2010 In Review: Cardinal Clubhouse Leadership

Is it time for a change in Cardinal clubhouse leadership?

Wednesday night’s United Cardinal Blogger Radio Hour discussion touched on a variety of the stories from 2010, and naturally the off-season moves came up. While analyzing those moves, clubhouse chemistry and leadership therein was touched on. The fast-pace of the show prevented an in-depth conversation.

Two off-season moves bug me because of the reported reasoning behind them.

The Cardinals shipped their starting shortstop to Seattle for a marginal Class A pitching prospect. Brendan Ryan was sent out because he was a clubhouse problem: Mozeliak remained circumspect about off-field elements that contributed to the deal except to say, ‘Changing the culture of the clubhouse was important to us. Given the personalities involved, we felt this an appropriate way to make a change’ (Comments made following the trade announcement).

The Cardinals signed an aging hitter to play a position he has not manned in 3 years. Lance Berkman was brought in to improve the lineup and clubhouse chemistry: ‘Lance’s talent, his character and what he brings to club makes us a better team and changes the makeup of the clubhouse. It’s a big add.’ (Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa comment following the trade announcement).

How is it the clubhouse atmosphere was allowed to grow so poisonous it necessitated drastic change?

There has never been a collection of free individuals united in a common cause who approach the problem or the job exactly the same way. If it were possible to find 25 free individuals who could do that, it is a virtual guarantee they would not all possess the talent to play baseball at the major league level. It is the job of the leaders on the team – be they players or on-field management – to blend the parts into a cohesive whole, to guide them in order to achieve the team goal of winning baseball games, advancing to the playoffs, and winning the Championship.

I would have thought someone possessing the breadth and depth of leadership experience Tony LaRussa does would understand that. These two moves suggest a disturbing lack of flexibility on the part of LaRussa to work with the personalities he’s assigned.

Ryan is not an isolated case. Anthony Reyes. Colby Rasmus. Jason Marquis. Heck, going back a decade Ozzie Smith and Ron Gant had issues with LaRussa, although in the past, the Cardinals were able to succeed in spite of any off-field discord. LaRussa’s record of six division titles, six League Championship Series appearances, two NL pennants and 1 World Series title from 1996-2006 reflect that.

The Cardinals have not had that level of success since the 2006 championship. One playoff appearance in the intervening 4 years, and that ended as they were swept from the 2009 NLDS. Additionally, the Cardinals have struggled down the stretch every year since 2006, including the 2010 pratfall that essentially handed Cincinnati the Central Division. Many of these personality issues have surfaced either during or since that 2006 run. Has Tony LaRussa’s inflexibility as a leader contributed to the lack of success on the field? I think so.

Brendan Ryan was the best defensive shortstop the Cardinals had, and has been replaced by Ryan Theriot, who statistically is an inferior defender. The Cardinals have weakened their team, and hurt their chances for success in 2011, largely because of a personality conflict.

Lance Berkman’s story is not quite the same but still curious. Berkman has been brought in for his bat, but also to improve the clubhouse. Whether Jon Jay or some other player mans right field, it is relatively assured they would be a better defensive outfielder than Berkman. This is not a knock on Berkman per se; he has not played right field at all since 2007, and not played more than 50 games in the outfield since 2004, and is coming off knee surgery. Berkman was exactly average (based on UZR/150) in 2004, the only time he posted a positive number in RF in his career (according to Fangraphs). Signing him makes the team’s defense weaker.

Yet the Cardinals justify his acquisition based on his bat (which if it returns to his previous levels will be a big lift) AND his clubhouse presence (per the quote above). I don’t get it – why does a team boasting Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols need another veteran to help police the clubhouse?

LaRussa’s fingerprints are all over both these moves, and his inflexible leadership style is probably the root cause as to why they were made. LaRussa’s intractability is hurting this team. He is the manager for 2011, so as fans we can only hope he is able to work better with this collection of individuals than he did with the 2010 roster. Despite all his past success in St Louis, though, I believe this season should be his last season in a Cardinal uniform.

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