Tag Archive | "Walt Jocketty"

LaRussa Carved Distinct Path On The Road To Cooperstown

Monday morning, the inevitable became reality as the announcement was made that Tony LaRussa had been selected for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. For the most successful manager born within the last century, the decision was honestly not a difficult one to reach. Rather, it is a due that shows that persistence truly does pay off in the end.

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LaRussa was the backbone and identity shaping presence for two of the memorable runs for a pair of baseball’s most distinguished franchises. And despite not ever being one to shy away from stating his mind or bulldogging his tactics through anything—or anyone, who may doubt them, the results stood for themselves: LaRussa was simply the best at what he did for over three decades.

After cutting his managerial teeth with the Chicago White Sox, it was in Oakland where first made his major bones by building the American League powerhouse of the late 80’s and early 90’s around the Hall of Fame (and Hall of Fame-caliber) talents of Rickey Henderson, Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire, Dave Stewart and Jose Canseco, among others. After taking the head job in 1986, over the next nine seasons the A’s won three American League pennants, with the peak being their victory in the 1989 World Series.

However, it was his tenure in St. Louis that will stand as the definitive run of his career. When he arrived in St. Louis, the Cardinal franchise was on a downturn. After being the most successful National League franchise of the 1980’s, they had not been to the playoffs in 10 seasons and had struggled to keep their head above water within their own division.

All of that changed when LaRussa took the helm.

The organization underwent sweeping changes in 1996 with the new management group headed by Bill DeWitt took over, and one of the first changes made was to acquire LaRussa to lead a revival from the bench. With new general manager Walt Jocketty, he was armed with a new look Cardinal club, and LaRussa swiftly led the group back to the top of the newly minted National League Central and within one game of the World Series. Over the following 15 years, he would reach the postseason 10 more times, including three World Series, with victories in 2006 and 2011. By the time he decided to call it quits, his mark on the franchise was indisputable. Of his 2,728 victories, 1,408 came in the Cardinal uniform, making him the most successful St. Louis manager ever by 367 wins. He won seven divisional titles and never went more than three years without reaching the postseason. All things considered, he restored the luster to the Cardinal name.

However, these means were not reached without some friction along the way. His non-compromising style was unapologetic and was not questioned without one of his signature glares, the look of which you could almost read him attempting to gather himself to not respond with too much hostility, verbally at least. This approach caused notably friction between him and even his most talented players. Ozzie Smith mostly stayed away from the team during his tenure, due to his disagreement with how his final year was handled under LaRussa. His rift with the Rasmus family is well known, as was the resistance between Scott Rolen and himself, leading to Rolen’s departure. TLR’s persistence on doing things his way annually ruffled even the feathers of the masses that came out to support his team.

But ultimately, his way proved more often than not to be the best way. If there is one thing he cannot be tied to, it is the textbook. His championship teams in ’06 and ’11 stand in as a stark reminder that he had a skill for making the unlikely seem like the best option, and ultimately triumphing. His reliance on a succeeding with an powerful American League approach in the slash-and-dash National League furthered this methodology. As a manager, he staunchly stood by his guys, and took the hits when things went wrong. Case in point remaining in the blame he takes for the improbable collapse of Rick Ankiel’s career. He believed in players earning their stripes, but once they did, he would stick with them throughout the rest of their career. Much of this is shown in his career-spanning relationship with Dave Duncan, as well as the carryover of many of the standouts of his Oakland days contributing in St. Louis as well. The acquisition, and coaching return, of Mark McGwire only furthers the point: once you were in, you were in for life.

He believed in the game being played the right way, and quite often, whether it was clear in the moment or not, that was his way. Although the motive may have seemed seemed cloudy, the outcome often was not. While he never captured the people the way that Herzog did, nor was he a face of the organization in the way that Matheny is, but he would not have been who he was if he had been the congenial type. It was not in his nature to be welcoming or too often engaging, but it was his focus and demeanor which often raised his teams above both their talent and pay level. Regardless of how many MVP’s, Cy Young or Rookie of the Year winners he may have had in tow, there was no doubt who ran the show. It was undoubtedly Tony’s team.

In the end, success breed acceptance, and he became a part of the Cardinal family, as his permanently shelved #10 on the outfield walls proves. Only two others have outdone him in the wins category, Connie Mack and John McGraw. Of that trio, him and Mack are the only coaches in North American sports history to manage over 5,000 games.

