Much has been written about the 2010 non-waiver deadline trade where the Cardinals sent fan favorite Ryan Ludwick to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook. As each of the players settle in with their new teams, I suspect that more will be written. Rather than compete with the Sabrmetricians and scribes, I thought I’d take another path and look at one of the trades in Cardinals history that didn’t happen – and how that saved the 1967 World Series.
Hal Woodeshick started his career as a spot starter, bouncing around in the American League. Like a lot of the young men that were signed in the early 50s, his initial development was interrupted by two years of military service. Once he returned from the Korean War, he big lefty saw limited action with Detroit and Cleveland before settling in with the Washington Senators in 1959. In one of the more interesting baseball stories, Woodeshick was taken by the new Washington Senators in the 1961 expansion draft, keeping him from moving to Minnesota with the rest of his former Washington Senator teammates.
Woodeshick’s big break would come in 1962 when he was taken by the Houston Colt 45s in the next expansion draft. Out of necessity, Woodeshick was thrown into the starting rotation. He started off the Colt 45s inaugural campaign on fire, winning two of his first three starts. That all came to an abrupt end in May when he left a game with an injury and spent a few weeks on the disabled list. He would finish the season 5-16 with a 4.39 ERA. The .238 winning percentage masqueraded a very solid performance, but his innings pitched total suggested that he might be more effective out of the bullpen. That’s where Woodeshick found himself at the start of the 1963 season. He responded with with an 11-9 record with an eye popping 1.97 ERA. He would be rewarded for his early season success with an invitation to the 1963 All Star Game – and he was brilliant. Entering the game in the 6th inning with a slim 4-3 lead, the big lefty pitched 2 scoreless innings while facing Bobby Richardson, Brooks Robinson, Bobby Allison, Joe Pepitone and Harmon Killebrew. Talk about a highly leveraged appearance. Wow.
Woodeshick would build on that in the 1964 season, becoming one of the first real closers in the National League. He would lead the league in saves with 23, a huge number for the day. His 2.76 ERA hid a suspect defense that played behind him and led to a rather unimpressive 2-9 record. This caught the eye of the Cardinals scouts when in 1965, the Redbirds needed some help in the bullpen. In June, they sent pitching prospect Mike Cuellar and reliever Ron Taylor to the now Houston Astros for Woodeshick and minor league pitcher Chuck Taylor. Ron Taylor had been a valuable arm out of the bullpen in the 1964 World Champion team. While he didn’t have much success in Houston, he would re-emerge a couple of years later as a big arm out of the bullpen for the Mets in their amazing 1969 season.
In retrospect, the trade seemed to favor Houston by quite a bit, but Woodeshick was just what the Cardinals needed – a steady left handed arm out of the bullpen. As a bonus, Chuck Taylor would progress and eventually give the Cardinals several good years out of the bullpen and as a spot starter. But it was Woodeshick that the Cardinals wanted, and he was a good one. He would be used extensively after the trade, appearing in 51 games, posting a 3-2 record and a mind boggling 1.81 ERA. Woodeshick followed that up in 1966 with another great year, going 2-1 in 59 appearances with a 1.92 ERA, although the emergence of Joe Hoerner as the new Cardinals closer changed Woodeshick’s role to that of a setup man.
Nelson Briles was an immensely talented young right hander that flew through the Cardinals minor league system. Signed as a free agent in 1963, Briles spent just one season in the minors with the Cardinals AA affiliate in Tulsa. As the Cardinals broke camp to start the 1965 season, Briles found himself in the bullpen, although his future was clearly in the rotation. The 21 year old Briles had a good rookie season, finishing 3-3 with 4 saves. His ERA would climb to 3.50, which was a bit high to be put into the rotation. But he was still young and could learn. Maybe.
While Woodeshick enjoyed great success in 1966, it was much different for Briles. He would bounce back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen, never sticking in one spot for too long. He didn’t pitch poorly. In fact, he only had one really bad outing, but he wasn’t going deep into his starts and couldn’t hold a lead in the bullpen.
This brings us to the start of the 1967 season. The Cardinals had nearly all of the pieces in place for another run at the World Series. The middle infield was one of the best in the game. The corner infielders were a bit of a question – would Orlando Cepeda’s health hold up and could Mike Shannon make the transition from right field to third base ? Nobody questioned the outfield – it was a dream team. Lou Brock and Curt Flood were dual threats and newcomer Roger Maris added some of that Yankee swagger. If Maris couldn’t handle the St. Louis summer, youngster Bobby Tolan was ready to take over. Add veteran backstop, Tim McCarver and the starting 8 looked ready to go.
There were questions and concerns. If the 1967 Cardinals had a weakness it starting pitching. The Cardinals began the season with a rotation of Bob Gibson, Ray Washburn, Al Jackson, Larry Jaster and Steve Carlton. With Ray Washburn, health was always a concern, and Washburn would lose a month later in year to an injury. Jackson always seemed to rise to the occasion, but the veteral left hander seemed more suited to the bullpen at this point in his career. So General Manager Stan Musial went in search of starting pitching and was offering up a package deal of Woodeshick (the veteran) and Briles (the prospect). It seems that every team was looking for starting pitching, so Musial was not able to make a deal before the rosters were reduced in May. Woodeshick and Briles would remain Cardinals – the deal that didn’t happen.
How did the non-trade turn out for the Cardinals ? For Hal Woodeshick, not so good. He struggled through most of the season, seeing less and less action as the year went on. He struggled with his control and just wasn’t getting batters out often enough to be successful. In another time, he might have been more effective as a left handed specialist, but this was 1967 and those roles didn’t exist.
It was quite the opposite for Nelson Briles. New pitching coach, and former Cardinals hurler, Billy Muffett did a Dave Duncan and completely turned around the young right hander’s career. And it was such a simple thing. Muffett convinced Briles to quit trying to strike out every batter he faced. Muffett pointed out that that nearly every defensive position was manned by a gold glove caliber player and that he should let them retire the batter. And this worked better than anybody could have imagined. Once Briles relaxed and let the hitters get themselves out, everything fell into place. His WHIP fell through the floor, his ERA dropped similarly and the wins started piling up. Most interesting, his strikeout rate remained nearly the same – but he got there in a completely different way. When Bob Gibson went down with a broken leg in July and missed two months of the season, it was the newly retooled Nelson Briles that picked up the slack and carried the team to the finish line. He finished the season with a 14-5 record and would go on to win 19 games in 1968. He was also brilliant in the 1967 World Series with a dominating complete game victory in game 3.
Would the Cardinals have been able to withstand the loss of Bob Gibson if they had dealt Briles and Woodeshick at the start of the season as they had hoped to do ? Perhaps not. Without those 19 wins, could the Cardinals have made a second trip to the fall classic in 1969 ? Hard to tell, but not very likely. The trade that didn’t happen may have been the best thing that happened to the Cardinals in the last half of the decade.
Oh, but what about the rotation help that Musial was looking for ? He had it all along, just didn’t know it at the the time. It was the co-Rookie of the Year for 1967, Dick Hughes.