The other day I tried to make the case that the Cardinals are better off with Tony La Russa returning in 2011. Some have agreed, many others not so much, including a lot of friends whom I really value their opinion. Putting the differences aside, I learned one thing. Cardinals fans are truly the best in baseball: intelligent, opinionated and even when things aren’t going well, passionate about the past, present and future. Well, I already knew that, but it was nice to see some affirmation.
In the latest episode of “And Then the Diamond Turns“, we learn that Tony La Russa and Colby Rasmus have had some disagreements and that the youngster has requested a trade on several occasions. OK, fine. I’ll let others debate that one, and if you are looking for a good perspective, check out Bill Ivie’s, La Russa and Rasmus: Examining the Issue over at I-70 Baseball. What I find most fascinating about this situation is that Tony La Russa cares enough to involve the media. While others will call it irresponsible, I find it comforting that maybe the skipper isn’t through after all. If he was really going to walk away from the Cardinals organization, why even make the effort ?
There’s another fascinating subplot that happened on Sunday, September 5, 2010. A sportswriter asked Albert Pujols about the situation, and the future Hall of Famer offered up an opinion. Perhaps it was taken out of context, certainly framed to draw attention to the written article instead of the game being played at the moment, but Albert’s words were a cornucopia of things you want to hear from a leader. The underlying theme was commitment – pure and simple. It was commit or quit. Whether Albert Pujols had any firsthand knowledge of any of the details is now irrelevant – he’s set the bar. He has one year left on his contract, and when he talked about the team it was all “us” and “we”. Now some will twist this into saying that “El Hombre” has too much say in the operations of the club. And we know this, how ? Why can’t it be as simple as, if he wears the uniform he gives 100%. AND, he expects all of the players around him to do the same.
What does any of this have to do with La Russa in 2011 ? Because both of them, and their commitment to winning, will be needed to have a better 2011 than the last month or so of 2010.
Embrace the Kids
I suppose we all have our Moby Dick, and this may be one of La Russa’s great white whales. We’ve heard him say, consistently, we don’t teach at the major league level. The young players learn that in the minor league system, and he expects them to have thorough baseball knowledge if they sit in the dugout. Well….. Skip Schumaker has certainly learned how to play second base in the major leagues, so there are exceptions.
If Tony returns for 2011, there are going to have to be many more exceptions, especially if the front office gets serious and extends the contact of Albert Pujols. With so much salary tied up in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, salary controlled young players will be a part of this team, and every team thereafter. Fortunately, the Cardinals system contains many exciting players, such as Blake Hawksworth (future 5th starter), David Freese, Jon Jay, Colby Rasmus and Fernando Salas. On the horizon are Daniel Descalso, James Rapaport, Matt Carpenter, Francisco Samuel, Eduardo Sanchez and Lance Lynn. There are no shortages of kids to fill some of the roles, but they will take a manager willing to commit to them and support them as they struggle.
For all who throw Tony La Russa under the bus for his handling of Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasmus, I offer you the counter-example: David Freese. There’s a fundamental difference between the two situations. Freese struggled both personally and professionally, but did what the coaches told him to do, and became a consistent player. Neither Rasmus nor Ryan have appeared to do that, instead relying on some unbelievable athletic ability to compensate for lack of discipline. Throw in Jon Jay, and maybe La Russa isn’t as out of touch with the kids as many would like to make him out to be. Maybe we just need more Jon Jay’s and David Freese’s – but with more robust ankles.
There is also a historical significance to using young players in key positions. Let’s take a look at a couple of championship teams, and the young players that contributed – some significantly.
1964 (Johnny Keane)
Tim McCarver – 22
Mike Shannon – 24
Dal Maxvill – 25 (started in the World Series)
Ray Sadecki – 23
Gordie Richardson – 25
1967 (Red Schoendienst)
Bobby Tolan – 21
Alex Johnson -24
Ed Speizio – 25
Dick Hughes – 29 (was a rookie)
Larry Jaster – 23
Nelson Briles – 23
Add Steve Carlton and Wayne Granger for the ’68 team.
1982 (Whitey Herzog)
Willie McGee – 23
David Green – 21
John Stuper – 25
Dave LaPoint – 22
Jeff Lahti – 25
Andy Rincon – 23
And I could go on with Vince Coleman, Todd Worrell, Andy van Slyke (ok, maybe that’s not such a good example, considering the drama surrounding Colby Rasmus).