And while he heads to Cooperstown with joined by another duo of greats in his contemporaries Bobby Cox and another former Cardinal skipper in Joe Torre, with all due respects, neither did what Tony did to reach this pinnacle. LaRussa will on in time as a complicated, but undeniably incomparable presence in both Cardinal and baseball lore.

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Five reasons the Cardinals should say no to Jake Peavy

There have been numerous reports recently that the St. Louis Cardinals are interested in White Sox starter Jake Peavy. At first, I thought to myself “That would be great!” The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that it was just the “Shiny New Toy” part of my brain talking. Once the rational part of my brain took over, I realized they should take a pass on the former Padre, and here are five reasons why:

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 Cost. Unlike the recently-dealt Matt Garza, Peavy is not a free agent after the 2013 season. Garza will cost the Texas Rangers either three or four players for, at most, three months of value (unless they re-sign him during the offseason). The current collective bargaining agreement prevents the Rangers from collecting any draft-pick compensation if he departs as a free agent after the season. If Peavy is under contract for 2014, it stands to reason that the White Sox are going to expect as big a return (if not bigger) than what the Chicago Cubs obtained for Garza. That’s an exorbitant price for a 3X-year-old starter who is due to make $14.5 million in 2014 (which would make him the 2nd-highest paid pitcher on staff). And did I mention his injury history? That brings me to reason #2:

Injury-prone. Peavy was once a workhorse of several competitive Padres teams. But since 2007, he has made more than 30 starts (the standard of a consistent, healthy starter) exactly once – in 2012. He hit the DL with elbow trouble in 2008. When the White Sox traded for him in 2009, he was on the DL with an ankle injury. In 2010, he ruptured the tendon that ties the latissimus dorsi muscle to the rear of his pitching shoulder and missed significant time in 2011 as well. He has already missed several weeks in 2013 due to a rib injury.  Giving up multiple prospects (Carlos Martinez has been rumored recently) for a player with such a spotty health record? PASS.

Playoff-tested? Not so much. In the Walt Jocketty days, Peavy might have been the perfect trade-deadline acquisition for the Cardinals. But Peavy’s playoff history does not sparkle. He reached the postseason twice, in 2005-06 while with the Padres. Both seasons, the Padres faced the Cardinals; both times, they pounded him like a drum In those two starts, Peavy lasted a combined 9 2/3 innings and surrendered 19 hits, 13 runs, three home runs and struck out just five hitters. He hasn’t been close to the playoffs since then. Once again, PASS.

Lateral move? Although Peavy is a former Cy Young Award-winner, does he really represent a big upgrade over their current fifth starter? Pitching for an awful White Sox team this season, Peavy’s park-adjusted ERA+ is 104 (a tad above replacement level). St. Louis’ current fifth starter, Joe Kelly, has an ERA+ of 95, but most of his appearances this season have been out of the bullpen. In his past four appearances (all at least five innings), Kelly has pitched to a 2.49 ERA – which is more than acceptable for a fifth starter on a strong offensive club. If he falters, the Cardinals have Martinez, Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha, and others ready to fill in. Peavy might stay healthy and pitch effectively, but how ill would club management (and fans) feel if they traded away Martinez, for example, only to watch Peavy go down with an injury in his third start? Think about Mark DeRosa in 2009. I don’t think any Cardinal fan is anxious to re-live that deal.

Other alternatives: I would argue that the Cardinals would be better off bolstering their bullpen. Acquiring a reliever such as Jim Henderson, Luke Gregerson, Glen Perkins, or the like would be less expensive in trade, yet it could have just as powerful an impact on the pitching staff. Remember how well Edward Mujica worked out last season? Adding another arm (or two) would alleviate pressure on young flamethrower Trevor Rosenthal and the other young arms in the pen.

While he’s not the power strikeout machine he was in his Padres heyday, he could be an effective pitcher for a contender. He could even show flashes of dominance on a good day. But, given the health risks, expensive salary and talent cost, is he worth the gamble? I don’t think so. I hope John Mozeliak agrees with me.

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St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak might be best in MLB

In just four years, St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak has done just about everything an organization could ask out of that position, and he has done it in steady, yet stunning fashion.

