Compromised Cardinals

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By themselves, the departures of such important cogs in the Cardinals run of success would be manageable. But any team losing a Hall of Fame manager, a Hall of Fame pitching coach and a the best hitter of this generation is going to have a hard time replacing one of those people. The Cardinals have to replace three.

One is doable. Two is tough. Three might be impossible.

Tony LaRussa’s retirement was surprising yet understandable.

Albert Pujols’s departure for Anaheim was a punch in the stomach.

Dave Duncan’s leave of absence is family-related and sad.

Can Mike Matheny step into LaRussa’s role having never managed before in his life?

Will the offense withstand Pujols’s defection?

And will Derek Lilliquist successfully forge the bonds, concoct the strategies and tweak the mechanics of his pitchers as Duncan could and did?

Of the three, the most dramatic and stunning loss is the easiest to navigate.

As great as Pujols was, the money the team is saving in not having to pay a player listed at 32 (but suspected to be older) $250+ million is a long-term benefit. They didn’t force him out. He left. They’re cheaper and more flexible with Lance Berkman shifting to first base and the two-year contract given to Carlos Beltran. Their pitching is going to be their strength with the return of Adam Wainwright to an already solid starting rotation.

Once they come to grips with Pujols’s absence—this should happen in spring training—they’ll be fine.

But what of the dugout?

Matheny’s leadership and toughness are known, but he’s never managed before. In a veteran-laden clubhouse overseeing the World Series champions, he and the Cardinals walk into 2012 with a bulls-eye over the head of the redbird on their jerseys. Matheny is going to make mistakes as another former catcher who became a manager without any experience, Joe Girardi, did. In his first stop with the Marlins, Girardi bickered with ownership and was fired despite winning Manager of the Year—an award that was due more to the perception that the 2006 Marlins were supposed to lose 100 games and didn’t than anything Girardi contributed. Girardi endured a rough transition managing former teammates and contemporaries with the Yankees in 2008. It took him three years to find his stride as a manager.

It’s not easy to do and with these wholesale alterations, we’re not talking about the same car with a different driver—the entire Cardinals cast is different.

Duncan is the biggest loss. The one thing that was going to truly help Matheny was Duncan’s decision to return. The rapport with pitchers, ability to spot flaws and, most importantly, know how to fix them was what made Duncan the best pitching coach in baseball.

Presumably Lilliquist learned a great deal from Duncan and oversaw a large part of the day-to-day implementation of his strategies, but being an assistant is different from being the one responsible for everything.

Now Lilliquist is responsible for everything.

I’m not an advocate of standing pat. I think it breeds complacency. But there’s a difference between trading one good player for another, bringing in a new manager and/or pitching coach and doing all three not as a matter of choice, but as a matter of necessity.

The landscape is entirely different and drastic changes of this kind are rarely smooth.

All of this leads to warning signs that can’t be ignored and potentially big trouble for the Cardinals.

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