If you want to know how crazy innovative Tony La Russa really is, check out this article from the Riverfront Times in 2004. Like any steadfast progressive, La Russa has laid a few eccentric eggs. But, that said, it is becoming increasingly difficult to argue against his case for greatest manager of all time. MLB Network's "Prime 9" ranked him at #4, behind Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, and John McGraw. But, of those three, only Stengel managed after integration (most of my readers know, I don't dignify much that happened prior to 1947), none of them managed during the free agent era, and all of them had the luxury of managing the most profitable and talent-laden franchise in the league for the bulk of their careers (the Yankees for McCarthy and Stengel, the New York Giants for McGraw).
La Russa has certainly had his fair share of talent, having managed Pujols, Rickey Henderson, Dave Parker, Eckersley, McGwire, Canseco, etc., but he's also guided his share of overachieving franchises, most notably the '06 Champs. The Cardinals, which La Russa has managed since 1996 certainly aren't the stingiest team in the league, but they've never had a payroll over $100 Million (according to Cot's Contracts). In fourteen seasons under La Russa, they've made eight playoff appearance and have only three losing campaigns. La Russa currently trails only Joe Torre and Bobby Cox in playoff appearances, and, of course, we know each of them to have been blessed with significantly larger budgets.
La Russa, alongside the other greats of his generation (especially Torre and Cox) has succeeded by being a "players manager." Former players like Eckersley and McGwire speak of him in reverential tones. And, of course, he and longtime pitching coach, Dave Duncan, are responsible for a long list of pitching Renaissances, including Eckersley, Chris Carpenter, Woody Williams, Tom Seaver, Joel Pineiro, Jeff Suppan, Mike Moore, and the late, great Daryl Kile, to name just a few. Many also credit La Russa and Duncan with revolutionizing the use of situational relievers, especially the LOOGY.
His most recent attack on conventional wisdom, moving the pitcher into the eighth spot in the lineup, hasn't caught on particularly quickly. Ned Yost picked it up in Milwaukee, briefly, in 2008. Shortly thereafter, he got fired. I haven't seen a whole lot of material evidence for or against the move, but I appreciate the logic, separating the "easy out" from the statistical haymaker known as Albert Pujols.
I could go on, but for now I will simply recommend Buzz Bissinger's lovely book, Three Nights in August, and add that La Russa's case could get dramatically better with another championship. He would join Torre and Sparky Anderson as the only men in the free agents era with more than two, and Torre as the only man in the free agent era with six or more pennants.
In '09 I expected the Cardinals to make a deep playoff run. It didn't happen, but all the pieces which inspired that prediction are still in place. St. Louis has a lethal one-two punch at the top of the rotation, serious thunder in the middle of the order, a fairly deep bullpen, and a nice infusion of youth. My only hesitancy, one expressed frequently in these pages, is fueled by their lack of depth. Prince Albert has proven himself nigh invincible, but the same cannot be said of many of the other Cardinal regulars. If John Mozeliak doesn't make a few more "inventory" moves in the coming months, La Russa and his staff will need to invest in every rabbit's foot, dreamcatcher, and four-leaf clover they can get their hands on.
Rick Ankiel (30) OF [Signed w/ Royals]
Mark DeRosa (35) UT [Signed w/ Giants]
Troy Glaus (33) 3B [Signed w/ Braves]
Khalil Greene (30) IF [Signed w/ Rangers]
Joel Pineiro (31) RHSP [Signed w/ Angels]
John Smoltz (43) RHP
Brad Thompson (28) RHSP [Signed w/ Royals]
Joe Thurston (30) IF [Signed w/ Braves]
Todd Wellemeyer (31) RHP
Skip Schumaker (30) 2B/OF
Allen Craig (25) 1B/LF
David Freese (27) 3B
Jaime Garcia (22) LHSP
My biggest concern for St. Louis heading into 2010 is the rotation. This is, of course, Duncan and La Russa's bread and butter. Year after year they convert seemingly mediocre pitching staffs into viable arsenals, so I should probably know better than to doubt them, but behind the lethal tandem of Carpenter and Wainwright, the St. Louis rotation is loaded with reclamation projects. It wouldn't surprise me at all if Duncan is able to turn one of them around, but can he go three for three?
