The Immediate Post-Duncan Era

The St. Louis Cardinals’ offseason continued its roller coaster ride this week after Thursday’s announcement that longtime pitching coach Dave Duncan was leaving the team indefinitely to focus on caring for his wife, who has been battling brain cancer. Obviously, personal lives and relationships always trump everything else, and Duncan’s priorities seem to be in order. But the pitching staff he leaves behind has to find a way to do its job without him, and a number of those hurlers have never had a different pitching coach at the Major League level.

It seems like these stories pop up every other day since the Cardinals won the 2011 World Series. First Tony La Russa retired, and then Albert Pujols bolted for greener pastures. Jeff Luhnow is gone. Dave McKay is gone. All these names Cardinals players and fans have seen as mainstays for so many years have disappeared from the register.

Duncan looked like one of only a few holdovers from the old regime. His contract covered him for the 2012 season, and he had an option for 2013. But he has more important things to attend to right now, and his time wearing the Birds on the Bat has come to an end as well. Now the longest-tenured coach on the Cards’ staff is Jose Oquendo. Number two is Mark McGwire.

Duncan’s importance to the Cards’ pitching staffs over the years is impossible to overstate. And many nails will be no doubt bitten down to the nub wondering if that magic he worked on so many Cardinal hurlers over the years is gone forever. But it may not be that way at all.

For the last 12 seasons, the Cardinals have listed exactly two starting catchers at the top of their depth chart: Mike Matheny and Yadier Molina. Now Matheny is the team skipper, and Molina is still behind the plate. Both are among the most highly regarded in their abilities to call a game and handle a pitching staff. Duncan is largely the reason. And when Papa Dunc had to leave the team near the end of August to be with his ailing wife, recently appointed Cards pitching coach Derek Lilliquist stepped in to take his place. All he did was preside over the staff while they were helping to orchestrate the greatest regular season comeback in baseball history. Even Chris Carpenter has stepped in for some coaching opportunities…remember when he found that flaw in Adam Wainwright’s delivery, just before Waino went on a tear to nearly win the Cy Young Award a couple years back? Certainly Carp didn’t wake up one day in tune to every other pitcher’s mechanics. That’s the hallmark of Dave Duncan, and he’s passed his wisdom on to a number of people in the Cards’ organization.

Perhaps we’ve seen the last of the days where a Kent Bottenfield or a Woody Williams find new life under Duncan’s direction. But maybe the Cardinals no longer need that “dumpster-dive” mentality. They have a full pitching staff now, and all those guys know how to get the job done. And the depth in the minor leagues certainly offers a lot of promise as some of the veteran free agents cycle out of town. Plus it’s impossible to know what the future holds. The Cards seem to have a pretty good grasp on player development these days. That makes it a lot easier to take surer bets rather than the projects Duncan specialized in.

It hurts to lose Duncan, and the reason why is even sadder. The Cardinals cannot possibly replace him; the guy should probably be the first coach to go into the Hall of Fame. But he has left this team in capable hands…hands into which he put the tools to succeed. And after all, the coach can only do so much. Execution still has to take place on the field, and that’s true no matter who sits in the dugout.

Chris Reed also writes for InsideSTL Mondays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter at @birdbrained.

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