Rick Sutcliffe is, by all accounts, a smart and personable man who had a first-rate career as a pitcher in the major leagues. But his year with the Cardinals reflects how distressed the proud franchise had become in the final years of Anheuser-Busch ownership.
Twenty years ago, when St. Louis signed Sutcliffe to a minor-league contract with the hope he could earn a spot in their rotation, it was a sure sign of the desperate state of the Cardinals’ starting pitching.
Sutcliffe had injured a knee in 1993 while with the Orioles and posted a 5.66 ERA in 28 starts. On the basis of that performance, he should have been finished as a big-league pitcher.
Yet, after starting pitcher Donovan Osborne underwent shoulder surgery, sidelining him for the 1994 season, the Cardinals, seeking an inexpensive alternative, signed Sutcliffe to a minor-league contract on Jan. 31, 1994, and invited him to spring training as a non-roster pitcher.
“I have no doubt I can still pitch,” Sutcliffe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Pitching coach Joe Coleman: “With his breaking ball and pitching in our ballpark, he could be effective.”
General manager Dal Maxvill: “The reports we have are his arm is in good shape and he was throwing the ball well at the end of the (1993) season.”
Common sense indicated the Cardinals, owned by an increasingly disinterested Anheuser-Busch, were more focused on expense savings than they were in winning championships.
“That move showed me they’re not going after somebody who’s in the top of his prime,” candid Cardinals pitcher Bob Tewksbury said to the Post-Dispatch after Sutcliffe’s signing.
Former Cardinals third baseman Terry Pendleton told the St. Petersburg Times: “They’re saving money. They’re not trying to win anything.”
Sutcliffe, 37, considered himself a longshot to make the Opening Day roster. He backed up that belief by posting a 6.60 ERA in major-league exhibition games entering the final days of spring training.
Still, the Cardinals opened the 1994 season with Sutcliffe in their rotation.
Jolted in Georgia
He gave up back-to-back-to-back home runs to Ryan Klesko, Fred McGriff and David Justice in the first inning of a start against the Braves on April 18, 1994, at Atlanta. Lacking location, Sutcliffe yielded seven runs in two innings of a 7-1 Braves triumph. Boxscore
“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a pleasant experience in this ballpark,” Sutcliffe said.
(In 11 career appearances at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Sutcliffe was 0-5 with a 6.70 ERA.)
He also produced quality wins against two of his former teams. He twice beat the Dodgers _ two runs in 6.1 innings on April 13 Boxscore and 7.2 scoreless innings on May 31 Boxscore _ and dominated the Cubs (one run in six innings) on June 26. Boxscore
Sutcliffe earned wins in three of his last four decisions.
Still, in 16 games (14 starts) during the strike-shortened 1994 season, Sutcliffe gave up 93 hits in 67.2 innings, posting a 6-4 record despite a 6.52 ERA. In his 14 starts, his ERA was 6.78. He was 3-2 with a 7.11 ERA in nine starts at St. Louis.
Sutcliffe, in the last season of an 18-year major-league career, symbolized the sorry state of the 1994 St. Louis staff. The only two standouts were relievers Rob Murphy (3.79 ERA) and John Habyan (3.23 ).
The primary starters were Tewksbury (5.32 ERA), Vicente Palacios (4.44), Allen Watson (5.52), Sutcliffe (6.52), Omar Olivares (5.74) and Tom Urbani (5.15).
Overall, the 1994 Cardinals’ staff ERA was 5.15, tied with the Rockies for worst in the National League.