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Mozeliak was promoted to the general manager position in 2008 after the Cardinals fired long-time GM Walt Jocketty, who had helped lead the organization through one of its most successful stretches in team history.

Since, Mozeliak took a team that was in the midst of a two-year hiatus from the playoffs and helped turn it into a team that has won a World Series and made the playoffs in three of the last four seasons despite losing arguably the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, at the end of 2011.

Mozeliak made some shrewd moves to reach that success, and he took avenues that weren’t necessarily glamorous, but they were vitally important to the success of the Cardinals.

For example, the only big signing he’s made since taking over as general manager was the seven-year, $120-million contract he gave Matt Holliday after trading for him midway through the 2009 season. Other than that, Mozeliak has deftly made trades that didn’t make major headlines, but paid off huge for the team in the long run.

In one of his first moves, Mozeliak traded Jim Edmonds to the San Diego Padres leading up to the 2008 season, and the Cardinals received a minor leaguer by the name of David Freese in return. At the time it looked as though the Cardinals had given up a fan favorite at the end of his career for a player who had potential but hadn’t had a stellar minor-league career.

But Freese has gone on to hit .296 in his four seasons with the Cardinals to go along with a .345 postseason batting average that includes the most famous hits of the 2011 World Series, a ninth-inning triple in Game 6 to tie the Texas Rangers, who were one strike from winning their first championship, and an 11th-inning homerun to win the game that sent the Cardinals to their championship moment the next evening.

Mozeliak has also added a great mix of veterans and young players. He signed Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran in back-to-back seasons, and both had their best seasons in recent memory. But he also has developed a farm system that is cranking out big-league caliber players who are on the cusp of stardom.

In just the past two seasons, Freese, Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Joe Kelly, Jason Motte and Trevor Rosenthal have filled critical roles for the Cardinals throughout the regular season, and in the team’s deep postseason runs.

Baseball America also recently ranked the Cardinals minor-league system as No. 1 in baseball. That is quite an honor for a system that the same organization ranked last in 2005. The organization is currently stocked with exciting prospects such as outfielder Oscar Taveras, infielder Kolten Wong and pitcher Carlos Martinez.

The combination of all of those factors is what makes Mozeliak the best general manager in baseball. He hasn’t had incredible amounts of money to throw at free agents to try and buy a winning team, as so many organizations have done. The New York Yankees, Miami Marlins, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are just a few examples.

Those teams can overcome poor decisions by throwing money at the problem. Others, such as the Toronto Blue Jays this year, trade for a bunch of high-priced talent all at once and hope it all mashes together to create a winning team.

The Cardinals don’t solely use either of those approaches, but they take pieces from each. They are an organization that has developed a near-perfect combination of developing young talent while maintaining the flexibility to add key outside pieces to the puzzle of a big-league roster. The Cardinals are sort of a balance between the Tampa Bay Rays, who rely almost solely on home-grown talent, and the big market teams that spend a ton of money.

Granted, general managers are often viewed as good or horrible based on the flexibility their owners give them. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman was viewed as a genius when the Yankees spent loads of money each offseason, but this year his reputation has taken a hit because the Yankees don’t want to spend as much money. That’s not fair, but it is something that comes along with the job.

Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels is probably the closest to Mozeliak in terms of his ability to build a consistent winning team without breaking the bank on free agents. The Rangers had the No. 1-ranked minor-league system in 2009 and followed it with two consecutive World Series appearances.

San Francisco Giants general manager Brian Sabean is another who does an excellent job, and Jocketty is also building a strong foundation with the Cincinnati Reds by applying the same principles he used during his successful 13-year run with the Cardinals that included seven playoff appearances and a World Series championship.

Mozeliak has taken those principles to the next level and built a team that is capable of winning a World Series now, as well as a team that should consistently compete for championships in the foreseeable future.

Given the Cardinals’ recent success and the projections that similar success lays ahead, Mozeliak deserves to be called one of the best, and quite possibly the best, general manager in Major League Baseball.

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An Almost Perfect Night

Friday night before their game against the Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals retired former manager Tony La Russa’s number 10 in a ceremony on the field that included all the expected fanfare. Unfortunately the Cards couldn’t cap off the night with a victory, losing the game in disappointing fashion in 12 innings.

