In a world where Barry Larkin was traded for JD Drew and Rick Ankiel, only one man can save the St. Louis Cardinals. His name is Danny Haren.
The Saint Louis Post Dispatch's fine baseball writer Derrick Goold had an interesting note recently on a trade that would have brought Barry Larkin to replace a struggling Royce Clayton for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1998 season. Larkin was a Silver Slugger winner that season, only a year removed from being an All-Star and three from an MVP award. (People actually cared about these type of things back in 1995. It was an innocent time. Except for the rampant drug use and other indiscretions.) Larkin could be had, but only for a steep price.
In 1998, Larkin reportedly asked for a trade and the Cardinals were in, out and in the mix for his services. At one point, GM Walt Jocketty spoke with the Reds about Larkin, but they wanted J. D. Drew1 and Rick Ankiel in return for the All-Star shortstop, per a report at the time from P-D Hall of Famer Rick Hummel.
Rick Ankiel and J.D. Drew were, in many 1999 ratings, the #1 and #2 prospects, respectively. Not just in the Cardinals' system—IN ALL OF BASEBALL. So, wisely, Walt Jocketty turned this trade down. This ranks somewhere between the Mark McGwire trade and spinning a Kent Bottenfield/Adam Kennedy package into the greatest center fielder in Cardinals history ("He's an 18 game winner! You'll love him!") (Like I said, it was a simpler time) on the "Walt Jocketty Greatest Moves of the 90's" DVD.
At first glance, this is an easy trade to turn down in hindsight, as JD Drew and Rick Ankiel were worth 24.2 WAR in their time with the Cardinals, while Larkin was worth 10.4 WAR from 1999 to his retirement following the 2004 season.
This doesn't even take into account that, with Larkin in place, Edgar Renteria would not have been brought in to amass 19.1 WAR over the same 99-04 time span. Nor does it take into account the contributions of players who the eventual J.D. Drew trade begat—Adam Wainwright, Jason Marquis, Ray King, Aaron Miles, Larry Bigbie—who combined for an additional 22.8 WAR, mainly on the shoulders of Adam Wainwright.
That means the Cardinals would have traded for a 34 year old shortstop who would contribute 10.4 WAR and have lost out on a total of 66.1 WAR. Good work holding steady, Walt Jocketty.
However, these things do not happen in a vacuum. Just because we'd miss out on JD Drew's awesome 2001 season or Edgar Renteria's fantastic 2003 does not mean value wouldn't be added from elsewhere. Let's hop in the DeLorean and head down to Biff Tannen's Pleasure Paradise Casino and Hotel to see how this last decade would have developed in this Barry Larkin as a Cardinal universe2.
1999: Barry Larkin puts up 5.4 WAR instead of Edgar Renteria's 1.5. JD Drew's solid 2.7 WAR season is replaced by a super-platoon of old black guys in Eric Davis, Shawon Dunston, Willie McGee, and free agent signing Tim Raines, who put up a creaky 1.5 WAR. Rick Ankiel's few appearances, which accounted for 1.1 WAR, were taken by Donovan Osbourne, who puts up 0.6 WAR. We go from a real world 4.8 WAR to an alternate universe WAR of 7.5. This pushes the Cardinals record from 75-86 to 80-82. So, they still stink, but it's not a terrible trade... yet.
2000: Larkin (2.7 WAR) continues to outpace Renteria (2.3), but Drew's performance (4.0) is not matched by his platoon replacement (1.0), and Ankiel (3.2) can't be caught by his replacement, hot newcomer Britt Reames (1.0). Alternate universe has a net loss of 4.8 WAR, sliding their record down to 90-72—still good for first place in the division and an exit in the NLCS. (Note: at this point in time, Rick Ankiel's mental breakdown does not occur.... yet.)
2001: Barry Larkin continues his slide to the nursery home, putting up 0.4 WAR. Meanwhile, Edgar Renteria chugs along, putting up 2.1 for Mystery Team. JD Drew's first great season (5.9) is played out on the banks of the Ohio River, and in Saint Louis an extended appearance by Kerry Robinson in the outfield puts up a respectable and career year of 2.0 WAR. Rick Ankiel stinks (-0.6) and is replaced by the perfectly cromulent Bud Smith (0.5). The loss of 4.5 WAR knocks the team down to 88-74 and third place in the division. Also, Carlos Ruiz stops the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but nobody seems to notice. That guy is so underrated... just can't catch a break.
2002: Edgar Renteria is an All-Star for Mystery Team, putting together a 4.7 WAR season. Barry Larkin is now literally a replacement level player, with a 0.0 WAR season. The Cardinals, sick of the punchless right field and needing to replace some power after the retirement of Mark McGwire, sign free agent Juan Gonzalez to a two year contract, and he puts up 1.4 WAR. JD Drew, manning right field next to Ken Griffey in Cincinnati, puts up 1.9 WAR. A net loss of 5.2 WAR slides the Cardinals record from 97-65 to 91-71, good enough to tie for the division crown and lose to the Giants in the NLCS.
2003: On the back of his standout 2002 season, Renteria wins the first MVP award in Mystery Team team history, with a 6.6 WAR campaign. JD Drew, injury plagued, still manages to put up 2.8 WAR for the Reds. The Cardinals' tandem of Larkin and Gonzalez combine for less than that with 2.2 WAR. Bizzaro Universe Cardinals lose 7.2 WAR from their real world counterparts and their record drops from a disappointing 85-77 to a plain old lousy 78-84. Might Tony LaRussa be fired...?
