On Aug. 19 the St. Louis Cardinals, a few games back in the NL Central and suddenly aware that they might lose the division to the pesky Cincinnati Reds, finally traded for a third baseman. There had been about a week's notice on this, and the usual suspects pushed through the waiver wire were unlikely to engender a lot of enthusiasm, except whenever Walt Jocketty gets the chance to reminisce about the time he traded Edwin Encarnacion for Scott Rolen.
After a quiet week spent talking about Brandon Inge and wondering why anybody would trade for Geoff Blum John Mozeliak pulled the trigger on a deal that sent minor league reliever David Carpenter to the Houston Astros for third baseman Pedro Feliz, who at that very moment was leading all of baseball in wins below a replacement player. It's a weird deal, and I still don't understand it.
But it's not the first time the Cardinals have seen a problem and panicked in the course of fixing it. In fact, I can come up with—let's say five more of them.
5. August 2001: Cardinals acquire RHP Woody Williams from San Diego Padres for OF Ray Lankford
Okay, sometimes it works. 7.5 games out of the race in the Central and stuck near .500, the Cardinals traded elder statesman, default whipping boy, .841-OPSing outfielder Ray Lankford to the Padres for Woody Williams. Williams was a startlingly average starter with a flair for the combustible; the Cardinals had realized that Andy Benes, 7-7 with an ERA of 7.38, wouldn't cut it at fifth starter.
On its merits this trade is more reminiscent of this year's Ryan Ludwick deal than it is of the Pedro Feliz move. Lankford and Williams were both useful players, like Ludwick and Westbrook, and while the outfielder was probably better than the pitcher in each case the Cardinals found themselves in both with a surplus of outfielders and a group of truly sad-sack fifth starters. But in 2001 the Cardinals were well out of the race—to expect Woody Williams to make the difference, why, you'd have to think he would go 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA, three complete games, and a shutout.
4. June 2007: Cardinals acquire LHP Mike Maroth from Detroit Tigers for RHP Chris Lambert
If you'd like to know why 2007 left such a bad taste in everyone's mouth—why its half-assery doomed the Jocketty regime so firmly to its final year in St. Louis—you need only look at the transactions the team made leading up to this move:
June 2, 2007: Purchased Kelly Stinnett from the Los Angeles Dodgers
June 8, 2007: Signed Troy Percival out of retirement.
June 19, 2007: Signed Tomo Ohka as a free agent.
July 4, 2007: Released Tomo Ohka
These are all fine moves at the margins, and Mike Maroth wasn't a terrible gamble. But the Cardinals were eight and a half games out of first place when the Maroth deal was made, and Jocketty and the Cardinals had been wheeling and dealing as though the Cardinals were mainly in need of a backup catcher, a guy each at the very back of the bullpen and the rotation, and Tomo Ohka.
Maroth threw the game of his life upon joining the Cardinals, allowing just one run in 7.1 innings against the New York Mets, and then proceeded to put up an ERA of 11.79 in his last six starts before disappearing from the roster. Altogether he was worth an incredible 2.9 wins below a replacement pitcher in 38 innings pitched.
3. Offseason 1926: Cardinals Acquire 2B Frankie Frisch from New York Giants for 2B Rogers Hornsby
Rogers Hornsby, you magnificently versatile bastard! When last we left Rogers Hornsby he was being a huge jerk and also the best hitter in the National League—this went on for ten solid years between 1916 and 1925, during which the Cardinals found themselves almost perpetually in the second division.
After all that time never finishing higher than third—in 1925 he hit .403/.489/.756 with 39 home runs and 143 RBI, taking both the traditional and rate stat triple crowns, and the team finished fourth out of eight—the 1926 Cardinals finally took the National League pennant and then the team's first-ever World Series victory. But Rogers Hornsby, the team's cantankerous player-manager, had his worst full season ever; he failed to lead the league in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage for the first time since 1920, and hit just 11 home runs.
In the offseason Hornsby wanted an extremely large contract and, given his usual demeanor, probably wanted it in a way that was not at all appropriate in mixed (or mixed-race, did I mention he was a really angry racist yet this week?) company. So the Cardinals' owner, having had enough Hornsby for one lifetime, traded his superstar straight-up for the boosterish, feisty Frankie Frisch, also a second baseman, in a rare Hall of Famer challenge trade.
The Cardinals wanted a new look, and Frisch, a more capable manager and a more conventional go-go sparkplug type and also not known to hand out chocolate with nails in it to immigrant children on Halloween, brought it—it was under his tutelage that the famous Gashouse Gang of the thirties thrived. But they did it at the risk of trading away the best player in team history in the prime of his career because he wanted a lot of money.
2. August 2003: Cardinals acquire RP Mike DeJean from Milwaukee Brewers for RP Mike Crudale
1. August 2003: Cardinals acquire LHP Sterling Hitchcock from New York Yankees for Justin Pope
On its own merits, this first trade is quintessential Cardinals. Mike Crudale was a young flash in the pan; Mike DeJean was a groundball-oriented veteran reliever with decent strikeout rates and a control problem that Dave Duncan undoubtedly thought he might fix. And it worked, which is also quintessential Cardinals; Mike Crudale never played another season in the Major Leagues, and Mike DeJean was a net positive to the Cardinals' awful bullpen in his month and a half with the club.
The Sterling Hitchcock trade was similarly Jockettized; in the classic Dave Duncan tradition, he was never very good at his best, and hadn't been at his best in five years. The Cardinals, reeling from their unwise reliance on Brett Tomko and Jason Simontacchi, traded former first-rounder Justin Pope to the Yankees to grab him.
But it's the desperation inherent in these small-scale deals that smacks of Pedro Feliz. DeJean was much better than any of the Cardinals' non-Isringhausen right-handed relievers; that year DeJean and Cal Eldred, along with an injured Kiko Calero, were the only ones to be effective for any length of time. Hitchcock was, at least, no worse than Brett Tomko and the rest of the suspects the Cardinals had on offer. But neither trade was going to make a significant difference to their postseason odds; it was like attempting to solve the Cardinals' problems by going back in time five months and signing more minor league free agents during Spring Training.
It was August, and the Cardinals found themselves unable to push past the Astros and Cubs in the worst division in the National League. They found themselves with a lot of structural problems they hadn't anticipated, some of them caused by injuries. And unable to choose between making a serious fix or sticking to their guns they made two trades that were incredibly, frustratingly inconsequential.