Nolan Arenado Becomes Latest Example of St. Louis Cardinals Stealing Star Players
Examining 5 Biggest Heists in Cards History
Why, oh God, why? The St. Louis Cardinals continue to find ways to bring Cubs fans emotional pain and suffering of biblical proportions, which are not to be confused with the kind of losses the Ricketts family is apparently incurring.
While the small-market Cubs can’t seem to add anyone to their 2021 roster without first subtracting a salary of equal-or-greater value, the Cards just straight up stole star third baseman Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies. But wasn’t Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. also complaining about a lack of profitability within the last year? Why yes, yes he was.
But the Cards somehow convinced the Rockies to pay $50 million of Arenado’s remaining salary, including every penny he’s owed in 2021. All of this in exchange for pitcher Austin Gomber and a handful of minor-leaguers, none of which are ranked among the top 100 prospects.
So, uh, why? It’s easy to understand this trade from the Cardinals’ perspective because it’s akin to being offered a free PS5 with the caveat that you have to fork over $8 for shipping costs. The bigger question is how the Cardinals continue to find ways to steal All-Stars from other teams and why the Cubs can’t figure out how to do the same thing.
A look through Cubs history suggests that they have, in fact, pulled off a few of these deals. The Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton deal of 2003 comes to mind, as does the trade for Ryne Sandberg, though the latter was merely a throw-in at the time. But if it feels to you as if this sort of trade as much a part of the Cardinals’ DNA as free competitive balance draft picks and ancient voodoo magic, you’re not wrong.
Ignoring the obvious, cringe-inducing Brock-for-Broglio mishap, there are still quite a few star baseball players the Cards have acquired for practically nothing. Allow me to torture you further by examining their five most prominent heists of the last 30 years.
Not only does the Edmonds trade hurt because of what he did in a Cardinals uniform, but it’s entirely reasonable that the Cubs could’ve made the same trade. They just didn’t because reasons. The 2000 Cubs could’ve really used another quality, left-handed bat and they also needed a strong defensive center fielder. In December 1999, they solved the defensive portion of that equation by trading crummy utility infielder Manny Alexander to the Red Sox for crummy utility outfielder Damon Buford.
Three months later, just before the open of the 2000 baseball season, the Cardinals landed Edmonds in a deal involving second baseman Adam Kennedy and veteran pitcher Kent Bottenfield. In fairness to the Anaheim Angels, Kennedy hit .312 with a 110 OPS+ as a regular in 2002, when the Angels surprised everyone and won the World Series. But the Cubs could’ve bested this deal with prospect Eric Hinske and a veteran pitcher such as Matt Karchner or Terry Mulholland, or possibly even a flame-throwing 23-year-old named Kyle Farnsworth.
Buford played outstanding defense in center in 2000 and he probably would’ve won a Gold Glove if not for Edmonds. However, Buford hit .240/.309/.378 with a 76 OPS+ in 645 plate appearances as a Cub while Edmonds slugged a career-high 42 homers and helped lead the Cardinals to a division championship in 2000. He proceeded to murder National League pitching for better part of a decade.
But at least the Cubs finally got Edmonds in 2008, right?
Rolen is another rough one, coming at a time when the Cubs were searching high-and-low – mostly low – for a replacement for Ron Santo, who had retired 28 years prior. In 2002, the 27-year-old Rolen was with the Philadelphia Phillies and already had three Gold Gloves, two top-25 MVP finishes, and a Rookie of the Year trophy to his name. In the midst of a pennant race, St. Louis sent utility infielder Placido Polanco, no-hitter-footnote Bud Smith, and reliever Mike Timlin to the Phillies for Rolen.
At the time of the trade, Bill Mueller was in his second and final year as the Cubs’ starting third baseman and he carried a .250/.332/.361 slash line. The Cubs let Mueller sign with the Red Sox that offseason after deciding to roll the dice on Mark Bellhorn as their everyday third baseman. Bellhorn didn’t last a full season in that role, though, ironically enough, he and Miller were major contributors for the 2004 Boston team that swept the Cardinals in the World Series.
