Until the signing of Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt, the ultimate height of the craziness that is known as the 2006-2007 free agent derby still remains to be seen. All that just highlights the wisdom of trying to secure reinforcements via the trade route if at all possible.
A review of Jocketty's recent history demonstrates that he usually makes his big move that way - via trade - not in November and not at the Winter Meetings in early December. If the past can predict the future, more than likely, he will do so in the next three weeks.
While shiny free agents and impending arbitration decisions are currently first and foremost on everyone's minds, let's remember that this period is also about laying the ground work for one of the most fruitful trading times of the year for Jocketty – mid-December.
During his twelve years of service as the Cardinals' general manager, Walt has improved his hand before Christmas most every year, both in terms of additions as well as additions by subtraction.
With the 2006 Winter Meetings just a few days away - starting December 4th in Orlando, Florida - it is a good time to look back at a few recent examples of how the master of trades productively spent his early-winter working vacation – laying the groundwork for big deals.
(Note: Restricting this analysis to a period in December excludes other Jocketty masterpiece trades such as the ones that netted Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Can anyone name a single prominent player that came out of the other side of those deals?)
Following the Marlins' stunning 1997 World Series victory, Renteria survived one year longer than most of his Florida teammates like Al Leiter, Moises Alou, Kevin Brown and many more who were scattered to the winds in the initial go-round of the Fish' budget tightening.
As soon as Renteria headed toward joining the others mentioned in big-bucks land via the promise of arbitration, he was traded away. Renteria remained the Cardinals' shortstop for six very productive seasons before leaving for the Boston Red Sox, then Atlanta Braves.
1999 - December 21. Second baseman Fernando Vina (pictured) becomes a Cardinal, coming from the Milwaukee Brewers in return for Juan Acevedo and two players to be named later (Eliezer Alfonzo and Matt Parker).
Vina sparked the top of the Cardinals lineup and played Gold Glove defense, but his on-base percentage dropped each of his three subsequent seasons after he sported a solid .380 OBP in 2000. Vina missed most of 2003 due to injuries and after signing with Detroit, only played in 29 games in 2004 to effectively end his career.
1999 was one year in which Jocketty also made a couple of November deals, too.
1999 - November 12. The signing of Vina was actually a holiday bonus, as Walt got most of his 1999 Christmas shopping done early. He had already done pretty well for himself and the team following the November General Managers Meeting.
The Cardinals added pitchers Pat Hentgen (pictured) and Paul Spoljaric from Toronto as the Blue Jays were shedding salaries. He sent Lance Painter, Alberto Castillo and minor leaguer Mark DeWitt up north. Hentgen won 15 games in his only Cardinals season, 2000.
1999 - November 16. The Cardinals' blockbuster of that off-season was announced, as pitchers Darryl Kile (pictured), Dave Veres and Luther Hackman became Cardinals. The Colorado Rockies received Manny Aybar, Brett Butler, Rick Croushore and Jose Jimenez in return. We all know how that one turned out, too.
At the time, it felt like a strange trade, even a bad one, perhaps. Tatis was an acknowledged slugger seemingly coming into his prime and had already been signed to a long-term deal. In April 1999, Tatis became the only player in the history of the game to smack two grand slams in the same inning.
However, we all remember Kline's contributions to the Cardinals over the following four seasons and Hermanson delivered a 14-13, 4.45 ERA in the 2001 season. Despite resurfacing briefly with Baltimore this past season, Tatis was never the same after leaving St. Louis.
2001 - December 15. Pitcher Dustin Hermanson (pictured) was traded to the Boston Red Sox for three prospects, Dustin Brisson, Luis Garcia and Rick Asadoorian.
OK, this was not a blockbuster. And, the fact that none of the three prospects received made it to the bigs is not all that bad. Hermanson and his $6.5 million guaranteed 2002 contract (wow!) was dispatched to make room for others.
As much as I would like to fool myself into believing the money was used for Jason Isringhausen, the truth is that Izzy had been signed to a free-agent deal the month before. The Hermanson savings was instead used to ink free agent first baseman Tino Martinez. All in all, not one of Jocketty's best moments.
Jocketty was hailed for adding a proven starter without having to break up his core of position players as was previously thought to be required. Tomko surely had his ups and downs during his one season wearing the Birds on the Bat, but did manage to win 13 games. And yes, upon joining the Cardinals, Tomko was arbitration-eligible, undoubtedly easing the deal.
Drew had a standout campaign for the Braves in 2004, then moved to the Dodgers for two seasons before becoming a free agent again. As it turned out, the Cardinals' offense got along just fine without him.
Marquis' 42 wins over three seasons and King's 163 appearances over two years helped the 2004-2006 Cardinals prepare for two World Series appearances and one National League Championship Series.
Plus, with the money saved by moving Drew, Jocketty also signed Reggie Sanders and Jeff Suppan, two players who were important contributors in 2004 and 2005, with Suppan also experiencing a standout 2006.
2004 - December 18. The Cardinals acquired left-handed starting pitcher Mark Mulder (pictured) from the Oakland A's in return for starter Dan Haren, reliever Kiko Calero and catching (since moved to first base) prospect Daric Barton.
Like clockwork, about every two weeks, a new debate erupts on our message board over this trade. While it clearly did not work out in the Cardinals favor, some have already fitted Barton for his Hall-of-Fame induction jacket, despite his major league debut being at some point in the future.
Following shoulder surgery, Mulder is a free agent – with his 2007 destination still unknown. Not returning to St. Louis would put a final exclamation point on this deal.
2005 - December 7. The Cardinals sent disgruntled left-handed reliever Ray King and his $2.5 million 2006 salary to the Colorado Rockies for Larry Bigbie and Aaron Miles (pictured).
At the time, this deal was ripped by many. The few who defended it, including me, expected Bigbie to claim the left-field job and later acquisition Junior Spivey to own second base in 2006, with Miles as a reserve.
It didn't exactly work out that way.
No one predicted Aaron Miles would play 135 steady games between second base and shortstop, accruing 426 at-bats while posting a .263 batting average and a .324 on-base percentage as a steady contributor to a World Champion club.
While certainly not a blockbuster deal, this certainly turned out better than most expected.
2006 – December xx. What will Jocketty accomplish this year via trade? Can anxious Cardinals fans be patient long enough to find out?
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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