The Greatest Cardinals Lineup That Never Was

photo: Paul Molitor

For more than a half century, Major League Baseball has been holding its annual draft. Although you never know how players are going to pan out down the road, especially high schoolers, draft potential and develop potential. Enjoy the success it brings.

With the conclusion of the 2021 draft, pundits alike will be analyzing the class for years to come. Instead of joining the crowd, let’s take a look at the best players drafted and unsigned or passed on by St. Louis over the years and see what kind of starting lineup they could have fielded fantasy style. For the purpose of this article, I have chosen nine position players and, a left-handed and right-handed starter as well as a reliever. Here Is what an all-time greatest Cardinals lineup that never was might have looked like if these players across the last five decades had signed and worn the Birds on the Bat.

The corner positions on the infield are two of the most difficult to fill on a consistent basis. Maybe because the Cardinals have done so well at the corners, you can understand overlooking Frank Thomas “The Big Hurt” in the 1998 draft. The Cardinals passed on Thomas, choosing outfielder Paul Coleman with the fifth pick while the future Hall of Famer went to the White Sox as the very next selection.

Career: BA: .301, Hits: 2468, HR: 521, RBI: 1704, OPS: .974

Bill Madlock

At the hot corner, the Cardinals had a shot at four-time National League batting champion Bill Madlock in 1969. Nicknamed “Mad Dog,” he was as ferocious of a hitter as ever there was one. His four batting titles are second in the National League to Tony Gwynn’s eight since 1970. Picked out of Eisenhower High School in Decatur, Illinois, Madlock chose to not sign with the Cardinals and eventually became the property of the Washington Senators in June 1970 as a fifth-round pick. Imagine the protection he might have provided for Keith Hernandez in the lineup.

Career: BA: .305, Hits: 2008, HR: 163, RBI: 860, OBP: .365

Now for the double play combination. The Cardinals have featured some sick fielding duos at second base and shortstop but in our look at the Greatest Cardinals that never were Paul Molitor at second base and Bucky Dent at shortstop would have been a pretty good one-two punch up the middle.

Paul Molitor

Along with fellow Hall of Famer Robin Yount, Molitor saved the Brewers franchise in the 1980’s, turning the perennial cellar dwellers into a World Series competitor against the Cardinals in 1982. Appropriately nicknamed “The Ignitor”, the seven-time All-Star and 1993 World Series MVP owns the seventh longest all-time hit streak at 39 and at the age of 37 became the oldest player to record his first 100 RBI season.

The difference between the Cardinals signing Molitor, a 28th round pick in 1974, and the Milwaukee Brewers’ first round pick in 1977 was $6,000. The St. Paul, Minnesota native went to college and the Cardinals cashed out on a player who went on to earn more then $40 million dollars in his career

Career: BA: .306, Hits: 3319, RBI:1307, Runs Scored: 1782, Stolen Bases: 504

Bucky Dent

Dent was another one who got away. Drafted not once but twice by the Cardinals in a six-month window, the Georgia native opted instead to go to college. Had Dent signed with St. Louis, it is possible that Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith – who like Dent has his own heroic playoff home run -might never have been Cardinals either.

Dent finished second in the 1974 American League Rookie of the Year voting as a member of the Chicago White Sox before being shipped to the New York Yankees three seasons later. The 1978 World Series MVP would eventually wear a St. Louis uniform albeit as the first base coach for Joe Torre from 1991 through 1994.

Career: BA: .247, Hits: 1114, OPS:  .618

The outfielders were a little harder to differentiate whom to choose and whom to leave off the list.

Lenny Randle

Missouri native Lenny Randle was the 10th round pick of the Cardinals in 1967. The outfielder chose instead to win a national title with the Arizona State Sun Devils before being drafted by the Washington Senators with the 10th overall pick in 1970. Although Randle was more of an infielder then an outfielder, it’s hard to overlook a career stained by one moment in time – the 1977 assault on his manager Frank Lucchesi. The blemish does not change the success he had a as a major leaguer, and the first to play professionally in Italy. If that wasn’t enough; how many players can claim to have been managed by four Hall of Famers and one in Billy Martin who may make it one day?

Career: BA: .257, Hits: 1016, HR: 27, OPS: .626

Greg Vaughn (Getty Images)

Greg Vaughn is one of those rare players whose name is called more than once as a draft selection. For the record, he was drafted five times between January 1984 when the Cardinals made him their fifth-round pick and June 1986 when he finally signed as a first-round pick with the Milwaukee Brewers on their second try. The leftfielder fashioned a 15-year career that included nearly 1500 hits, over 350 home runs and more than 1,000 RBI. He appeared in the 1998 World Series against the New York Yankees hitting just .133. A nice middle of the order bat, he averaged 23 home runs and 71 RBI a season.