Meanwhile, Rolen went on to post a 127 OPS+ with 111 home runs and 6.3 WAR per 162 games played over the course of six seasons with the Cardinals.
Why were the Cardinals even trading for McGwire? Did you ever think about that? Although the disappointing ESPN retrospective Long Gone Summer went into some of the details about their 1997 mid-season acquisition of the hulking slugger, there was little substance beyond the “Aw shucks, isn’t St. Louis great?” story-telling.
McGwire was 33 years old and in his 12th season with the Oakland A’s at the time, riding out another losing campaign before heading to free agency. Since the first baseman was not in their long-term plans, the A’s decided it was time to trade him. You might imagine that a lot of contenders would be interested in a guy who had 34 home runs before the trade deadline, but it was the 51-56 Cardinals – 7.5 games out of a playoff spot – who took a shot at landing Big Mac.
For their part in the deal, Oakland received a trio of pitchers in their mid-20s – Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, and Blake Stein – who would ultimately combine for 4.9 WAR in their collective careers. McGwire famously slugged his way to 70 home runs in 1998, thanks in large part to his good friend androstenedione.
Carpenter was not traded to the Cardinals, but they did get him for practically nothing. After earning $3.4 million in 2002 while posting a 5.31 ERA in 13 starts, the Toronto Blue Jays released Carpenter to avoid being forced to pay him a similar salary for the 2003 season. Does this kind of sound familiar? Anyway, this meant Carpenter was free to sign with any team, including the Cubs.
At the time, the oft-injured Carpenter was 27 years old and had little more than a fading prospect reputation and a 4.83 ERA in six seasons with the Jays. St. Louis snagged him on a one-year, $300,000 contract for ’03, but he was shut down for the year when his shoulder required another surgery that July. The Cardinals re-signed Carpenter to another contract at the same amount for 2004, and that’s where they struck gold.
The right-hander made 28 starts for the ’04 Cards, accumulating a (then) career-best 3.46 ERA and helping lead St. Louis to the best record in the National League. He was even better in 2005, winning the Cy Young and tossing a career-high 241.2 innings. Although injuries played a recurring part in the remainder of his career, Carpenter ultimately spent over 10 years with the organization and retired in 2013.
The Arenado trade isn’t the first time the Cards have convinced the Rockies to give them a superstar. Walker was essentially a Hall of Famer already when he arrived in St. Louis in the summer of 2004, having hit 351 home runs with a slash line of .314/.400/.567 and a 141 OPS+ in his previous 15 seasons. The Cardinals’ offense ranked No. 1 in the National League in runs, batting average, slugging percentage, and OPS, so adding Walker on August 6 felt like overkill.
Yes, you read that correctly: Walker was acquired by the Cardinals after the trade deadline in a waiver trade. That means any other team could’ve blocked the deal or traded for him themselves if they were willing to commit to the remainder of his salary in ’04 and the entirety of the $12.6 million Walker was owed in 2005. The only team willing to make the move was the Cards, and they only had to send three non-prospects to Colorado in the exchange.
Pitcher Chris Narveson is the most notable of the bunch, having carved out an eight-year MLB career with a 4.71 ERA. The kicker? Narveson was traded by the Rockies to the Red Sox and then claimed off waivers by the Cardinals. He made his big-league debut with St. Louis in 2006, when they were notably the worst World Series champion of all time. Walker had retired by then, but he compiled a 134 OPS+ in 144 games with St. Louis.
So while the Arenado deal is maddening enough in and of itself, it becomes unfathomably frustrating when you view it as part of a pattern that stretches back at least a quarter-century. Then you consider how the Cubs could have made some of these very moves, most of which didn’t cost much in terms of either money or prospects and, well, you’re probably already upset enough so we’ll just stop right there.
Whether it’s the devil magic or some oddly persistent belief that they’re just a bunch of bumpkins, other teams seem all too willing to given players away to the Cardinals. Arenado is the latest of those, but history tells us he won’t be the last.