Seeking an upgrade at first base, the Cardinals gambled on Andres Galarraga, hoping he wasn’t an out-of-shape retread who couldn’t handle the slider and instead still was an elite hitter who just needed a nurturing environment and a stretch of good health.
The Cardinals, it turned out, were correct about Galarraga, but, in a cruel twist, it was the Rockies, not St. Louis, who benefitted from his best work.
Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 25, 1991, the Cardinals traded pitcher Ken Hill to the Expos for Galarraga.
The trade was controversial because some thought the Cardinals should have signed a free-agent first baseman, kept Hill and avoided the risk of investing in Galarraga, who had experienced a subpar 1991 season after having established himself as a premier first baseman.
Galarraga averaged 23 home runs and 88 RBI each year from 1988 to 1990 with the Expos. He also won Gold Glove awards for his fielding in 1989 and 1990.
When Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog selected Galarraga for the 1988 National League all-star team, he called him “one of the best righthanded-hitting first basemen in this league since Gil Hodges and a sure Hall of Famer unless he has a career-threatening injury,” according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In 1988, Galarraga led the NL in hits (184), doubles (42) and extra-base hits (79).
The biggest negative was he struck out too much. Galarraga struck out the most of any NL batter in each of three consecutive seasons: 1988 to 1990.
By 1991, his performance declined significantly. Plagued by a pulled groin muscle and coming off arthroscopic knee surgery, Galarraga batted .219 with nine home runs in 95 games for the 1991 Expos. He was booed often by fans in Montreal. “He’s a sensitive guy,” said Expos teammate Tim Wallach, “and you could tell he was hurting a lot.”
The Cardinals, meanwhile, were in the market for a first baseman. Pedro Guerrero, who held the position in 1991, was 35 and the Cardinals wanted a younger replacement with better fielding skills.
Among the available free agents were Wally Joyner, Bobby Bonilla and Danny Tartabull. However, Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill told Rick Hummel of the Post-Dispatch, “We have decided we are not going to bid on any major free agents.”
Instead, the Cardinals pursued a trade for Galarraga. “We’ve been trying to make this deal for two months,” Maxvill said.
Dan Duquette, Expos general manager, wanted Cardinals pitcher Rheal Cormier, a native Canadian, for Galarraga. “We talked long and hard about Cormier,” Duquette said. “They told me they would not give up Cormier.”
Hill, 25, was a good consolation prize. He was 11-10 with a 3.57 ERA in 30 starts for the 1991 Cardinals and led the staff in strikeouts (121). He yielded only 147 hits in 181.1 innings, but also issued a team-high 67 walks.
“At times, Hill pitches like Don Drysdale and at other times he pitches like Don Knotts,” wrote Post-Dispatch columnist Dan O’Neill. “… Hill is still young but patience is wearing thin.”
Said Cardinals manager Joe Torre: “It’s tough to give up an arm like Kenny Hill, but he’s been inconsistent.”
Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz, though, thought the Cardinals made a bad deal.
“The Cardinals are taking a risk, sending Hill’s live arm to Montreal for Galarraga’s dead bat,” Miklasz opined.
Noting that Hill is “capable of rolling up a sequence of monster seasons,” Miklasz said, “This is the danger: Hill is still on the way up. Galarraga has been on the way down.”
Of Cardinals management, Miklasz concluded, “They prefer to part with prospects instead of profits.”
Galarraga raised hopes for a comeback season with a strong spring training showing in 1992. He batted .314 with 12 RBI in exhibition games.
On April 6, as Galarraga came to bat for the first time in the season opener against the Mets at St. Louis, George Grande said to Cardinals broadcast partner Jack Buck, “I think fans will like him in St. Louis, don’t you, Jack?”
Replied Buck: “If he hits.”
Hopes for a hot start for Galarraga crumbled in Game 2 of the season. In the fourth inning, Galarraga suffered a broken right wrist when hit by a pitch from Mets reliever Wally Whitehurst.
Galarraga returned to the lineup May 22, but he pressed at the plate and went into a deep funk. Galarraga entered July with a .185 batting average and no home runs.
Though he performed better in the second half, it still was a dismal season for Galarraga. He hit .243 with 10 home runs in 95 games and had almost as many strikeouts (69) as hits (79). He batted .191 with runners in scoring position and had an abysmal overall on-base percentage of .282.
Hill, meanwhile, was 16-9 with a 2.68 ERA in 33 starts for the 1992 Expos, who finished in second place, four games ahead of the Cardinals, in the NL East Division.
After the 1992 season, Cardinals hitting coach Don Baylor became Rockies manager and Galarraga became a free agent.
Baylor encouraged the expansion club to sign Galarraga. In the second half of the 1992 season, Baylor had convinced Galarraga to stop pulling the ball and hit to right field. Galarraga batted .301 in his final 146 at-bats with the Cardinals from July 24 to Oct. 4.
With Baylor continuing to work with him, Galarraga was the 1993 NL batting champion, hitting .370 for the Rockies. He also produced 22 home runs, 98 RBI and a .403 on-base percentage in 120 games.
Despite bouts with cancer, Galarraga went on to a productive playing career that lasted until 2004. He finished with 2,333 hits, 399 home runs and 1,425 RBI.
Previously: The unproductive reunion of Ken Hill, Cardinals