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Cardinals of Yore: Steve Carlton

Today marks the 37th anniversary of arguably the worst move in Cardinals history: The club jettisoned ace hurler Steve Carlton over an excruciatingly small contract dispute.

A 20-game winner in 1971 for the Redbirds, the story goes that Carlton and Cardinals owner Gussie Busch couldn't compromise on a $5,000 gap between what the player wanted and what the team wanted to pay him. A frustrated Busch ordered Carlton, who went on to win four Cy Young Awards, to be traded -- and he didn't care who for.

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The team landed Rick Wise -- who won 16 games each in 1972 and 1973 before moving on to Boston -- but Carlton was arguably the best pitcher in baseball from 1972-1982. And it is almost certain that the Cardinals would have made more playoff appearances had Lefty remained in the fold.

In 1973, the Cardinals finished a game and a half behind the Mets to take the old National League East's crown. Could Carlton have improved on Wise's 16 wins by two games? I wouldn't have bet against it.

In 1974, the Cardinals ended up a game and a half behind the Pirates for the NL East title. They only had one starting pitcher who logged a winning record -- Lynn McGlothen -- at 16-12.  A rapidly slowing down Bob Gibson was 11-13. Carlton would have made the rotation better by leaps and bounds.

In 1981 the Cardinals had the best record in the National League East. But the mid-season baseball strike caused the commissioner's office to declare for the first and only time in baseball history that the best cumulative record at the end of the season wasn't good enough for the title. Instead, the team that was ahead at the end of the first half played the team that had the best record in the second half. Montreal, which finished two games behind the Cardinals, played Philadelphia, which finished two and a half games behind the Cardinals, for the right to play in the World Series. If Carlton could have helped the Cardinals win one more game in the second half, they would have been in the playoffs.

That's three realistic chances the Cardinals would have had to add to their World Series trophy case had the Carlton trade never been made.

I wonder how keeping Carlton would have changed Cardinals lore. I believe most people too young to have seen Dizzy Dean pitch consider Gibson to be the best pitcher in Cardinals history. And Gibby makes a great case. But it's hard to statistically stack up to Carlton -- who may have had even better numbers if he played his whole career with the Cardinals. 

Carlton  329-244   3.22   4,136K, 1,833BB, 4 Cy Young Awards

Gibson  251-174    2.91   3,117K  1,336BB, 1 MVP, 1Cy Young Award