Yes, each of these managers also had their favorite go-to veterans. In some cases, it made you scratch your head, like Barney Schultz and Roger Craig in 1964, but when you look back at these lists, a lot of these kids had big roles in their championship teams. If the Cardinals are going to have any success in the post-gargantuan-Pujols-contract era, some young players like Daniel Descalso are going to have to play in key positions, every day. We’ll concede and give you Aaron Miles if you quit ignoring Fernando Salas.
Run, Colby, Run
The running game must become a bigger part of the Cardinals offense in 2011. When Whitey Herzog came to the Cardinals, he observed that his team often took three, sometimes four hits to score a run. It is interesting that we are almost back to that exact situation in 2010. When asked about running more often, La Russa answered that teams defend the stolen base differently than they did in Herzog’s era, and that’s why he chooses not to steal bases. What Tony says is true, but perhaps not as much as he would like you to believe. Pitchers have improved their time to home plate, utilizing slide steps and changing up the rhythm of their motion. Catchers certainly posses better arms today than in previous eras. An average arm today would have been at the top of the class in the mid-80s. I suspect there is something far more fundamental going on here – Tony is slow to adapt to the non-steroid era.
The steroid era brought the three run homer back to glory. Earl Weaver would have been so proud of the last 10 or 15 years. Get a couple of guys on base and then let the artificially enhanced super-beings crush the ball into the stratosphere. What is being called the year of the pitcher is really nothing more than an adjustment in the post-steroid era. The successful teams are going to dust off the old Whitey Herzog playbooks and start learning how to manufacture runs. Maybe we won’t get back to 100 stolen bases per year, but it is embarrassing when Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina are fighting it out for team lead in steals. If Lou Brock can steal 100 bases, Colby Rasmus should be able to steal 60. If Ozzie Smith can steal 60 bases, so should Jon Jay. If Tommy Herr can steal 30 bases, why can’t Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan each donate 25.
Oh, but we can’t run in front of Pujols because they will pitch around himthen. Then ????? They do now. Even when Matt Holliday was swinging the bat like a lumberjack, nobody pitched to Albert Pujols. It takes every bit of concentration for a pitcher to work around Albert Pujols. What if the base runners started running like mad, making the pitchers use quick moves and slide steps. Don’t you think a pitcher, like maybe Bud Norris, would tend to groove one just a bit more often ? Jack Clark had some career years in St. Louis because of that exact same strategy. The pitchers had too much to think about, and Clark feasted on the results of their split attention. What do you think Albert could do in a similar situation ?
Mo Better Blues
Whatever differences exist between John Mozeliak, Jeff Luhnow, the owners and the manager need to get resolved. I’m not going to go Joe Strauss and suggest that there is anything going on there, but if there is an agenda, bury it. Colby Rasmus cannot become a wedge issue because everybody will lose, especially the fans. The front office will run off a Hall of Fame manager and we’ll be left with an inconsistent immature player who’s entitlement level would have gone through the roof. It’s a business, but it’s also sports entertainment. We’ve learned this year that the Pittsburgh Pirates are a profitable company, but only in sports could you have so much failure be successful. Is that what we want for the future of the franchise ? A lot of fans are too young to remember, but it has come close on several occasions. Each time, it was a forward looking manager that pulled the team out of the ditch, assisted by some brilliant front office support. We are nowhere near there at the moment, but we said that in 1977 and again in 1988.
There’s nothing here that is irreparable. Tony La Russa is still the same brilliant manager that kept a badly broken team in contention until – heck, at this moment they still have a chance. Colby Rasmus has more than ample opportunity to show us that he will grow up and become a team player instead of an entitled crybaby wanting to launch home runs for a big payout. For every hole in the current lineup, there’s a young player in Memphis ready to be given a chance. And with a little bit of education behind him, maybe John Mozeliak can make a couple of trades and free agent signings where he isn’t taken for a cleaning.
Even with all the recent drama, only being played out because of poor on the field performance, there’s still plenty to look forward to in 2011, 2012 and beyond. Until Chris Maloney, Ryne Sandberg, Tommy Herr or Joe Madden are ready to take the helm, I hope that Tony La Russa stays around. At least long enough until we can say “second winningest manager.”