2004: No. On the backs of the MV3, the Cardinals are still a juggernaut. Barry Larkin has a fine swan song, putting up the exact same WAR on the season (1.9) as Renteria. Danny Haren takes a spot in the starting rotation and puts together a 2.5 WAR season, while Randy Flores gets an extended look worth 0.3 WAR. Meanwhile, in Cincinnati, JD Drew was traded to the Atlanta Braves for Jason Marquis, Ray King (who combine for 2.8 WAR) and some kid in the minors who we will get to later. Alternate universe and Real World have their first tie at 4.7 WAR! However, the improvement from Marquis to Haren is worth a win, and the bizzaro Cardinals finish 106-56 en route to a World Series championship in seven games over the Boston Red Sox. Barry Larkin retires with his second ring.
2005: Dan Haren proved his worth in 2004 and cemented himself into the starting rotation. He and Anthony Reyes combine for 4.8 WAR as starters for the Cardinals (Reds newcomer Mark Mulder and Marquis combine for 2.9.) Tyler Johnson takes the role of Bad LOOGy and Carmen Cali is the cup of coffee guy for a combined 0.0 WAR (Ray King and Adam Wainwright perform these roles in Cincinnati for -0.2 WAR). Bizarro universe Cards collect 4.8 WAR over their real world counterparts' 2.7 to boost their record to 103-59. Albert Pujols still homers off Brad Lidge in game five of the NLCS, Dan Haren outduels Roy Oswalt in game six, but the Cardinals lose game seven to the Astros.
2006: Haren has another fine season with 4.5 WAR, while his contemporary in Cincinnati, Mr. Mulder, struggles to a -0.4 season. Mulder's rotation-mate Marquis puts up a 0.7 campaign. Spot-starter Josh Hancock is incredibly replaceable in St Louis with a 0.0 WAR. Timo Perez, John Gall, and Brian Falkenborg combine for 0.0 WAR, while Aaron Miles, Larry Bigbie, and relief pitching Wainwright go for 0.8. Alternate universe's WAR goes up from the real world's 0.8 (!!!!) to 4.5, all on the strength of Haren. Their record improves from 83-78 to 88-73, and they go on to lose the NLCS in seven games to the Mets on a walkoff HR by Carlos Beltran, served up by the Cardinals' playoff "closer", Braden Looper.
2007: In Cincinnati, Rick Ankiel mysteriously reappears to put up a 1.4 WAR season as a God-damn outfielder. The bizzaro Cardinals' in-house platoon (So Taguchi! Preston Wilson!) is good for 0.3. Adam Wainwright becomes a starter and puts up a 3.5 WAR season. Haren has another fine campaign (5.0.) Aaron "Old Replaceable" Miles (0.0) is replaced by Brian "New Replaceable" Barden (also 0.0.) Bizzaro Cardinals get a slight bump in WAR (0.4) and stay with a crappy 78-84 record.
2008: The bizzaro Cardinals see the arrival of Colby Rasmus3, fresh off a hot Spring Training, and he puts up a respectable 1.5 WAR rookie season. Dan Haren wins his first Cy Young award with a 6.5 season. Rico Washington, much to everyone's chagrin, receives loads of playing time and struggles to a -0.6 WAR season. On the Reds, Ankiel goes for 1.8, Wainwright 2.2, and Miles 1.9(!?!?!). Alternate universe Cardinals have a 1.5 WAR advantage on their real world counterparts, and instead of going 86-76, go 88-74... and finish third in the division rather than fourth.
2009: Haren (6.1 WAR) wins his second consecutive Cy Young award, narrowly beating out Wainwright (5.7.) Chris Duncan and Nick Stavinoha combine for -0.5 WAR as a left field platoon for the Cardinals before the arrival of Matt Holliday. Ankiel is injured on the Reds and goes for 0.0 WAR. The bizzaro Cardinals drop 0.1 WAR to the real world team, and their record stays at 91-71, good enough for the division crown. In the playoffs, Ryan Franklin still blows the save in game two, Matt Holliday still gets sack-tapped by a line drive, and the Cardinals still lose to the Dodgers three games to none in the NLDS.
2010: Haren has another nice season for the Redbirds going for 4.5 WAR, though Wainwright beats him out this time with 6.1. The bizzaro Cardinals record drops from 86-76 to 84-78.
Oh, and Adam Wainwright wins his first Cy Young Award.
With the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
1At the time this scenario takes place, JD Drew was not eligible to be traded, as he was drafted by the Cardinals that very summer. Efforts to reach Mr Goold for an explanation into how this trade would be possible have gone unanswered at press time. In the meantime, we will just assume the Reds wanted him in a wink-wink "Player to be named" deal.
2I realize that not dealing for Renteria would mean that the Cardinals would keep Braden Looper through his cost-controlled years. I also realize that this exercise is [BEEP]ing complicated enough, so I'm pretending we traded Looper for the real glue of the the mid-aughts Cardinals: Josh the Bat Boy.
3Colby Rasmus was drafted 30th overall in the 2005 Amateur Draft in this universe. Also, since he is not known as the guy who took Rick Ankiel's job, he is actually liked by all of the fans and a certain broadcaster.