In a little known fact, the then 38-year-old Vaughn came the closest in this group to actually play in the regular season for St. Louis. The outfielder finished his career in a failed attempt to make the 2004 Cardinals in spring training as a non-roster invitee and retired.

Career: BA: .242, Hits: 1475, HR: 355, RBI: 1072, OPS: .807

We round out the outfield with a player probably more familiar to today’s readers – Xavier Nady. The Cardinals made the North Carolina High School Player of the Year their fourth-round selection in the 1997 draft, but he chose to go west instead. Nady attended Cal Berkeley where he set the all-time Golden Bears and PAC-10 slugging percentage mark (.729) before the San Diego Padres claimed him with the 49th pick in the 2000 draft. He became the 18th player in baseball history to go straight to the big leagues without a day in the minors. Over his 12-year career, Nady played for 11 different teams.

Career: BA: .268, Hits: 797, HR: 104

The final position player to be named is catcher. Because of the Cardinals success at the backstop position, it was difficult to find one who they drafted and did not sign or passed on. The selection is a real stretch because he never spent a day catching in the major leagues.

The Cardinals selected six catchers in the 1970 draft but passed on a young one out of Cincinnati, Ohio named Dave Parker. “The Cobra” as he was affectionately known threw out 72 baserunners in his career as a right fielder. He was as lethal with his bat as he was with his arm, clubbing more than 300 career home runs and collecting over 2,700 hits in his career. Parker starred for the Pittsburgh Pirates for most of career becoming the first player in baseball history to average a million dollars a season by signing a $5 million, five-year contract in 1979.  The accolades are endless. Parker was a seven-time All-Star, a National League RBI King, two-time batting champion, National League MVP and two-time World Series champion. He eventually wore a Cardinals uniform albeit after his playing days were over, serving as hitting coach for Tony La Russa’s 1998 Redbirds.

Pitching staff:

Max Scherzer

Right-hander – What can you say about Max Scherzer that has not been said? He is arguably one of the best pitchers over the last 14 years, with his success culminating in a World Series title in 2019. A native of St. Louis and a graduate of the University of Missouri, the Cardinals chose him with pick number 1291 in round 43 of the 2003 draft.

The author of two no-hitters, three Cy Young Awards and two-time All-Star Game starter, Scherzer is an example of the Cardinals’ ability to find young talent before it has been fully developed. The newest Los Angeles Dodger may never wear “The Birds on the Bat” but is quickly writing his legacy for enshrinement in Cooperstown.

Career: Games Started: 387, W/L: 183-97, Innings Pitched: 2468.1, ERA: 3.19, WHIP: 1.09, K’s: 2931

Dan Plesac (MLB Network)

The left-hander spot on this list belongs to Crown Point High School Indiana graduate Dan Plesac.  The lefty began his career as a starter with a mid-90’s fastball and a slider to go with it before the Brewers converted him to a closer. Plesac averaged nearly a strikeout per inning pitched over his 18-year career. He was the last Phillies pitcher to take the mound at old Veterans Stadium, closing the park with a strikeout of Ryan Langerhaus on September 28, 2003. The three-time All-Star was as durable as they come, never having spent a day on the disabled list in his nearly two decades of major league baseball.

Career: Games: 1,064, W/L:  65-71, Innings Pitched: 1,071, ERA: 3.64, K’s: 1041, Saves: 158

Closer – Rob Dibble. One of the most feared pitchers coming out of the Cincinnati Reds bullpen, Dibble could have been the second coming of the “Mad Hungarian” had the 11th round pick of the 1982 draft signed with the Cardinals out of high school. The right-hander is just one of 94 pitchers in modern baseball history to record an immaculate inning – recording three strikeouts on nine pitches. He recorded 500 strikeouts in fewer innings (386) then anyone before him, a feat later broken by new Chicago White Sox closer Craig Kimbrel.

Career: Games: 385, W/L:  27-25, ERA: 2.98, WHIP: 1.19, K’s: 645, Saves: 89

Two other right-handers could be added to this list in Bryn Smith and Rick Aguilera. Both were high school draft picks by the Cardinals and did not sign but went on to impressive major league careers.

Lineup Pitching Staff
Lenny Randle – CF RHP – Max Scherzer
Paul Molitor – 2B LHP – Dan Plesac
Bill Madlock –  3B Closer – Rob Dibble
Frank Thomas – 1B
Dave Parker –  C
Greg Vaughn –  LF
Xavier Nady –  RF
Bucky Dent – SS

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