Ten years ago this month, general manager Walt Jocketty made two bold trades that enabled the Cardinals to take control of the National League Central Division and qualify for the postseason for the third year in a row.
The acquisitions of starting pitcher Chuck Finley and third baseman Scott Rolen rate among the best deals in Jocketty’s successful tenure in St. Louis.
The Cardinals, who entered July 2002 tied with the Reds for first place in the NL Central, closed July with a five-game lead over second-place Cincinnati.
With Finley and Rolen, the Cardinals were 17-14 in August and 21-6 in September, finishing 13 games ahead of the runner-up Astros.
Needing a starter to replace Darryl Kile, who died in June, the Cardinals acquired Finley, 39, a left-hander, from the Indians for minor-league outfielder Luis Garcia and a player to be named on July 19, 2002. (Coco Crisp, another minor-league outfielder, was sent to Cleveland in August, completing the trade.)
According to Peter Gammons for ESPN.com, the Indians were ready to trade Finley to the Reds for minor-league pitcher Josh Hall. When Reds general manager Jim Bowden couldn’t come up with the additional payroll to add Finley, the Indians turned to the Cardinals.
The deal wasn’t without risks. Finley had a 4-11 record and 4.44 ERA for the 2002 Indians. Only once since 1994 had he completed a season with an ERA better than 4.15. There also were concerns he was distracted by a pending divorce from his wife, actress Tawny Kitaen.
“Everyone I talked to told me this is one of the top two or three teams in the National League,” Finley, who played 17 years in the American League, said to the Associated Press. “It’s a very attractive team.”
Said Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds, who had been Finley’s teammate with the Angels: “He’s the ultimate workhorse. He’s one of the best professionals I’ve ever seen. When you play a big game, you want him to have the ball.”
Joining a rotation that included Matt Morris, Andy Benes and Jason Simontacchi, Finley made his first Cardinals start on July 21, 2002, at Pittsburgh. With Mike Matheny as his catcher, Finley got the win, pitching six innings and striking out eight, in the Cardinals’ 8-4 victory over the Pirates.
His pitching was only part of the story. Finley doubled to left off Josh Fogg in the fourth and scored the go-ahead run on second baseman Fernando Vina’s single. The double was Finley’s first hit in 27 big-league at-bats. Boxscore
“I like what I’ve seen of this team in the two days I’ve been here,” Finley told the Associated Press. “When you look around and see very good players all around you, it really picks you up.”
Eight days later, July 29, 2002, Jocketty swung a deal for Rolen, acquiring the third baseman, along with pitcher Doug Nickles and cash, from the Phillies for infielder Placido Polanco and pitchers Mike Timlin and Bud Smith.
Asked about joining the Cardinals, a delighted Rolen told the Associated Press, “This is the best situation for me right now.”
In an interview with CNNSI.com, Sports Illustrated baseball writer Tom Verducci said, “The Cardinals were already the team to beat in the Central and Rolen just solidifies that. He’s going to love playing in St. Louis. He’s the perfect player for that town.”
Jocketty made the deal, knowing Rolen was eligible for free agency after the season and could bolt the Cardinals. “If we don’t sign him, it would be a setback,” Jocketty said to the Associated Press. “But that was something we were willing to risk.”
In his Cardinals debut, on July 30, 2002, at Miami, Rolen was 2-for-4 with a run and a RBI in St. Louis’ 5-0 victory over the Marlins. Rolen singled and tripled after grounding into a double play in his first at-bat. Boxscore
“The game is the same, but tonight had a different feel,” Rolen said to the Associated Press. “You want everything to work out. You want to do everything you can to help the team.”
Said Benes: “He’s going to be a Gold Glove player for a long time.”
Finley finished 7-4 with a 3.80 ERA in 14 regular-season starts for the 2002 Cardinals. He yielded just 69 hits in 85.1 innings.
Rolen had 57 hits in 55 Cardinals games during the 2002 regular season. He had 14 home runs, 44 RBI and a .354 on-base percentage for St. Louis. In September, Rolen had 20 RBI in 24 games.