The 25+ minute fete of La Russa featured names and faces spanning his better than three decade career. On- and off-the-field representatives from the White Sox, A’s, and Cardinals were on hand to see their former skipper honored. Jerry Reinsdorf, Tom Seaver, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Walt Jocketty, Matt Morris, and Jim Edmonds were just a few of the special guests seated in the infield at Busch Stadium while Master of Ceremonies Mike Shannon took to the podium set up near home plate. Of course all of the current Cardinals were in the dugout, and some—like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, and manager Mike Matheny—sat in the seats on the field. After a few short speeches, a couple of good laughs, and a video montage, members of Team Fredbird unveiled the new image of La Russa next to a huge “10” as the newest addition to the retired numbers mural along the left field wall. It was a fitting tribute to the man who presided over one of the most successful periods of baseball in the history of the franchise.

But even La Russa pushed to get the game going, promising to keep his speech short and acknowledging that the crowd was really there to see the Cards and Braves play. Unfortunately, nothing went right for the Cardinals early in the contest. After two passed balls in the first inning, the Braves led 2-0. By the end of the third, it was 5-0. The Cardinals battled back to take the lead 6-5 in the 5th inning, but they would only score one more run the rest of the night. Tied at seven, the game went into extra innings and a Jayson Heyward two-run homer capped off the scoring.

Friday night certainly had a little bit of everything: the return of La Russa to Busch Stadium; the illustrious group attending his ceremony; a long standing ovation for Chipper Jones, who is likely playing his last series at Busch; a big lead for the opposition; a comeback to take the lead from them; a Jaime Garcia meltdown that he was able to rein in; several lead changes; Skip Schumaker trying to be extra scrappy due to the presence of David Eckstein by diving head-first into first base for a hit; extra innings; Carlos Beltran finishing a single short of hitting for the cycle (and even taking a walk in the 11th); great weather, etc. etc.

But the loss was particularly disappointing because the Cards once again had runners on second or third—or second and third…and first—numerous times and the Cardinals failed to capitalize. The comeback from being down 5-0 early is great. But the Cards’ RISP numbers are not great, and they have to figure out a way to get guys in once they get on.

The Cardinals did not come out with a victory, but they did but on quite a show for La Russa. And if nothing else, that and Beltran’s performance were definitely the plays of the night. Perhaps, as the Cards’ former manager rides off into the sunset, they could take a page from La Russa’s notebook and get back to playing a hard nine or 12 or whatever it takes to finish and get out of this RISP funk. Just keep that pitcher batting ninth or Matheny may have a fan mutiny on his hands.

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Where Are They Now? (The NL Central Edition)

A quick scan through the National League Central rosters reveals a lot of the same names fans have come to see year after year. However, the name on the front of the jersey changes more often than you may realize. The St. Louis Cardinals have been called the 2004 Houston Astros after the additions of Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, and potentially Roy Oswalt. The Reds have been called the 2008 Cardinals with all the former players former Cardinal GM Walt Jocketty brought over after being ousted at the end of the 2007 season. Even the other four teams in the division seem to have a lot of players that have been with other teams in the NL Central. Why does it matter? I suppose it may not that much, other than it is a slow Hot Stove week and this seems like a fun topic to dig into. So here is my version of “Where Are They Now?”, NL Central Edition.

I looked at each team’s 40-man roster and noted each player that is currently active and has played for more than one NL Central team. I then broke down the percentage of players in the division that have played for more than one NL Central team, and finally the number of players in the division that have played for more than one team in their career as a percentage of players who have played for more than one NL Central team.

Clear as mud?

9.2%

Twenty-two of the 240 players (1 out of every 7) on active NL Central rosters have seen major-league playing time on another team within the division. Here’s the list:

Astros (4):  Carlos Lee (Brewers), Jason Bourgeois (Brewers), Chris Snyder (Pirates), Enerio Del Rosario (Reds)

Brewers(7):  Nyjer Morgan (Pirates), Jose Veras (Pirates), Aramis Ramirez (Pirates, Cubs), Alex Gonzalez (Reds), Randy Wolf (Astros), Chris Narveson (Cardinals), Corey Patterson (Cubs, Reds, Cardinals)

Cardinals (2):  Lance Berkman (Astros), Carlos Beltran (Astros)

Cubs (2):  Ryan Dempster (Reds),  Travis Wood (Reds)

Pirates (2):  Clint Barmes (Astros), Casey McGehee (Cubs, Brewers)

Reds (5):  Sean Marshall (Cubs), Bronson Arroyo (Pirates), Miguel Cairo (Cardinals), Scott Rolen (Cardinals), Ryan Ludwick (Cardinals)

25%

Here’s where it gets interesting….

