The 100 Greatest Cardinals: 71-80
NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
No. 67: RHP Matt Morris
Thanks to a steep and maddening slide in the second half of 2006, it took an Atlanta Braves win over the Houston Astros on the last day of the regular season to push the 83-win Cardinals into the playoffs.
No doubt they earned their rings with a stunning World Series triumph, but the Cardinals took the field on Opening Day 2017 with many of the same players and most of the same shortcomings.
By late July, as the non-waiver trade deadline drew near, those few offseason roster changes they did make proved to be of little help. Free agent pitcher Kip Wells was well on his way to a National League-high 17 losses, and right-hander waiver pickup Todd Wellemeyer had spent the majority of his season on the disabled list.
The Cardinals were four games under .500 and hadn’t been any higher in the standings than third in more than a month.
Still, with all of August and September left to be played, the first-place Brewers led them by only six games. General Manager Walt Jocketty thought a deadline move to prop up the rotation might help the Cardinals close the gap and, maybe, make another run at an unlikely title.
The man he had in mind was Matt Morris, who the Cardinals had lost not two years earlier to a three-year free agent deal with the San Francisco Giants. The 32-year-old right-hander had been the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick out of Seton Hall in 1995 and was not too far removed from the organization in which he was raised.
He was no longer the same pitcher that won 22 games six years earlier but, in Morris, Jocketty saw a clubhouse leader who could shepherd young arms like Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright the way he’d been mentored by Darryl Kile and Andy Benes. Changing his uniform number from 35 to 22 as a tip of the cap to Mike Matheny, his old Cardinals catcher, was further evidence of the strong attachments Morris still had in St. Louis.
And, when he was healthy, those eight years Morris gave the Cardinals were really good.
He had spent one full season in the minors and parts of two others before injuries to Donovan Osborne and Manny Aybar pressed him into the big-league rotation by 1997. And in 217 innings over 33 starts that season, the 22-year-old rookie went 12-9 with a 3.19 ERA.
A blown elbow ligament and recovery from the resulting surgery limited Morris to just 17 starts over the following three seasons, including missing all of 1999. But, healthy again, he led the National League with those 22 victories in 2001 and, with an accompanying 3.16 ERA and 185 strikeouts, finished behind only Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling in the Cy Young balloting. Morris followed that with 17 wins and another All-Star Game selection in 2002.
All said, he never posted a losing record or failed to win at least 12 games in a full season with the Cardinals. The team, meanwhile finished in no worse than second place, reached three league championship series and the World Series in 2004, a season in which Morris contributed 15 wins.
Jocketty thought he had a deal with Brian Sabean, the Giants’ general manager, to bring Morris back. The Cardinals were to send a couple of minor leaguers and take on the bulk of the $13.8 million that remained on Morris’ contract. Then Pittsburgh came forward with its starting centerfielder, Rajai Davis, and an offer to take on the full salary.
In retrospect, the missed trade worked out in the Cardinals’ favor.
Jocketty instead landed Joel Pineiro, who won 15 games for St. Louis in 2009, while a damaged Morris appeared in just 17 more games before retiring at age 33.
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 1997-2005
101-62 (.620) with Cardinals| 3.61 ERA | 18.7 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 2.64