With MVPs Cody Bellinger and Mookie Betts sharing a lineup with thumpers like Justin Turner, Max Muncy, and Corey Seager, the Los Angeles Dodgers lineup is stacked. That’s five players who have proved capable of posting 5-6 WAR seasons. We can even include A.J. Pollock in that group (6.8 fWAR in 2015) if we’re being generous – though it would open some eyes to see Pollack produce at that level again (even for a 60-game span). The ceiling hasn’t been set on youngsters like Will Smith and Gavin Lux, who could very well enter that elite territory with a best-case development future. There’s no denying that the Dodgers have a loaded lineup – but has there been a more MVP-loaded lineup in recent history?
The most stacked lineup of the last twenty years belongs to an 85-win, 3rd place St. Louis Cardinals team from 2003. “Most-stacked,” of course, isn’t exactly an official metric, so let me define it. Fangraphs explains fWAR in their glossary by classifying a “good player” as worth 3-4 fWAR, an “All-Star” to be worth 4-5 fWAR, and a “superstar” as worth 5-6 fWAR. But for the “most-stacked” lineup, we want the cream of the crop. Fangraphs classifies MVPs as those worth 6+ fWAR in a given season, so I went looking for the lineup with the most “MVPs”, and I found the unequivocal champ with the 2003 St. Louis Cardinals.
Not only did the Cardinals carry four MVP-caliber bats that season, but they’re the only team since 2000 to accomplish that feat. There have been four other teams since 2000 with three bats in the lineup worth 6+ fWAR (2004 Orioles, 2003 Braves, 2004 Cardinals, 2011 Red Sox) – but only Tony La Russa’s Cardinals fielded a quartet of such players.
Albert Pujols (9.5 fWAR), Jim Edmonds (6.3 fWAR), Edgar Renteria (6.3 fWAR), and Scott Rolen (6.2 fWAR) each put up an “MVP-like” seasons in 2003. The 23-year-old Pujols would have been a shoo-in to snag the actual NL MVP, but that was the era of supernova Barry Bonds, who won his third of four consecutive MVPs (10.2 fWAR) that season.
The Cardinals finished 5th in the majors in runs scored with 876, second in total fWAR on offense, fourth in wRC+. J.D. Drew, Tino Martinez, and Bo Hart were productive members of the lineup, So Taguchi gave them 59 plate appearances with a 109 wRC+, and Eduardo Perez (122 wRC+) was a successful power bat off the bench. Only at catcher did they really struggle offensively, where Mike Matheny hit .252/.320/.356 to total 0.4 fWAR while starting 121 games behind the dish. In short, the offense did its part.
Unfortunately, the entirety of the Cardinals pitching staff mustered just 7.3 fWAR. They finished 19th in ERA, 22nd in FIP, and 26th in home runs per nine innings. The bullpen was a particular disaster, finishing the season dead last in the majors with -1.8 fWAR. The rotation boasted legitimate arms in Woody Williams, Matt Morris, and less so, Brett Tomko. Dan Haren made an okay major league debut with 14 starts and a 5.08 ERA/4.57 FIP.
That said, they could have done without the 55 starts from Garrett Stephenson, in what would be his last dash as an MLB hurler, Sterling Hitchcock in his second-to-last season, 40-year-old Jeff Fassero, and Jason Simontacchi, who was coming off a surprisingly decent rookie season at age-28.
Giving 34 percent of their starts to suboptimal contributors didn’t pave the runway for the bullpen to take flight, but the relief crew struggled all their own. In particular, the main culprits were (again) Fassero (56 games, 6.52 ERA/6.13 FIP), Dustin Hermanson (23 games, 5.46 ERA/5.49 FIP), Russ Springer (17 games, 8.31 ERA/8.97 FIP), and Esteban Yan (39 games, 6.02 ERA/5.59 FIP). It didn’t help that injuries limited closer Jason Isringhausen to 40 games and 22 saves. He would otherwise anchor the Cardinals’ bullpens of that era.
The 2003 Cardinals paint a picture of the difficulties in team-building. Four monster seasons making up half their everyday lineup, and still the Cardinals only managed to eke out a third-place finish. They underperformed their Pythagorean record, but only by three wins. The Cubs won the division with exactly 88 wins, overperforming their Pythagorean record by – you guessed it – three wins.
Things can go right – so right – in any given season, and it still might not be enough to counterbalance what goes wrong. That’s not to say that the 2020 Dodgers are in trouble – but their spot in the postseason is hardly assured. The ’03 Cardinals had the most MVP-level bats of any team in the past 20 years, and yet it was only enough for 85 wins. The margin for error will only be smaller in a short season.
Of course, here’s the other funny little part of baseball. Pujols/Rolen/Edmonds/Renteria couldn’t power their way to the postseason in 2003, but the foundation in St. Louis was solid. They did reach the postseason in 2002, 2004, 2005, and 2006. La Russa’s Cardinals capped off the run with a World Series title. That season, they finished with 83 wins, one less than the “disappointment” their stacked lineup produced in 2003.
So the most-stacked lineup of the millennium missed the playoffs, and the “worst” division winner of the millennium won the World Series. If that’s not a good primer for the chaos to come in a short season, I don’t know what is.