Ones That Got Away, Or Did They ?


With the 2010 non-waiver trade deadline approaching in just a few days, sports radio talk shows and blogs are filling up with wild speculations about last minute deals that are sure to catapult the home team into postseason and beyond. All that’s missing from some of them is a photo of Buzz Lightyear. I think my favorite was a St. Louis personality that suggested a bunch of players we don’t want for Dan Haren. What it lacked in reality, it more than made up in unintended humor (we’re not laughing with you, we were in fact laughing at you).

Now that Dan Haren has been traded to Los Angeles (AL), all eyes are looking in the direction of Houston to see what happens to Roy Oswalt. The name Shelby Miller keeps coming up in rumors and speculations, and that has strongly polarized the fans. I tried to make the case that can’t miss pitching prospects are like a free lunch – there is no such thing, but the fear is what happens if we do let Shelby Miller get away. We have no way of knowing, unless one of you happens to have a time machine and is willing to make a jump about 4 years in the future and report back on what you learned. What we can do is take a look at some of the prospects that recently got away and see if that changes your opinion on whether or not Shelby Miller is untouchable.

I will admit to starting this research with a great deal of trepidation, as my own history with the Cardinals is haunted by names like Steve Carlton, Richie Allen, Andy van Slyke, Jose Cruz, Willie Montanez, Bobby Tolan and Lance Johnson. Putting aside my fears, I spent several hours  going  over lists of trades, waiver claims and free agency filings since the start of the 2000 season. The results were not nearly as bad as I expected.  Here is what I found.

Jack Wilson to Pittsburgh for Jason Christiansen (2000)

Wilson was a 9th round draft choice by the Cardinals in 1998. He progressed through the Cardinals system, demonstrating that he could hit. I supposed the 2000 Cardinals felt they needed a big left handed pitcher more than a top shortstop prospect, so Wilson was sent to the Pirates, where he would soon start a rather nice career, including an All Star Game invitation in 2004. Christianson was a high number of appearances but low innings reliever with the Pirates, and he would be the same in St. Louis. A year later, Christianson would be traded to the Giants where he would have about the same success. A career .500 pitcher, Christianson would be out of baseball after the 2005 season.

Interestingly, Jack Wilson’s name came up frequently prior to being traded to the Seattle Mariners in 2009 as a possibility to anchor the left side of the Cardinals infield.

Coco Crisp to Cleveland for Chuck Finley (2002)

Other than having one of the best names in sports, Crisp had all the makings of one that got away. He was drafted in the 7th round in 1999 and had progressed to New Haven (AA) prior to the trade. He had great speed and was showing that he knew how to handle the bat. After the trade, Cleveland promoted him to AAA and he adjusted to the higher league rather quickly, becoming a solid major leaguer shortly after. From 2004 to 2008, it looked like Crisp was one that got away. A near .300 hitter that could be counted on for 20-25 stolen bases, and at least an average glove in center field would have been nice in a Cardinals lineup. Except that we had a pretty good center fielder at the time in Jim Edmonds. In return for Crisp, we received a veteran lefty that at age 39, still had some fire in the furnace. Finley would go 7-4 for the Cardinals in the regular season and pitch well against the Padres and Giants in the playoffs. In addition to being a much needed lefty in the rotation, Finley entertained fans with his off the field exploits with his soon to be ex-wife, Tawny Kitaen. Cue a Whitesnake power ballad – ahhhh, good times.

Chris Narveson to Colorado for Larry Walker (2004)

This is one of the greatest post-waiver trades in Cardinals history, and if we gave up a huge major league talent to make it happen, so be it. Players like Larry Walker don’t pass through an organization very often, and while we only had him for a short time late in his career, the Cardinals were better as a result of his presence. It did not appear at first that Narveson would make it to the major leagues. After a short time in the Rockies farm system, Narveson would be traded to Boston where the Cardinals would claim him off waivers just a few months later. The Cardinals did not resign Narveson at the end of the 2007 season and Milwaukee would take a chance on the big lefty. In 2009, Narveson posted a solid 2-0 record in 21 appearances as a reliever and spot starter for the Brewers. He had the makings of being one that got away until a disappointing start to his 2010 season. At present he is 8-6 with an ERA near 6.

Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton for Mark Mulder (2004)

There is no point in going into detail on Dan Haren’s major league career, he is clearly one that got away. Even as a youngster getting his first few major league starts, it was clear that Haren had talent. Whether he could put it all together into a dominating top of the rotation guy remained a question, but there was a lot to like in the 23 year old. Haren did develop into that type of pitcher as he put together five impressive seasons, going 76-60 with an ERA that has been working its way into the low 3’s. Even more impressive is that he has made every one of his starts and has thrown for over 200 innings each of those five seasons. He has also developed into a Greg Maddux like control pitcher with a strikeout to walk ratio as high as 5.87 in 2009.

Before we breakout the violins and start playing a sad tune, it’s not like the Cardinals didn’t get fair value at the time. It’s easy to second guess a trade after one of the principles suffers a career ending injury – but this was no Steve Carlton for Rick Wise deal. The Cardinals got one of the best left handed starters in the game, and in the prime of his career. Mulder’s 16-8 record in 2005 helped the Cardinals secure their second consecutive 100 win season and a deep run into postseason. If not for an Astros team that refused to be beaten, the Cardinals might have gone to three consecutive World Series. Taking this a bit farther, the thought of a rotation with Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder at the top brought back memories of Joaquin Andujar and John Tudor and maybe even Bob Gibson and Steve Carlton (Carpenter certainly has the Gibson part down).

Kiko Calero is also one that got away. Signed as a six year minor league free agent in 2002, Calero became a very valuable arm out of the bullpen for the Cardinals in 2003 and 2004. Every successful championship team has a core of hold ’em guys in the bullpen, and you can easily spot them in the statistics. They have low ERAs and a lopsided win/loss ratio. In 2004, Calero went 3-1 with an ERA of 2.78. That’s the kind of pitcher you want late in the game – keep the other team from scoring long enough to come back and win. The 2004 Cardinals had three such relievers: Calero, Julian Tavarez and Ray King. The Cardinals would have a similar bullpen in 2005, but things would deteriorate in 2006. It has taken until 2010 for the Cardinals to develop a bullpen to rival that 2004 team. Calero pitched well for the Oakland Athletics until arm troubles cut his season short in 2008. After a lengthy rehab, Calero surfaced again in 2009 with the Florida Marlins, performing just has he had in St. Louis and Oakland.

It will be interesting to look back on Daric Barton in a couple of years to see if he was one that got away. Barton was a first round draft choice in 2003 and projected to be a good hitting left handed corner infielder, most likely at first base. We already had a pretty good one in Albert Pujols, so Barton’s future would have to be elsewhere. Injuries in 2008 (neck) and 2009 (hamstring) slowed his progress at the major league level, but the 24 year old has finally settled in as every day first baseman for the Athletics. He has a good eye at the plate and leads the American League in walks to go with a .279 batting average.

Luke Gregerson to San Diego for Khalil Greene (2008)

Left handers that can throw strikes tend to have long major league careers, and Gregerson happens to be one of those. He was a late round draft choice in 2006 and flew through the low minors. The Cardinals had high hopes when they send Mark Worrell to the Padres for the struggling shortstop. Gregerson was the player to be named later in the deal, and the Padres got a good one. He was immediately put into the Padres bullpen and put together quite a season, finishing with 72 appearances and a 3.24 ERA to go with a 2-4 record. Even more impressive is his 11.2 strikeouts per 9 innings – more than one per inning. Couple that with a low walk and home run rate, Gregerson is the kind of setup guy every manager and pitching coach dreams about. He’s maintained the strikeout rate in 2010 but has cut the walk in half, posting a mind boggling K/BB ratio of 6.56 and a microscopic WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.683. Wow. Yes, Gregerson is one that we wish we had back.

Jess Todd and Chris Perez to Cleveland for Mark DeRosa (2009)

The Cardinals had an awkard situation heading into the 2009 season with two rookie closer candidates, Jason Motte and Chris Perez. Motte was a converted catcher that uses a short arm delivery to throw the baseball past just about every hitter. The younger Perez was a first round draft choice in 2006 and has absolutely electric stuff including a lively fastball in the mid-90s with a lot of movement. Before Jason Motte was called up in September 2008, Perez was the heir apparent for the closer slot in 2009. Motte’s 16 strikeouts in 11 innings with an ERA of 0.82 changed all of that.

In 2009, Perez and Motte settled into setup guys for Ryan Franklin, each having success mixed with long spells of inconsistency. As the trade deadline approached, the Cardinals sent Perez to the Indians along with Jess Todd for utility player Mark DeRosa. DeRosa was one of the bigger names being thrown around before the trade deadline, and the Cardinals moved quickly to take him off the market.