I looked at how many players on each teams’ current active roster have played for at least one other team in their career.

Astros – 17

Brewers – 15

Cardinals – 11

Cubs – 17

Pirates – 16

Reds – 13

From there, I took the numbers from above (players with games played for more than one NL Central team) divided by players that have moved teams at least once. Here are the percentages:

Astros:     4/17    23.53%

Brewers:     7/15    46.67%

Cardinals:     2/11    18.18%

Cubs:     2/17  11.76%

Pirates:     2/16  12.50%

Reds:     5/13  38.46%

Any player traded or signing with another team as a free-agent has a 5/29 (17.2%) chance of landing with another NL Central team. I found it very interesting that the actual percentage came in eight percentage points higher. Much of this can be accredited to Walt Jocketty bringing several former Cardinals to Cincinatti, but the Brewers actually have the highest percentage of recycled NL Central players on their roster. Once Jeff Luhnow and the Astros head to the AL, I anticipate the ratios going down as he may pluck several free agents from his former division and former club (Cardinals).

This topic was significant to me if for no other reason than the Cardinals play 77 games within the division in 2012. The teams will know each other well just from the sheer number of times they play each other. But it must also be taken into account that the players know each other well because 25% have played for other teams in the division. I have not researched the other divisions in baseball or the other major sports, but I would be hard-pressed to believe any other division would come in at higher than 25% “recycled player ratio”. If someone out there is interested enough to do the research and prove me wrong, it sure would make for an interesting off-season research project!

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Cards Droppings Previews Reds at St. Louis

Mike over at Cards Droppings does a great job breaking down the series as they come up. We are glad to share that information with you here on I-70 and ask you to click the link at the bottom of the article to read the rest of the material on the home site.

After a quick 3 games in 28 hours, the Cardinals move on to take on their bitter rivals, the Cincinnati Reds. There are so many subplots here. Let’s take a look at just a few of them:

  • Johnny “Karate” Cueto basically ended Jason LaRue’s career last year after his infamous kick-assault on our backup catcher.
  • The Cardinals fired Walt Jocketty, and he’s now the general manager of the Reds. He absolutely has every right to want to beat the Cardinals after he was shoved out of an organization to which he brought so much success.
  • Johnny Gomes, after hearing about the Adam Wainwright injury this spring, reportedly was celebrating in the Reds’ spring training clubhouse. He denies this, but knowing Gomes, I am sure that the reports of him being amped up were spot on.
  • Scott Rolen was basically pushed out of town due to his failed relationship with Tony LaRussa. Although he’s out for game one of this series, it’s certain that Rolen LOVES giving his old team trouble whenever he can.
  • Troublemaker Brandon Phillips has been tweeting like crazy ripping on St. Louis: ”My teammates ask me if I knew where some good places 2 eat at in St. Louis! I said, “Yea, come with me 2 the store 2 get some Lunchables!” and “Just landed in St. Louis! Sad face… But these wins will make me happy! On our way 2 the hotel & I hope its not Hilton at the BallPark! Lol”
  • Mike Leake turned into a petty thief recently, stealing $60 worth of shirts at Macy’s. Matt Sebek, over at JoeSportsFan.com, has done a brilliant job of getting us ready for this series. He’s come up with an awesome shirt to taunt Reds fans. Read all about it here.

Read the rest of Mike’s breakdown of the series by clicking here.


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Royals Schedule Outlook: June

The biggest story of June could be decisions facing the club regarding whether or not to call up any of their top prospects. Rookies called up in June or after do not qualify for “super two” status, thus delaying arbitration eligibility down the line. It will be an exciting month if one or more of the heralded prospects make their debut.

Besides that, the second half of the month will be entirely inter-league with series against the Cardinals, Diamondbacks, Cubs and Padres.

