As the Cardinals fall farther behind in the National League Central Division race, the number of bloggers, sports writers and fans calling for the retirement of Tony La Russa is simply mind-boggling. One of the best is Jay Hulsey’s article for I-70 Baseball, which you can find here. While I cannot dispute any of the facts that are presented, I just cannot go along with the conclusion that La Russa must go. In fact, quite the opposite. If the Cardinals are to be a championship team in 2011, the manager most likely to lead them to that goal is Tony La Russa.
Let me explain.
Early Season Hope
When the Cardinals won their first 5 series to start 2010, there was much rejoicing throughout Cardinals Nation. It was beginning to look like the Cardinals were built for both the wear and tear of a long season, but also for the shortened bench used during postseason. Specifically:
- Chris Carpenter looked healthy and as mean competitive as ever.
- Adam Wainwright was at least as good as his Cy Young worthy performance in 2009
- Brad Penny was the real deal, as long as he can stay injury free
- Jaime Garcia was going to be the best kept secret in the National League
- Albert Pujols was going to have another gargantuan season and easily reach the 400 home run mark
- David Freese had shaken off his off season troubles and early season defensive jitters
Frayed, Stayed and then Fade
The rest of the National League Central division should have just surrendered in early May. But they didn’t. The Cardinals also played a big role in this late season collapse by not breaking away from the pack when they had the chance. The injury bug was about to bite in a big way, and the Cardinals would never recover. This is where I separate from all of those demanding a managerial change.
It is far too easy to jump on the Dump-Tony bandwagon and criticize the Cardinals play starting in mid-August. Yes, they look like a team that has been beaten in all facets of the game. That’s not in dispute. Upon closer inspection, they also look like a team that had overachieved for the better part of three months, hiding a crumbling foundation from the very fans that are criticizing their recent performance. While I don’t always agree with the opinions of sportswriter, Joe Strauss, he did get this one right when he said that the Cardinals were dealt a bad hand in 2010.
May 21 – Brad Penny leaves a game against the Los Angeles Angels and hasn’t been seen since.
May 22 – Kyle Lohse is shut down due to an injury sustained in May 2009. He returned in mid-August but has been inconsistent.
June 27 – David Freese is removed from a game with a sore ankle that eventually required season ending surgery to repair.
Injuries are a part of baseball and teams are expected to withstand them, even if they happen to a core contributor. They test not only the managers ability to shuffle lineups and fill in the gaps, but also the front office. If the farm system does not contain the necessary talent to replace injured players, the front office must be quick in acquiring players from other sources and do it in a manner that doesn’t impact future seasons. If the manager is to be judged on the Win-Loss record of the team, the front office needs to withstand a similar scrutiny when it comes to the talent pool in the minor league system and how they are used *PLUS* the quality of mid-season acquisitions. I don’t care how you measure this, the front office has let the Cardinals fans down far more than Tony La Russa. I’m not suggesting that they have failed or that changes in the upper management should happen, but rather the blame for the 2010 late season slide should be aimed at the right place, and La Russa is not the first, second or third target.
Head Scratching Moves
Tony La Russa is known for his controversial managerial decisions, such as batting the pitcher 8th. We’ve enjoyed them when they worked and it has driven us nuts when they didn’t. In his 15 seasons in St. Louis, they have worked more often then not, and that just cannot be forgotten when the Cardinals have two weeks of really bad performance.
Removed Matt Holliday in the 20 inning game against the Mets
Made about half of his double switches
Refused to play Jon Jay regularly
Virtually ignored Fernando Salas
Those are just the highlights ! But I also have to acknowledge the play of Aaron Miles – yeah, like who but Tony saw that one coming ?
And then there’s the whole body of work thing.
In only three seasons have a La Russa managed Cardinals team finished under .500. On the other hand, they have won their division 7 times, including back to back 100+ win seasons in 2004 and 2005, plus a post season appearance as the Wild Card for a second place finish in 2001. He has managed through several overhauls of the team and has consistently put a competitive product on the field for the enjoyment of the best fans in baseball (sorry Red Sox fans – you guys are good too, but we own from the Appalachians to the Sierra Nevada). This year is no exception, in spite of the product being just a bit beyond it’s expiration date.
Now I am going to play the “third winningest manager all-time” card and no, you may not play your “second losingest manager” in return.
Instead, I am going to ask one simple question. What would you have done differently ? I read all sorts of criticism of his constantly juggled lineups, but what if he kept running out the same 8 guys and got the same results. Would you be as quick to criticize his inability to adapt to the situation ? Yes, you would. Doesn’t that put La Russa between a bit of a rock and a hard place then ? It sure does. Oh, it’s OK to mash things around as long as he gets results. Hmmmmm. So we’re back to results, and that gets us back to the injuries, and that gets us back to the Front Office. See how all of this works when look beyond the skipper ?
Big Mac or Flopper
Mark McGwire is a lightning rod for strongly hurled opinions, both good and bad. I still remember a ballplayer that filled up the stadium every night with cheering fans watching his assaults on the single season home run record. One of baseball’s greatest moments was when he broke the record and was greeted by his son at home plate. Say what you will about the steroid era, that moment was about as good as it gets, and steroids had nothing to do with that display of fatherhood on National TV. As a dad myself, I still get a tear in my eye when I think back on it or see it in a baseball highlight.
