Lessons of 1990

If we're going to learn anything from our team's history, we need to heed the lessons of Whitey's last stand.

In 1989, it seemed that everything that could go wrong with the Cardinals did. We lost starters Danny Cox and Greg Mathews before the season started, and closer Todd Worrell late in the season. Willie McGee played just 58 games.

Still, we finished 86-76. Although that was seven games behind the Cubs for the division lead, it was pretty good, considering the team's rotten luck.

And there was plenty of reason for optimism going into the 1990 season: We had our team back, intact and mostly healthy. We had a new catcher, Todd Zeile, who'd been voted best prospect in the AAA American Association. We had another stud coming up through the system in Ray Lankford, who'd been voted top prospect in the AA Texas League. Farther down the line, we had Brian Jordan and Rheal Cormier in St. Petersburg, and a fireballer named John Ericks in Savannah, who BA called the Sally League's second-best prospect. (He was rated ahead of Todd Hundley, Robb Nen, Pudge Rodriguez, and Reggie Sanders.)

But the biggest reason for optimism, if memory serves, was in the dugout. As long as Whitey Herzog was running the show, we had a chance.

If there was one big and obvious problem with the team going into the season, it was that we had a trio of popular and productive players in their walk year: McGee, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton. Setup reliever Ken Dayley was also in the final year of his contract, as was John Tudor, who was still effective but didn't hide the fact he was running on fumes.

The result? A humiliating 70-92 record and last-place finish. The only team in the NL with a worse record was Atlanta.

Whitey quit, McGee was traded, Tudor retired, and Pendleton, Coleman, and Dayley were allowed to become free agents.

The resulting bonanza of draft picks in 1991 was supposed to revive the system, which had already graduated Zeile, Lankford, Bernard Gilkey, and Geronimo Pena to the majors.

Indeed, the 1991 Cards, led by manager Joe Torre, finished 84-78, second in the division, and our draft that June earned high marks from Baseball America. We picked fourth that year—the earliest we'd ever picked in the entire history of the draft—and had a slew of compensation choices in the first two rounds.

In case you've forgotten the names, here are the guys we drafted in the first two rounds: Dmitri Young, Allen Watson, Brian Barber, Tom McKinnon, Dan Cholowsky, and Eddie Williams. (It's worth noting that, in a year in which the first two position players taken were Mike Kelly and David McCarty, the college players of the year in '90 and '91, the 13th, 14th, and 16th picks were Manny Ramirez, Cliff Floyd, and Shawn Green. History has a way of mocking those who write its first drafts … or, in this case, those who draft first.)

So what does all that have to do with the Cards in 2006?

Maybe nothing, maybe everything.

I have no idea if the Cards will pull out of their current tailspin, or if it'll only get worse.

But I do have a strong sense that we're coming to a major transition point for our franchise. Like the 1990 team, we entered the season with too many key players in their walk years—Mark Mulder, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Suppan, for starters, along with Sidney Ponson. If that was a problem, it was one the Cardinals compounded when they added Jeff Weaver and Ronnie Belliard, two more free-agents-in-waiting.

And it's one they continue to exacerbate by not resolving the Jim Edmonds situation. To me, as a fan, the solution is pretty simple. Picking up Edmonds' option would cost the Cards $10 million. For that, they get a guy who still plays good center-field defense and offers some lefty power, even if it's considerably diminished from his 2000-2004 glory years. If they don't pick up that option, they owe him a $3 million buyout, a belated thank-you for not becoming a free agent at a time when he would've commanded a larger contract than the Cards could offer.

I'm not good at math, but to me the open question is whether or not the Cards believe they can get a better center fielder and mid-lineup power threat for less than the $7 million spread between his pick-up cost and buyout price.

If the answer is "no," then in my view the Cards made a substantial mistake in not offering Edmonds assurance that he'd be a Cardinal in 2007, either by picking up the option or by negotiating a contract extension that lowers his salary in 2007 while giving him a guaranteed spot on the team in 2008.

