Deemed too expensive to be a reserve and not enough of a power hitter to remain the everyday left fielder, Bernard Gilkey no longer fit into the Cardinals’ plans.
Looking to restock their farm system, the Cardinals were offered packages of prospects by the Mets, White Sox and Royals for Gilkey.
Twenty years ago, on Jan. 22, 1996, the Cardinals traded Gilkey, 29, to the Mets for three minor-league players: right-handed pitchers Eric Ludwick and Erik Hiljus and outfielder Yudith Ozorio.
In the short term, the deal had little impact on the Cardinals, even though Gilkey had a career year with the 1996 Mets. The Cardinals won the 1996 National League Central Division championship and qualified for the postseason for the first time since 1987.
In the long term, the trade hurt the Cardinals because they didn’t get the pitching help they needed. Neither Ludwick nor Hiljus could help a staff whose team ERA increased each year from 1997 through 1999, contributing to the Cardinals missing the playoffs in those seasons.
Gilkey, a St. Louis native, debuted with the Cardinals in 1990, replaced Vince Coleman as the starting left fielder in 1991 and held the position through 1995.
For those six years, he batted .282 with 602 hits in 593 games, with an on-base percentage of .354. In 1993, his best Cardinals season, Gilkey batted .305 with 170 hits in 137 games, including 40 doubles, 16 home runs, 15 stolen bases and a .370 on-base percentage.
However, Gilkey never hit more than 17 home runs or produced more than 70 RBI in a season with St. Louis.
In December 1995, the Cardinals signed free-agent Ron Gant, 30, to a contract for five years and $25 million. Gant had three times hit 32 or more home runs with the Braves and twice had topped 100 RBI. He had driven in at least 80 in five consecutive seasons.
Gilkey was paid $1.6 million in 1995, when he led NL left fielders in fielding percentage (.986) and batted .298 with 17 home runs, 69 RBI and a .358 on-base percentage.
Eligible for salary arbitration, Gilkey was seeking $3 million in 1996. The Cardinals offered $2.5 million. A settlement likely could be reached for $2.8 million, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Still, the Cardinals were looking to acquire a closer, either Dennis Eckersley of the Athletics or free-agent Gregg Olson. Trading Gilkey would help free up the money to make such a deal.
“The only reason we’d have to move Gilkey is because of money,” Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said to Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch.
Projecting a 1996 outfield of Gant in left, Ray Lankford in center and Brian Jordan in right, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa discussed the possibility of moving Gilkey to first base. “We were saying that, but I didn’t see that as an alternative,” Jocketty said. “That probably would have hurt us defensively.”
On the day he was traded, Gilkey said, “I’m not bitter. I understand business.”
He was, however, hurt by the rejection.
“Once they signed Ron Gant, I knew the opportunity for me playing in St. Louis was slim,” Gilkey said. “It’s kind of shocking to know that you’ve played with the St. Louis Cardinals through all the down times and you did whatever you could to help. All of a sudden, they turn into contenders and they send me on my way.”
Of the players acquired by the Cardinals, Ludwick, 24, projected to be the most promising. He had a 13-6 record and 3.31 ERA in 27 games for Mets farm teams in 1995. “We have excellent reports on him,” Jocketty said.
Hiljus, 23, was 10-8 with a 3.94 ERA in the minors in 1995. Ozorio, 21, batted .217 with 40 stolen bases in Class A.
Joining a revamped Mets outfield that included another former Cardinal, Lance Johnson, in center, Gilkey had a sensational 1996 season. He batted .317 with 181 hits in 153 games, including 44 doubles, 30 home runs, 117 RBI, 17 stolen bases and a .393 on-base percentage.
Gant hit .246 with 103 hits in 122 games, including 14 doubles, 30 home runs, 82 RBI, 13 stolen bases and a .359 on-base percentage for the 1996 Cardinals.
Though Gilkey outperformed Gant in 1996, the Cardinals finished 88-74 and reached the NL Championship Series. The Mets finished 71-91.
Neither Hiljus nor Ozorio would ever play for St. Louis. Both were out of the Cardinals’ organization after the 1997 season.
Ludwick, older brother of outfielder Ryan Ludwick, pitched well at Class AAA Louisville _ 2.83 ERA in 11 starts in 1996 and 2.92 ERA in 24 games in 1997 _ but flopped in two stints with the Cardinals. He was 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA in six games for the 1996 Cardinals and 0-1 with a 9.45 ERA in five appearances for the 1997 Cardinals.
On July 31, 1997, the Cardinals traded Ludwick and pitchers T.J. Mathews and Blake Stein to the Athletics for first baseman Mark McGwire.