The most important Cardinal in 2010 is Brad Penny, who St. Louis signed to a one-year contract early in the offseason. Three years ago Penny was the Ace of a formidable Dodgers rotation, who finished third in NL Cy Young voting. It was his second consecutive 16-win season and he seemed destined for a big contract. Injuries and ineffectiveness drove down his production in '08 and most of '09, leaving him, along with many other potentially dominant starting pitchers, looking simply for an opportunity to prove himself. He began the process in the last month of '09 by going 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA in six starts with the Giants. Overweight pitchers often have problems sustaining themselves as them move into their mid-thirties (Penny is 32), but if Penny dedicates himself to staying in shape and adapts to Duncan's philosophy, the Cardinals tandem of Aces could become a trio.
Kyle Lohse has always been fun to watch. His darting cut fastball and vicious curveball give him terrific "stuff." But in nine seasons, only once has that stuff translated into sustained success over a whole season. However, even if he can't rekindle his '08 performance, Lohse is a durable workhorse (last season was the first of his career in which he missed significant time) who can stabilize the backend of the rotation.
For the fifth spot, the Cards will be holding open auditions. They very quietly picked up Rich Hill last month. The once-promising Cubs prospect, who struck out 183 batters in 195 innings in 2007, has had mysterious control problems for the last two years. If Duncan can fix his wildness, he has the best chance of becoming an impact starter. La Russa may also take a long look at left-hander, Jaime Garcia, who is one of the Redbirds top prospects, but as he managed only nine starts last season. They'd probably prefer he prove his health at AAA.
The Cardinals led the league in groundball outs in '09. That number may decrease a bit with Joel Pineiro - who led all of baseball in groundball percentage (60.5%) - headed to Anaheim, but Carpenter and Wainwright also ranked in the top ten. Naturally, the Cardinals must prioritize infield defense, which was why they turned to Brendan Ryan at shortstop early in '09 and, similarly, it may help the cause of David Freese, their top prospect at third base. However, both Ryan and Freese have modest offensive potential, to say the least.
Julio Lugo is the ideal "super-sub," the kind of player who La Russa loves, capable of backing up at short, third, second, and even in the outfield. I expect he will start somewhere on the left side when La Russa chooses to prioritize offense (probably three or four times a week). Past him, the Cardinals bench is looking rather timid, which is not a good thing for La Russa, who loves to mix and match as much as any manager in the game. Mozeliak should take a serious look at remaining free agents like Hank Blalock and Joe Crede, who could play the corners, or maybe a fourth outfielder like Rocco Baldelli, Marcus Thames, or Gary Sheffield.
The signing of Matt Holliday means St. Louis finally has some protection for Pujols, who has been naked in the center of the Cardinals order since Scott Rolen's shoulder gave out on him in 2005. The question now is, who's going to protect the protection? If the Cardinals are going to compete with the Phillies and Dodgers, they're going to need somebody in the back half of the lineup to step up. Perhaps Ryan Ludwick can duplicate his surprising 2008 campaign. Perhaps Colby Rasmus can develop into a consistent power threat. Maybe Mozeliak has another signing in the works. Whatever the case, the lineup, like the rotation, cannot depend on two men alone.
Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:
2B Skip Schumaker (L)
CF Colby Rasmus (L)
1B Albert Pujols (R)
LF Matt Holliday (R)
RF Ryan Ludwick (R)
C Yadier Molina (R)
3B David Freese (R)
SP Chris Carpenter (R)
SS Brendan Ryan (R)
SP Adam Wainwright (R)
SP Brad Penny (R)
SP Kyle Lohse (R)
SP Rich Hill (L)
CL Ryan Franklin (R)
SU Kyle McClellan (R)
SU Trever Miller (L)
MR Jason Motte (R)
MR Blake Hawksworth (R)
LOOGY Dennys Reyes (L)
SWING Mitchell Boggs (R)
C Jason LaRue (R)
IF Julio Lugo (R)
1B/3B Hank Blalock (L) FA
OF Allen Craig (R)
OF Rocco Baldelli (L) FA