The Merritt-Cardenas trade came in the post-1968 season, the so-called Year of the Pitcher, when baseball offense reached it’s nadir and baseball pitching reaching it’s dominant peak. Leo Cardenas was coming off his fourth all-star selection during the year of his 29th birthday, but he batted only .235 with seven home runs, his lowest batting average since 1963. He had made the all-star team batting .206 at all-star time, along with two other National League shortstops, the Pirates’ Gene Alley and the Cubs’ Don Kessinger who started the game. Alley and Kessinger both batted in the .240’s in 1968.
In other words, nobody hit; that is seemingly nobody except for the Reds’ Pete Rose and the Pirates’ Matty Alou who were duking it out for the batting championship (Rose won, batting .335 to Alou’s .332). The Giants’ Willie McCovey batted .293 with 36 homers and was the only National Leaguer to pass 100 rbi (105). McCovey hit, too, but the league shortstops did not.
And, Cardenas had reached the magic trade age, age 29, the age when baseball general managers use famed GM Branch Rickey’s adage about trading players before they reach 30, before they have so many “miles” that they have no trade value. And, anyway, shortstops have even shorter career spans since very few shortstops hold on to starting jobs past the very early 30’s; the position is too demanding.
There’s something to the age 29 theory, since most hitters “peak” at ages 25-29. The peak age crept up through the steroid years as steroid became the magic “anti-aging” drug for players. However, that change in peak years has/is been returning back to normal as fewer “elder” players are now able to play later in their careers. Frank Robinson was traded after his age 29 season; so was Vada Pinson. Lee May was traded after his age 28 seasons. It turns out that Robinson and May had a lot more to give; Pinson was nearing the end.
Cardenas had a little more and had two of his best seasons for a contending Minnesota Twins team in 1969 and 1971. He played seven seven more seasons, his last three as a part-timer. For his career, Cardenas played 16 seasons, batting .257 with 118 home runs, was selected to five all-star teams, and earned a Gold Glove. With the Reds, Cardenas played nine seasons, batting .261 with 72 homers, earning four of the five all-star selections and the Gold Glove.
However, the Reds needed pitching, especially a left handed starter. Gerry Arrigo had been their sole lefty southpaw starter, going 12-10 with a 3.33 ERA in 1968. However, 3.33 in 1968 was below average (95 OPS+) and Arrigo quickly lost effectiveness. He pitched his most major league innings in 1968 (205 compared to 105) and struck out 6.1 batters/nine innings. In 1969, Arrigo’s K/rate dropped to 3.5 batters/nine innings and he only pitched 13 more big league innings. Of the Reds’ 1968 starters, only Gary Nolan was better than average (132 OPS+) and injuries had already prevented the 20-year-old from pitching more than 150 innings after an outstanding 1967 rookie season.
Also, the Reds team was loaded with young shortstops. The Reds farm system had graduated Rose, May, Nolan, Tony Perez, Tommy Helms, and Johnny Bench (among many others–these were the majors) in the previous five seasons. Now the system was filled with young shortstops. Twenty-six-year old slicking fielding Woody Woodward would be the designated replacement having been acquired in mid-season from the Atlanta Braves. Twenty-one-year old Darrel Chaney had just hit 23 home runs in AA and was known to be a fine fielder (Chaney only hit 14 career major league home runs in eleven major league seasons). Another 21-year-old shortstop Frank Duffy was Chaney’s double play partner at Asheville and was considered to be the better shortstop (Chaney played second base whenever Duffy played). Dave Concepcion, 20-years-old, had just completed his Rookie League season, and would become a .300 hitter by 1969.
Did I mention that the Reds had prospect depth at shortstop?
So, Cardenas, at age 29, was deemed expendable. Meanwhile, the Twins had experienced the sudden and rapid decline of shortstop Zoilo Versalles after his 1965 MVP year and dealt him to the Los Angeles Dodgers after the 1967 season. They also found that .176 hitting Jackie Hernandez too much of a liability to maintain the shortstop. His backup, .216 hitting Rick Renick, was soon moved to third base. Meanwhile, they felt they had excess pitching with two lefties in the rotation, Jim Merritt and Jim Kaat, and young Tom Hall waiting in the wings.
The Reds/Twins agreed up on the 24-year-old Merritt who had gone 12-16 with a 3.25 ERA for the Twins in 1968 (97 ERA+). He had been exceptional in 1967 when he went 13-7 with a 2.53 ERA (137 ERA+), allowing 0.993 baserunners per nine innings. In 1967, he led the majors in fewest walks/nine innings (1.2) and led the majors with a K/BB rate of 5.37.
Merritt joined the Reds and went 17-9 in 1969, but with a 4.37 ERA. He allowed a league leading 122 earned runs and 33 home runs. He was a key factor in the Reds 1970 World Series team, finishing the season 20-12 with a 4.08 ERA. He placed fourth in Cy Young Award balloting for the season.
However, somewhat masked in his yearly totals was that Merritt had apparently hurt his arm by the 1970 all-star break. His K/rate, which had been between six and seven batters/nine innings prior to 1970, dropped to 5.2 for the year. He was 14-7 with a 3.46 ERA at the all-star break, but his K rate had dropped to 4.9. In the second half of 1970, Merritt was 6-5 with a 5.24 ERA. In September, he only made three starts (0-1, 10.29 ERA). He pitched well in one game of the NLCS, but could only go 5 1/3 innings, allowing three hits and striking out two in winning the game. He started one game of the World Series, but was rocked for four runs in 1 2/3 innings in taking a loss.
Merritt did not win a game as a starting pitcher in 1971. His only win in a 1-11 season came in a relief role late in the year. His K/rate dropped to 3.2, and his ERA was 4.37. He pitched eight innings for the Reds in 1971 (1-0, 4.50 ERA) and was shut down for the season. He was traded to the Texas Rangers in the offseason for reserve infielder Jim Driscoll and reserve catcher Hal King. With the Rangers, Merritt struggled to pitch 66 games (46 in relief) and went 5-13 with a 3.99 ERA before retiring after the 1975 seasons.
For his career, Merritt was 81-86 with a 3.65 ERA (99 ERA+). With the Reds, Merritt pitched four seasons, going 39-32 with a 4.26 ERA (90 ERA+).