim, and after flirting with it the season before, Edmonds had his first of three .300/.400/.500 seasons with the Cardinals, with a batting average over .300, an on-base percentage over .400, and a slugging percentage over .500. Although Pujols ended up receiving the team’s share of sincere MVP consideration, Edmonds actually improved upon his defense statistically and once again won a Gold Glove. In 2002 and 2003, Edmonds continued to perform in ways that were simultaneously exciting and, at this point, a bit routine. Big power numbers with walk rates in the fourteen percents. MVP votes. A pair of Gold Gloves.
It’s easy to forget in retrospectives of Jim Edmonds’s Cardinals career that when the team acquired him, one would think he was slightly past his prime. When you sign a nearly-thirty year-old center fielder to a seven-year extension, you assume that he will spend at least the back half of that contract playing in a corner outfield spot, no matter how good of a fielder he is at the time. But instead, Edmonds remained strong defensively into his mid-thirties and his offense seemed to get better and better by the season. In 2004, Edmonds had his best season, astonishing not only because it came as a 34 year-old center fielder but because you could easily make the case that he was only the third-best player on his own team (MVP voting reflected this; while Edmonds finished in fifth in the NL, he finished in third among Cardinals). But Edmonds tied his career-high with 42 home runs, walked in 16.5% of his plate appearances, and had a 168 wRC+, the third-highest mark in all of baseball, while winning and deserving his fifth consecutive Gold Glove. 2004 was also the season which produced the most celebrated Jim Edmonds highlights in St. Louis. Defensively, there were his back-to-back games with home run robberies at Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park in July. Offensively, there was his walk-off home run off of Dan Miceli of the Houston Astros in the 12th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS. And then, for good measure, he also kicked in an impressive diving catch, later commemorated in a team-issued bobblehead, in Game 7 as well.
2005 was Edmonds’s final elite season in St. Louis–it was his worst season with the Cardinals to that point, but with 29 home runs, a 139 wRC+, and his best defensive metrics since the mid-1990s, this was more about setting unreasonable expectations in St. Louis than signs of obvious decline. In 2006, however, Edmonds had clearly regressed. But considering that he was a 36 year-old dealing with injuries, he was still a fine player–his 109 wRC+ meant he was still an important member of an offense that was at times otherwise rather top-heavy, and while his defensive numbers did slip and he was deprived of a Gold Glove for the first time in St. Louis, he was a well-regarded tutor of young outfielders, particularly coaching Chris Duncan, a natural first baseman miscast in left field due to the presence of Albert Pujols, into a competent enough fielder that the team could get his bat into the lineup. And for good measure, Edmonds notched a two-RBI double in Game 3 of the World Series to earn the first World Series RBI in the new Busch Stadium’s history in what turned out to be the winning hit for the first Cardinals victory in a World Series game in nineteen years.
In 2007, Edmonds took an even more dramatic step back. In 411 plate appearances, he hit just 12 home runs. His on-base percentage, which had spent the previous seven seasons gravitating around .400, was stuck at .325. By wRC+, he was a below-average hitter, and by Ultimate Zone Rating, he was a below-average fielder as well. He wasn’t terrible, but he was a shell of his former self, and while the Cardinals had signed Edmonds to a two-year extension after the 2006 season, the team was looking to get younger. In December 2007, Edmonds was traded to the San Diego Padres for a then-unknown prospect named David Freese.
There is a universe in which Jim Edmonds doesn’t win a single Gold Glove in his time in St. Louis–when Edmonds was piling up awards in St. Louis, outfield Gold Gloves were distributed to three outfielders regardless of sub-position, unlike today, when only one center fielder per league can win the award. And in each of Edmonds’s Gold Glove seasons, Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves also won a Gold Glove, and in each season, he was the superior fielder, usually by a wide margin, by UZR. This is less an indictment of Edmonds and more praise of Jones, who is arguably the best defensive center fielder in the history of baseball. Edmonds had the somewhat stronger arm, but he couldn’t touch Jones in terms of speed and overall defensive range. But where Edmonds truly stacks up historically was at the plate. In St. Louis, Edmonds had a wRC+ of 143. Here is a list of every center fielder in the Major League Baseball era with at least as many plate appearances as Edmonds had with the Cardinals and a better wRC+: Cobb, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, Speaker, Trout. I’ll spare you the first names. I doubt you need them.
As his Cardinals career aligned almost entirely with the career of Albert Pujols, Edmonds was often overlooked nationally. Although only two Hall of Fame-eligible center fielder rank higher by the JAWS measure of Cooperstown worthiness than Edmonds, he received just 2.5% of votes in 2016, his one year on the ballot (the other two eligible non-Hall of Famers are Kenny Lofton, who himself only got 3.2% of votes in his year on the ballot, and the aforementioned Andruw Jones, who remains on the ballot and has seen his vote totals increase exponentially since tallying just 7.3% in his first year on it). In the end, Edmonds’s Hall of Fame case is more competent than it is overwhelming. But he will always have a place in St. Louis Cardinals lore not just because of his greatness, but because his career so strongly coincided with the team’s emergence from the doldrums of the 1990s. Immediately prior to Edmonds arriving in St. Louis, the Cardinals were a sideshow to Mark McGwire. Once Edmonds arrived, they were ready to get serious about winning it all come October.