Remembering Cardinals Drafts of the 1980’s and 1990’s

photo: Albert Pujols (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The 1980’s and 1990’s were a couple of hit and miss decades for the St. Louis Cardinals. They made three World Series trips in the 1980’s yet registered only one playoff berth in the following decade. The drafts in those years took a decidedly different approach than the previous decade and a half. Whether that was reason for the rollercoaster ride or just the growing pains for the new century knocking at the door makes for interesting discussion.

Like most major league teams, the Cardinals changed their draft philosophy after 1980 and began building their teams of with more experienced and polished college players rather than the blue chip high school player who still needed raw talent development.

The beginning of the overall change in attitude concerning high school athletes in Major League Baseball began after high school draft picks peaked at 88 percent in the late 1960’s. By the mid-1980’s, high school draftees fell to about 30 percent. Once the Cardinals got onboard with this trend, the change of heart was even more drastic, ranging from the 1980 draft that consisted of 23 of 37 draft choices (62%) being high schoolers to just three of the 26 picks (12%) coming from the prep ranks in the 1984 draft. The subsequent four drafts stayed true to that form as St. Louis selected just 21 high school players from 1985 through 1988. Ironically enough, the organization closed out the decade with the same number of high school picks in 1989 at 23 as they began in the decade’s first draft.

Despite the drop in high school draft choices, the Cardinals remained consistent in finding late round diamond gems. In this two-decade span, 19 of the 58 players who were drafted, signed and made it to the major leagues came in the 10th round or later. They included right-handed pitcher Rick Aguilera, who was the Cardinals’ final pick in the 1980 draft at no. 804 in round 37 and a high schooler to boot. Interestingly enough, most of those picks were also pitchers, including right hander Danny Cox at pick number 319 in the 1981 draft, one year before they found outfielder and future team Hall of Famer Vince Coleman in round 10. The Cardinals also drafted future Nasty Boy Rob Dibble straight out of high school and Kevin Ward later in the same draft. Neither would sign with St. Louis; rather they re-entered the draft and were chosen again by different organizations before making it to the big leagues.

Vince Coleman, 1983 Macon Redbirds

In the 1983 and 1984 drafts, the Cardinals were at it again, finding John Costello in the 24th round of the former and a trio of players in 1984 beginning with lefty Greg Matthews in round 10, utility player Craig Wilson in round 20 and Jeff Fassero, in round 22. Although Fassero eventually pitched for St. Louis, it was a circuitous route taken as the White Sox plucked him from the Cardinals farm system in December 1989. He made it back to the Redbirds via a trade with the Chicago Cubs 13 years later.

Mike Perez showed up in round 12 of the 1986 draft and spent five years in a Redbirds uniform recording 20 saves out of the bullpen. Catcher Mike Difelice arrived in round 11 of the 1991 draft just ahead of right-handed pitcher John Frascatore at pick 623 in round 24. The very next year, “Lil Mac” Joe McEwing entered the Cardinals farm system as the 28th round pick. His subsequent arrival at the big-league level nearly coincided with “Big Mac,” Mark McGwire. For the 1999 season, Busch Stadium had Big Mac Land in the upper deck of left field for McGwire’s monumental blasts while McEwing had his own “Lil Mac Land” in the lower decks.

Randy Flores (St. Louis Cardinals)

A few years later brought the addition of high schooler Ryan Freel in round 13 and utilityman Placido Polanco in round 19 in 1994. Kerry Robinson, a St. Louis native and current Cardinals scout, came via the 34 round of the 1995 draft and current Director of Scouting left-hander Randy Flores arrived a year later in 1996. That same draft also produced current Cardinals base coach Stubby Clapp 15 rounds after Flores. Nothing much came of the late rounds in the 1997 and 1998 drafts, but in 1999 the Cardinals drafted the iconic Albert Pujols, who cemented himself in Cardinals history with a three home run performance in Game 3 of the 2011 World Series.

As successful as the Cardinals were with their late round picks, the 1980’s and 1990’s also produced a plethora of players before the 10th round that St. Louis fans remember far and wide. Names like Rickey Horton, Terry Pendleton, Todd Worrell, Tom Pagnozzi, Joe Magrane, Luis Alicea, Todd Zeile, Ray Lankford, John Mabry, Donovan Osborne, Dmitri Young, Alan Benes, Braden Looper, Rick Ankiel, J.D. Drew and Chris Duncan.

Albert Pujols (Peoria Chiefs)

A handful – including Flores and Pujols – were instrumental in the Cardinals reaching the World Series four times in the first 13 years of the 2000’s.

Regardless of the Cardinals draft philosophy, the scouts have done their job throughout the decades finding key players who could make a difference and become part of the Cardinals lore. In our final installment coming soon, we will take a look at St. Louis’ drafts in the 21st Century.

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