Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty went on a successful shopping spree for free agents in December 1995. In acquiring starters at left field, third base and the No. 1 spot in the rotation, along with a versatile reserve outfielder, Jocketty transformed the Cardinals from losers to winners.
In a span from Dec. 15 to Dec. 23, 1995, the Cardinals signed four prominent free agents: pitcher Andy Benes, left fielder Ron Gant, third baseman Gary Gaetti and outfielder Willie McGee.
All played key roles in remaking the Cardinals from a club that finished 62-81 and next-to-last in the National League Central in 1995 to one that won the division title at 88-74 in 1996.
Here, in the order in which they occurred, is a look at those free-agent acquisitions from December 1995:
Jocketty had more than nostalgia in mind when he signed McGee, 37, to a $500,000 one-year contract on Dec. 15, 1995.
McGee, center fielder for the Cardinals on three pennant-winning clubs and one World Series championship team in the 1980s, was seen by Jocketty as an experienced winner with the skills to play multiple outfield positions, pinch-hit and run the bases.
“He should be one of our extra outfielders,” Jocketty said to Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He adds some veteran strength to our bench. He’s still a serviceable guy.”
With the Red Sox in 1995, McGee hit .285 in 67 games. A switch-hitter, McGee had been especially effective versus left-handers, hitting .341 (29-for-85) against them in 1995.
McGee “wasn’t too thrilled with the Red Sox’s off-season offer to make him a minor-league coach,” the Boston Herald reported.
Reunited with manager Tony La Russa, for whom he played in 1990 with the American League champion Athletics, McGee hit .307 in 123 games for the 1996 Cardinals. He batted .350 (14-for-40) as a pinch-hitter. McGee started in 63 games: 33 in right field, 18 in left field, nine in center field and three at first base.
Power at third
With his power stroke, Gaetti, 37, provided a run-producing upgrade at third base.
Scott Cooper, the 1995 Cardinals third baseman, had hit three home runs with 40 RBI. Gaetti in 1995 had a team-leading 35 home runs and 96 RBI with the Royals.
On Dec. 18, 1995, the Cardinals signed Gaetti to a one-year deal for close to $2 million. The Royals had offered him one year at about $1 million, according to the Kansas City Star.
“This guy will have more power and drive in more runs (than Cooper),” Jocketty said of Gaetti. “He’s a winner, a champion, a legitimate blue-collar guy.”
The Twins and Pirates also had tried to sign Gaetti. One reason he chose St. Louis was the Cardinals had been his boyhood team. He was born and raised in Centralia, Ill.
“I can’t tell you how many times I stood in the front yard, the back yard, everybody’s yard, pretending to be Bob Gibson, Tim McCarver, Mike Shannon, (Julian) Javier, (Orlando) Cepeda, (Lou) Brock,” Gaetti said.
Gaetti delivered as hoped for the 1996 Cardinals. He produced 27 doubles, 23 home runs and 80 RBI and batted .274, with 143 hits in 141 games. He started 130 games at third base and nine games at first base.
Like Gaetti, Benes was a boyhood fan of the Cardinals. He was born and raised in Evansville, Ind.
On Dec. 23, 1995, Benes, 28, got a two-year, $8.1 million deal from the Cardinals, with a club option for a third year, according to the Post-Dispatch.
In 1995, Benes was a combined 11-9 with a 4.76 ERA for the Padres and Mariners. After posting a 4-7 record and 4.17 ERA with the 1995 Padres, Benes was traded to the Mariners on July 31. He was 7-2 with a 5.86 ERA for Seattle.
In 1996, Benes looked to join his younger brother, Alan, the Cardinals’ top pitching prospect, in a revamped rotation.
“St. Louis is the place I wanted to play,” Benes said. “I have a lot of admiration for the Cardinals. I grew up watching the Cardinals play and having my brother there makes it really special. I couldn’t be more happy.”
Andy Benes led the 1996 Cardinals in wins (18), starts (34) and innings pitched (230.1) and was second in strikeouts (160). Alan Benes, 24, contributed 13 wins and 131 strikeouts in 191 innings.
The Cardinals signed Gant and Andy Benes on the same day.
Gant, 30, got a five-year deal for $25 million. The Cardinals outbid the Padres, who offered Gant a three-year deal for $15 million, with an option for a fourth year.
“St. Louis and Walt Jocketty were more aggressive than other ball clubs were toward me,” Gant said.
With the 1995 Reds, Gant had a team-high 29 home runs with 88 RBI, 23 stolen bases and a .386 on-base percentage.
The Reds had wanted to keep Gant, but couldn’t compete with the Cardinals’ offer. The Cardinals were bolstered in their pursuit of free agents by the December 1995 sale of the club by Anheuser-Busch to a group headed by Bill DeWitt Jr.
“I see the possibility of this team making a total 180 (degree turn) right away and that played probably the biggest role in my decision,” Gant said.
In 1996, Gant had a team-high 30 home runs with 82 RBI, 13 stolen bases and a .359 on-base percentage in 122 games for the Cardinals. He started 116 games in left field.
Previously: Why Cardinals hired Tony La Russa as manager
Previously: Five fabulous facts about Willie McGee