June Breakdown:

Total Games: 27

Home: 15

Road: 12

Vs teams with winning records in 2010: 14

Vs teams with losing records in 2010: 10

Vs teams in the AL Central: 4

Inter-league games: 12

Key Series:

June 2-5 vs. Minnesota – This is the only series against an AL Central opponent all month, but it will only be a key series if the Royals have a surprising start and are having dreams of contention.

June 17-19 @ St. Louis – After hosting the Cards in May, the Royals head across the state for the second part of the 2011 I-70 series.

Key To a Hot Start:

The first nine games of the month are home games, so the Royals will have to take full advantage of home cooking.

At the end of June:

If the Royals are above .500… The Royals will have beaten up on the National League, something that is not entirely out of the question.

If the Royals are .500… They will have significantly over-achieved.

If the Royals are below .500… No one will be surprised.

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Cardinals Schedule Outlook: April

Before we look ahead to April 2011, it’s important to note what happened back in April of 2010: The team was good. Good might not even do it justice, the Cardinals were great. The team won each of its first 5 series and finished the month with a record of 15-8, best in the National League. They ended up playing Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Atlanta in the opening month: 3 of the National League’s 4 eventual playoff teams. St. Louis posted a 7-4 record against those contenders, and in 2011, they’ll meet those same 3 playoff teams in the opening month again. Those eight games will be critical indicators for the direction the team is heading in this season.

April Breakdown:

Total Games: 26

Home: 11

Road: 15

Vs teams with winning records in 2010: 11

Vs teams with losing records in 2010: 15

Vs teams in the NL Central: 9

Key Series:

April 8-10 @ San Francisco – Anytime you play the defending champions is a good measuring stick for your ball club, especially when you play in their home park. The Cardinals went 3-3 against the Giants last season, with each team winning 2 out of 3 at their own park. Stealing 2 of 3 in San Francisco early in the season would be a huge lift for this team.

April 22-24 vs Cincinnati – You remember the Reds, don’t you? Brandon Phillips’ and his trash talking, and Johnny Cueto ending Jason Larue’s career in that nasty brawl in Cincinnati. Yeah, those Reds. The team that employs former Cardinals Scott Rolen and Walt Jocketty, and is managed by former Cubs manager, Dusty Baker. Its the team that took the 2010 Central Division Title away from the Cardinals. And come late April, it will be time for some long overdue payback.

Key To a Hot Start:

The Cardinals finished last season 86-76, good for 2nd in the NL Central and 5 games behind the Cincinnati Reds. A big reason St. Louis came up short in the standings last year was its lackluster play against teams with losing records, especially late last season. Dating back to late August, the team has a record of 7-18 against teams with losing records. So while it would be nice to steal 2 out of 3 from the Giants, Padres, Reds, and Braves, the teams needs to make sure and beat up on the Pirates, Diamondbacks, Nationals, and Astros.

At the end of April:

If the Cardinals have 15+ wins… they’re preforming beyond expectations. Even with a potentially “soft” early schedule, the team has 15 of its 26 games on the road. Without Adam Wainwright, 15 or more wins would have people talking up Tony La Russa as an early “Manager of the Year” candidate.

If the Cardinals are .500… I think most fans would hope for more, but all in all be satisfied.

If the Cardinals are below .500… most fans would either be in full-blown panic mode or will consider giving up on the season. We all know in the back of our minds that this is an uphill climb. Last year, the Cardinals had a terrific rotation anchored by 2 perennial Cy Young candidates and a lineup featuring Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday…but they still missed the playoffs. With the Reds stronger and the Cardinals weaker, a bad start to the year could be an early sign that it’s going to be a long summer in St. Louis.

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The Cardinals In Time: Long Home Runs And Tony’s Arrival

During the offseason we have been taking a look at the past, giving readers a timeline of St. Louis baseball throughout history. Last time we learned about the some tough times for the Cardinals as the roster was weak, the front office was in shambles, and the team was going nowhere fast. In 1995 Anheuser-Busch put the team up for sale and the team finished the season without a manager. Who was coming in to take over?

Walt Jocketty wasted little time trying to turn things around after taking over as general manager of the Cardinals. He had to show a little patience, however, to get the manager he wanted. Joe Torre was out after roughly five rather lackluster years, and at the end of the 1995 season Jocketty got his man. He called up good friend Tony LaRussa and lured him to the Gateway City after spending ten years in Oakland, picking up three AL pennants and one World Series title.