Some teams, like the A's, thrive with pending free agents (PFAs) in their lineup; each year, it seems, they have an all-star poised to gather up all the riches the Yankees, Red Sox, or Mets can offer. (This year it's Barry Zito.) But I can't recall a season in which the A's went into the heart of a pennant race with five key positions filled by guys who didn't know where they'll be playing next spring.

One or two PFAs might actually bolster a team's chances, if you accept the idea that a guy who's eligible for free agency for the first time will tend to perform at a higher level in his walk year. But if you have too many of those guys at one time, I suspect that the opposite is most likely to occur, and the collective insecurities of your key players will drive down the overall performance of the team.

Blowing up this team wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing; as many have noted, this is a crew that peaked in 2004, outperformed expectations in 2005, and now seems poised to underperform projections in 2006. Going into 2007 with the same bunch seems like a prescription for mediocrity.

With a good offseason, I could see Walt Jocketty building a formidable team around the big three—Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Chris Carpenter. We have adequate position players in Eckstein and Encarnacion, and Molina provides great defense at a good price. We may even have a decent corner outfielder in Chris Duncan. Anthony Reyes figures to get better.

That leaves us needing at least one difference-making bat and three starting pitchers. One of those pitchers needs to be a stud, while the other two just need to be good enough to erase the memories of Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver.

In the past, I wouldn't have considered that too big a task for our man Walt, who overhauled his rosters in 1996, 2000, and 2004 to create playoff teams. But there's a very big reason to believe it's going to be a lot harder this time around.

The finances of the game are changing. With revenue sharing, satellite radio, and MLB's sale of the Nationals for more than $400 million, the lines between baseball's haves and have-nots aren't as clear as they once were. Two-thirds of the teams were still in contention in mid-July this season, and with all the new money coming in, we won't be seeing as many teams giving away impact players for the sake of payroll relief.

It'll take talent to get talent, and right now, unlike the Cardinals of 1990, the talent isn't there in AA and AAA.

But perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

Here's what I mean:

When the wheels came off Whitey's war wagon in 1990, we fans believed our top-shelf prospects would take us back to the top, and that the studs we got in the 1991 draft would keep us there. We now know that Zeile, Lankford, and Jordan were perfectly good complementary players, but they weren't the guys you build a team around. Between the three of them, they managed a total of two all-star appearances (Lankford in '97, Jordan in '99). Likewise, we now know that our '91 draft was probably the most overrated in our team's history.

We also know, or should know, that the players we need to rebound in future years aren't likely to come from within our system, or in any future draft. If we get some of those guys, great, but counting on them to emerge on cue is a loser's game. Walt seems to understand that as well as Whitey did a generation ago: You need superstars to win, and the only sure way to get those superstars is to sign or trade for them.

And there's the rub. The Cards never win bidding wars for free agents in the Barry Zito class, unless we just happen to get a guy like Jason Isringhausen, who's willing to take less money to play close to his family. And we can't expect any predatory trades to fall into our laps, the way we got Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, and Edmonds. If guys of that caliber emerge as trading pieces, you can bet the teams giving them up will want more than we're used to giving up.

If I were to make a prediction, it would be that Jocketty is going to be forced to take some huge risks this offseason, if he wants to build a championship-caliber team. I wouldn't blame him if he's gunshy after the failure of his last adventure in go-for-broke trading gave Oakland two of our best young players and left us with a broken-down veteran. And I hope he's cautious about giving up draft picks for free agents after the Tino Martinez signing.

But he has to do something dramatic. Maybe he has to trade Rolen or Carpenter to get young stars who'll help us a few years down the road, even if it means taking us out of contention in '07 and ‘08. Maybe he has to make a big free-agent signing, clogging up the payroll to give us a winner now, while our best player is in his prime.

The alternative is mediocrity, and, having already experienced that from 1990 to 1995, all I can say is, "No thanks."

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