Perez got off to a rough start in Cleveland but settled in and finished the season on a positive note. Still only 24 years old, Perez was expected to be a setup for the Cleveland closer, Kerry Wood, but another in a long line of injuries to the veteran right hander has put Perez back into the closer role and he is meeting the challenge. Perez has already appeared in 40 games and has recorded 9 saves to go along with a team low ERA of 2.35. His strikeouts are down and walks are up, but more important is that his home run allowed rate is significantly down from 2009. Instead of trying to strike everybody out, Perez has learned how to let the batters get themselves out, and as a result he’s a bona fide closer in the major leagues. Is Perez one that got away, or just a case of having to give up something to get something ? Either way, it is nice to see Perez being successful in the major leagues.

Jess Todd may be the one we look back at in a few years and lament as the one that got away. Todd was a second round draft choice in 2007 and saw his first action in 2009 after terrorizing every level of the minor leagues. He has a strikeout rate slightly better than Chris Perez, but significantly better control. He has continued to put up similar numbers in the Cleveland minor league system. He has been recently called up, taking the spot that opened up when Kerry Wood went on the disabled list. I look forward to watching the young right hander, now that he has made it to the major leagues.

Brett Wallace, Shane Peterson and Clayton Mortenson to Oakland for Matt Holliday (2009)

When the Cardinals acquired Matt Holliday, many experts warned that the Cardinals had just emptied their farm system. With two top prospects already gone to Cleveland (Perez, Todd), the Holliday deal cost the Cardinals their first (Brett Wallace) and second (Shane Petersen) draft choices from 2008 as well as their first rounder from 2007 (Clayton Mortenson). It is way too early to classify any of these players as ones that got away. Brett Wallace is still in AAA, now in the Toronto Blue Jays system. The power numbers that we all heard about are finally starting to happen for young first baseman/DH and he should be in the major leagues soon. Mortenson, projected as a starter, has been lights out in Sacramento (AAA) and has seen some action in the major leagues. Like Wallace, he should be a regular in the major leagues soon. Peterson has not progressed as quickly and is still at the AA level with Midland in the Athletics farm system.

Wallace and Mortenson appear to be legitimate major league players. Even so, there are no regrets as Matt Holliday is an elite player in the major leagues, and now we know he will be a Cardinal for a long time. Hopefully a long and prosperous time.

Jarrett Hoffpauir – claimed off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays (2009)

The Cardinals took a chance when they took the scrappy infielder off the 40 man roster following the 2009 season. The Toronto Blue Jays immediately snapped him up and put him to work at their AAA affiliate in Las Vegas. Hoffpauir isn’t a high average hitter, nor does he possess a lot of pop in his bat, but he is a reliable contact hitter. He strikes out less than he walks, something he has done in all of his professional seasons. Hoffpauir gained some national attention when he hit for the cycle at Las Vegas (AAA), not once but twice. More heads were turned when he was called up to replace struggling third baseman Edwin Encarnacion. It has not gone well for Hoffpauir and he may be back in Las Vegas before the end of the season.  One that got away ?  Not really, but it is a shame to lose a scrappy good contact middle infielder and get nothing in return.   Maybe the Blue Jays will leave him unprotected soon as we can get him back.  OK, probably not.

Conclusion

With memories of Lance Johnson (who we traded away to get Jose DeLeon) and Andy van Slyke (Tony Pena), I was worried that I might stumble across a formidable major league roster in the players we have traded away recently. Surprisingly, that was not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact. We have surely traded away some talented young players, and the name Dan Haren will haunt the franchise long after he has retired, but largely we have gotten good value in our trades and haven’t let too many get away under the radar. We have to give a lot of credit to Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak for managing these important assets with a great deal of care.

Will Shelby Miller be the next Dan Haren or will he stand beside Jaime Garcia in the Cardinals rotation ?  Who knows.  What I do know is that the last week before the trade deadline is going to be a lot of fun.

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One Response to Ones That Got Away, Or Did They ?

  1. I always love learning more from your history lessons but this is a post that covers my entire time as a Cards fan: 2000 to today! So I definitely remember all of these deals. I’m glad that you used the phrase “having to give up something to get something” because that is what good trades, and especially good deadline deals, often mean. And there are very few names on the list of who the Cards got in return that didn’t make a big impact.

    Also, I miss Larry Walker. Loved what he did as a Cardinal! (And before too, but easier to appreciate when he’s on your side.)

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