Tony had his own way of doing things, and many fans initially balked at some of his decisions. The number one choice? Choosing to give a stronger portion of playing time to young shortstop Royce Clayton rather than stalwart and fan favorite Ozzie Smith. Ozzie still had a strong year at the plate, hitting .282/.358/.370 over 82 games, and his competition was weaker. Clayton had a .277/.321/.371 line.

The turnover in players between 1995 and 1996 was startling. The pitching rotation added Andy Benes and Todd Stottlemyre in the rotation as well as closer Dennis Eckersley, while the starting nine saw newcomers Gary Gaetti, Ron Gant, and old friend Willie McGee. The biggest switch on the field for the year was the actual field – the team returned to natural grass after using Astroturf since 1970.

The team started slowly, going just 41-40 in the first half. After the All-Star game, they started to climb. An eight game winning streak from August 30 to September 7 took Tony’s team from 2.5 back to 1.5 up, and they never looked back. After winning the division on the backs of Andy Benes’ 18 win season, the team ran into the machine known as the 1990’s Braves in the NLCS. They battled, but could not win out over the starting rotation of Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Denny Neagle. For a young Cardinals’ fan experiencing her first memories of Cardinals postseason baseball, this was a bittersweet end to the season. I still hold a grudge.

A 88-74 season in 1996 went almost completely backwards in 1997, as the team finished 73-89 and found themselves fourth in the five team NL Central. Rookie Matt Morris had a strong year for the starting rotation, finishing with a team best 12-9 record, 3.19 ERA, 217 innings pitched and 1.276 WHIP. This earned him second place in the Rookie of the Year voting.

Never over .500, Jocketty nevertheless made a July 31 trade with the A’s. The Cardinals passed Eric Ludwick, TJ Matthews and Blake Stein to the A’s in return for Mark McGwire. McGwire hit 24 home runs over the final two months, but only hit .253. In fact, no one on the team hit over .300 on the season. The closest was none other than Willie McGee, who hit .300 exactly. Four outfielders played in 115+ games – some things never change with LaRussa.

Does anyone remember anything about the 1998 season besides the home run chase? I do not. Considering Houston absolutely ran away with the division, winning 102 games, no one cared about anything besides waiting for Big Mac to hit his next blast. The team was already back 10.5 games at the break, and although they did put together an 18-7 September, they were much too far out of contention to ever put any pressure on the division leaders.

Yes, the real story for the Cardinals was McGwire. He and Cubs’ outfielder Sammy Sosa were neck and neck all season, trading blasts and actually becoming somewhat of friends over the course of the season. On September 7, McGwire tied the single season record of 61 home runs in a season, only to break it the next night with Roger Maris’ family in attendance, against Sosa’s Cubs no less! Baseball was on the way back up after having received such a large black eye with the 1994 strike. People were finding reasons to come back to the ballpark, and baseball was smiling again.

As for the team, 1999 was another forgetful year. I absolutely did not remember how dominant Houston was for a few years. It makes the Astros current issues that much more awful. This year did not have much to offer the Cardinals. McGwire had 65 home runs, and Kent Bottenfield had the only good year of his career, going 18-7, but this team was going nowhere fast, and no one seemed to care.

One interesting footnote to this season is 25 year old rookie starting pitcher Jose Jimenez. His season looks unremarkable, his career even more so, but for two games in 1999, Jimenez outdueled a future Hall of Famer. On June 25 in Arizona, Jimenez faced Randy Johnson and matched him out for out through the first eight innings. In the top of the ninth the Cardinals pushed a run across through two walks and a single to left. Jimenez closed out the ninth to finish a no hitter. It is not every day that a rookie outdoes Randy Johnson, but then he did it twice. Just two starts later the two squared off again, this time in St. Louis. Jimenez again came out on top of a 1-0 score, although this time the Cardinals only made him wait until the fourth to get a run, and he gave up two hits. These were literally the two greatest games of his career, and they came in the course of three games on the way to a 5-14, 5.85 ERA season.

