On July 31, 1999, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shawon Dunston to the New York Mets for Craig Paquette, a 30 year old corner infielder who had spent the entire season in the Mets’ AAA Norfolk affiliate. When it happened, everyone assumed the trade was done as a favor to Dunston. The Cardinals were a .500 team, 11 games back in the division, with a depleted pitching staff that didn’t have much hope of making the playoffs in the single Wild Card era. The Mets were competing for their division and were 20 games over .500 at the end of July. Dunston was a veteran and a favorite of the Cardinals’ front office who had spent the majority of his career on the Cubs and played in exactly one playoff series at the age of 36. He even returned to the Cardinals as a free agent at the end of the season.
Craig Paquette was just supposed to be the piece going the other way–a place-holder in what was essentially a giveaway. Paquette had spent his career shuttling between the minors and the majors, never making much of an impression. He had one season, 1996, in which he came close to full time play. Even then, he was mostly used as a utility player, splitting time between 1b, 3b, and RF. Throughout the rest of his career, he’d been a part time player at best and now it seemed as if the Major Leagues had given up on him. In 1998, he appeared in only seven games in the majors, then spent the entirety of 1999 until the trade in Norfolk. On July 31, he had an OBP of .298 in AAA at the age of 30. Who the hell would want Craig Paquette?
As it turns out, Tony La Russa wanted Craig Paquette. La Russa had managed Paquette back in Oakland, where Paquette spent his first few seasons. During their time together, Paquette put up a .217/.243/.382 line over 763 plate appearances and three seasons. And apparently La Russa hadn’t seen enough of him. Paquette was in the lineup at RF on August 3, 1999 and promptly hit a double and a HR in his first Major League game of the season.
Over the next three seasons, Paquette would be something of an enigma for the Cardinals. He had some of the most atrocious on-base skills of any position player I’ve seen and his glove was bad everywhere but first base. Nevertheless, he got consistent playing time through 2001, when at the age of 32 he finally put up what felt like a decent season, hitting .282/.326/.465. That still wasn’t great for his defensive profile, but it was good enough to earn him a deal worth almost five million dollars from the Detroit Tigers, after which he reverted back to a pumpkin and fell so far below replacement value that every replacement value player suffered from vertigo.
I will admit that I hated Craig Paquette. At the time, I was vehemently opposed to all of Tony La Russa’s moves. Despite the fact that Tony helped bring in Mark McGwire, one of my favorite players of all time, La Russa’s managing style irritated the hell out of a fifteen year old kid who had just discovered Bill James and spent his days posting on rec.sports.baseball. La Russa’s love of veterans, closers, and short-sighted match-ups infuriated me. It would be years before I figured out that La Russa was actually better than most managers about the things I hated. My distaste for La Russa seeped over onto Paquette, who was clearly one of La Russa’s “guys.” Paquette stayed on the team and kept getting at bats despite his terrible OBP (which I thought was the most important thing in the world) and his less-than-impressive glove.
Now I realize how spoiled I was.
Craig Paquette wasn’t really that bad a of a player for the Cardinals. Over his three seasons with the team, he hit .267/.309/.461, which is nothing to write home about. But that .770 OPS would be second on the 2014 Cards, behind only Matt Adams.
There is an obvious caveat, of course, which is that comparing numbers from this season to those from 1999-2001 is like comparing apples to juiced oranges. Baseball-Reference tries to normalize for era and translates that .770 OPS to a 93 OPS+, which suddenly doesn’t seem so hot. But it’s still far better than any of the bench players the Cardinals have relied upon over the last couple years. Right now, I’d be thrilled with a slugging-heavy 93 OPS+ off the bench, and a .770 OPS would be starting and batting fifth.
Paquette isn’t the only name I suddenly find myself re-evaluating. The La Russa era Cardinals were rarely lacking in decent, if not inspiring, players off the bench. Lugo. Felipe Lopez. Miles. Luna. Brian Barton. Spiezio. Mabry. Hell, the aforementioned Dunston fits too. I’m sure I whined and complained when I saw these names in the starting lineup, but they are all a hell of a lot better than the bench guys we’ve run out over the last two seasons. What I wouldn’t give to swap out Shane Robinson for So Taguchi, or Daniel Descalso for Nick Punto.
Sure, there were plenty of mistakes. Joe Thurston hit better than anyone on our bench now (which is a damning statement considering his OPS was .645) but he got so lost on the basepaths that he was once found roaming East St. Louis, dehydrated and malnourished, five days after he hit a ground rule double. Wilson Delgado can only be evaluated once I have the results of a DNA test that will prove my theory about him and Daniel Descalso. And remember the time the Cardinals traded a real, useful player for Pedro Feliz?
Still, something has changed. Either other teams have gotten better at picking out the wheat from the DFA and AAA chaff, or the Cardinals have gotten worse. The bench was a huge weak spot last season, and really the only black mark against Mozeliak’s recent record (Matheny hiring notwithstanding).
Until we’ve got a bench that can offer a little pop, I will just have to look back fondly on Craig Paquette. Damn, that’s depressing.