So that brings us to McGwire as the hitting coach. We have decades of information we can use to judge Dave Duncan’s impact, but have very little in which we can use when evaluating McGwire. The key batting metrics of the 2010 Cardinals are nearly identical to those of the team in 2009. On one hand, that cost Hal McRae his job, but they were still good enough to win the divsion – so no easy answers here. Perhaps it is fair to question how much impact a hitting coach actually has, and if we conclude that it is minor then those calling for McGwire’s resignation lose support for their case. If it is all about game preparation and strategy, we simply may not have enough information in which to render fair judgement.
It’s also important to make a distinction between hitting and total offense. While the hitting hasn’t been spectacular, or even close to the 2008 level, the larger failure has been on the bases. Too many running blunders, not enough smart running, and the final straw – not moving runners over effectively in early game situations have all doomed the Cardinals offense to a lackluster result. When you watch the Cincinnati Reds play, they excel on the bases, especially in moving the runner from first to third. It’s not a huge leap to connect that to their continued success in winning games, especially in the late innings. That’s why the Reds will be in post season, and unless something changes in the last four weeks, the Cardinals won’t. I don’t think that base running falls under the coaching responsibility of McGwire, so pin that one on La Russa. I didn’t say he was blameless.
In the end, I would have rather have Larry Walker, or maybe even the recently fired Milt Thompson, but we have McGwire and there’s no indication that he’s been a bad coach. Lacking any real evidence, I defer to La Russa, and it appears that he is satisfied with McGwire’s contributions. I can accept that.
A lot of the complaining about the 2010 offensive woes have been aimed at Skip Schumaker, Felipe Lopez, Brendan Ryan and Yadier Molina. While it is hard to defend Ryan and Lopez, both Schumaker (.303/.367/.394 since the All Star Game) and Molina (.331/.377/.410 since the All Star Game) have rebounded from their early season slumps and are making significant contributions to the offense. Perhaps their poor performance in April and May hurt the Cardinals and kept them from building a bigger lead at the time, there is no question that they have been contributing throughout the summer decline. I hope that the sportswriters and bloggers keep this in mind when they start their end of the season evaluations of these two players.
The Face of the Franchise
Is there a question here ? I didn’t think so. Except ……
Colby Rasmus is an exciting young player with an enormous amount of raw talent. Statistically, he had nothing to prove in the minors, so promoting him to the major leagues seemed like a reasonable idea. He proved the front office right in their decision by turning in a solid rookie season. Like many young players, the wear and tear of the long grinding season wore him down, but he rebounded nicely at the end and played well in the playoffs. His 2010 campaign has been something of a Tale of Two Colby’s though. When he has been good, he has been very good. Like off-the-charts-JD-Drew like good. Unfortunately, he has also been quite the other thing, like send-him-back-to-AAA-to-work-it-out bad. Add a bit of conflict with the manager and you have yourself a regular powder keg in the clubhouse.
This is where I am likely to have the biggest difference with those calling for La Russa’s head. Maybe it’s because I’m a dinosaur, or maybe it’s because I have had to manage employees – if it comes down to a decision of Rasmus vs La Russa, I’m siding with La Russa every minute of every day. For those that are crying that Rasmus is a +5 WAR player that you can’t replace that under the salary constraints that an Albert Pujols contract extension will create, I reply that I’ve never seen a spreadsheet win a World Series. Edwin Starr doesn’t have it quite right, WAR is good for something – as a single figure of merit, it tells you exactly how a player did. What it doesn’t do is tell you what’s in a player’s head, heart and most importantly, in his gut. Keep Rasmus on your fantasy teams, by all means, but if it comes down to Rasmus or La Russa this winter, I’d rather have La Russa managing the Cardinals and live with Jon Jay or Skip Schumaker manning centerfield in 2011. As a fan, I hope that it doesn’t come to that.
Pointing out that La Russa is heading to Cooperstown while Rasmus remains a prospect with a bright future would seem like piling on, so I won’t say that. Oops.
We’ve Been Down this Road Before
Many times, in fact. Whitey Herzog suffered through two seasons like the one the Cardinals are having in 2010: 1984 (Ozzie Smith) and 1986 (Jack Clark). I don’t remember people lining up and screaming for his retirement then. The Herzog situation was even more constrained in that he didn’t have the resources to acquire another big name in the event that a core player went down to injury. That doomed the 1984 and 1986 seasons, but Herzog bounced back with trips to the World Series in the next year. Both times. It took a series of trades gone bad in 1989 and 1990 to cause Herzog to leave the team, and it should take the same thing here with La Russa. La Russa has had to put up with three major injuries – four if you include the sometimes-here-and-sometimes-not Colby Rasmus.
I’m old enough to remember Vern Rapp, Mike Jorgensen (who may not have gotten a fair chance) and Joe Torre, and it wasn’t very pretty. To expect a new manager to come in and deliver the quality of product that La Russa and his coaches have put on the field this last decade is a stretch. Sure, something could happen and we could end up with a manager like Joe Madden, but even that is no guarantee. Please be careful for what you wish for, Cardinals fans. Jerry Jones once proclaimed that there are at least 500 head coaches that can do what Jimmy Johnson did for the Dallas Cowboys in the early 1990s. He’s spent the last 17 years trying to find one of them.
Tony La Russa can be my manager as long as there’s a fire in his belly. And if his belly ain’t burning, we’re taking a road trip to Taco Bell, immediately. Double beans please, Tony’s a vegetarian 🙂