2000 showed a team that started out very strong in April (17-8), then fluctuated for the next 4 months, playing a little better than .500 ball from May through August. However, two trades in July bringing relief pitcher Mike Timlin and veteran infielder Will Clark to the Cardinals primed the team to finish the year strong. Rookie pitcher Rick Ankiel showed his phenom status by going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA, which earned him a second place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting. Newcomer Darryl Kile felt a career resurgence in his first year out of the thin Denver air and went 20-9, the only twenty win season of his career that ended too soon. All five starting pitchers had eleven or more wins.

On the offensive side, another newcomer in centerfielder Jim Edmonds led the team with a .295/.411/.583 batting line, racking up 103 walks, 167 strikeouts (does the term ‘free swinger’ mean anything to you?), 42 home runs and 108 runs batted in. With all that he eventually accomplished in St. Louis, it almost seems unreal that he was 30 years old already when he arrived to the Cardinals.

The team made a solid run in the postseason, pushing past the Braves in the Division Series despite a bout of wildness by starting pitcher Rick Ankiel. However, they were run over by the scorching hot Mets in the NLCS, and the Mets were the ones that went on to the Series, squaring off against the Yankees in the Subway Series.

Tony had pushed the team back into the upper half of baseball, and the team had the pieces in place to stay there for awhile. Would they?

Angela Weinhold covers the Cardinals for i70baseball.com and writes at Cardinal Diamond Diaries. You may follow her on Twitter here or follow Cardinal Diamond Diaries here.

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Baseball Bloggers Alliance Ballot: NL Manager Of The Year

Every year, the group known as the Baseball Bloggers Alliance places their ballots for various awards to be announced at the end of the season. This year, it is my pleasure to place the votes for the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance in the category of Manager Of The Year. The award is officially titled The Connie Mack Award.

The National League this year has shown some diversity amongst the teams. Highly competitive races came down to the last few weeks of the season, highlighted by three teams and the men that guided them. In my mind, the top three managers to be considered for the award are listed here….

3 – Dusty Baker, Cincinnati Reds
I know, as a Cardinal person I should not even utter his name. However, all things considered, I think you have to acknowledge the job that Baker did in Cincinnati this season with a team that most did not expect to even finish above .500. I am personally not a fan of his management style, and honestly should probably put Walt Jocketty’s name in parenthesis behind Baker’s, but all things considered he took a team that should not have been in playoff contention and turned them into division champions.

The only thing keeping Baker from climbing higher into this list is the team’s collapse down the stretch. A team that had every opportunity to bury the Cardinals and seal the division very early on, the Reds resembled the World Series Champion Cardinals from 2006 that were known for “backing into” the playoffs. The Reds capitalized more in the month of September from the Cardinals inability to win then they did from their ability to do so.

2 – Brad Mills, Houston Astros
Speaking of teams that everyone picked to lose, the Houston Astros were picked by many to challenge the Pirates for the opposite end of the division race. A very young team that had some financial problems with veteran stars, the Astros were viewed as a franchise that was in turmoil. Locked into rebuilding with very talented youngsters, the team was mired in the back end of contracts to star players that needed to be replaced.

Brad Mills took a young group of players, watched talent like Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman be traded away, and somehow put together a season that suggests that the Astros could be competing sooner rather than later for the division title. A team that most picked to finish dead last was capable of posting a record that ended a mere 10 games below .500. Mills was rewarded with an extension to his contract, showing faith in his ability to lead the players through the remainder of the rebuilding process. With Mills at the helm, the rest of the National League Central should take notice of the Houston Astros.

1 – Bruce Bochy, San Francisco Giants
There are teams that overachieved and there are teams that went above and beyond. Bochy took a Giants team that many picked to be contenders, but not playoff ready, and has led them into the playoffs and past future Hall Of Fame manager Bobby Cox’s Atlanta Braves and into the National League Championship Series to take on baseball’s latest dynasty, the Philadelphia Phillies.

Most pundits did not think the Giants were quite “there” at the begining of this season. But behind Bochy’s leadership, the team leveraged great play from rookie cornerstones and solid play from veteran leaders to put themselves in a postion to steal the Postseason away from everyone involved.

There you have it, my picks for the Connie Mack Award for the Baseball Bloggers Alliance.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at I-70 Baseball as well as the Assignment Editor for BaseballDigest.com.
He is the host of I-70 Radio, hosted every week on BlogTalkRadio.com.
Follow him on Twitter here.

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