Beltran’s Got It Backward

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“Actually, I’m not thinking about the fans, I’m thinking about myself.”

The first line from this New York Daily News article about Carlos Beltran is telling in its inadvertent accuracy.

He may not realize it, but Beltran was always thinking about himself and the fans knew it.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that…until he twists it to lambaste those same fans for not worshipping him.

Beltran doesn’t seem to understand the fan mindset and it’s causing him to take personally what was the negative part of a purely business relationship between him and the fans.

The more thoughtful Mets fan that doesn’t think with his emotions and understands that Adam Wainwright ended the 2006 NLCS by throwing a great pitch that Beltran, even had he swung, wasn’t going to hit. They’re not the ones who are holding a grudge against Beltran for one moment. The business arrangement between player and fan wound up in the simplest of terms: cheer when he does good; boo when he does bad.

It’s not personal and was never more than that.

Not every player is going to be adored by the fanbase, but when he begins his tenure by having offered his services to the bitter rivals across town for less money and fewer years, it’s not going to be taken well when he puts forth the pretense of having been forced to join a team he didn’t really want to join; a team that was, at best, his third choice.

When Beltran was a free agent, he wanted to stay with the Astros. The Mets offered more money—what he and then-agent Scott Boras wanted—but Boras, in a conciliatory gesture to the desires of his client, went to the Yankees and offered his player to them for a better deal.

Think about this from the perspective of a Mets fan. It was as if he was doing the Mets a favor in an “oh, alright I’ll sign with you” manner.

It works both ways. He didn’t really want to be a Met and it was known. It might have been more palatable if he’d gone to the Yankees and told them, “this is the highest offer and if you match it, I’ll sign with you”. That’s what he did with the Cardinals contract this winter and the Yankees, just as they did in 2005, turned him down.

In 2004, he offered himself to the Yankees for less money. The Mets fans would never ever forgive nor forget.

The Mets didn’t engender the “why me?” lament from Beltran that’s still evident in his latest statements on the matter. He never seemed to understand why he was booed every time the Mets went into Houston to play the Astros.

Did he really not get it?

Did his enabled life of being allowed to essentially do what he wanted because of his prodigious on-field talent lead to such a hardheaded inability to comprehend that the Astros felt jilted by his decision to chase every last penny and leave the place he didn’t want to leave? That the Mets fans felt slighted by his pursuit of the Yankees?

From that point on, there was never going to be a warm and fuzzy relationship between Beltran and the Mets fans.

No amount of fan-player love was going to remove the sullen look on Beltran’s face that bordered on suicidal. He forever appeared as if he’d just lost his luggage. His terrific play would never spur the fans to love him because it circled back to the initial emotion of the reality, “you wanted to go to the Yankees rather than join us”.

One positive from the entire episode is that perhaps a team like the Mets has to take the stand that if a player doesn’t want to be a Met, then they shouldn’t go all out to bring him in. In 2007-2008 the Rays began to turn around their fortunes, in part, because they got rid of players who didn’t want to be there and acted like it.

Beltran wasn’t doing the Mets a favor by taking their money, but that’s the perception that’s floating around and it stems from the actions of Beltran and his then-agent.

He was a good-to-great player for the Mets. They came close and didn’t make it over the final hump. There’s no guarantee he would’ve had a better time playing for the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros or anyone else. He chose to come to the Mets. He chose to offer himself to the Yankees. Now he needs to choose to get past whatever bitterness he feels that the fans didn’t embrace him. It was his own fault and it wasn’t due to the Wainwright curveball that will forever be etched in the memory of fans who see that one pitch as the microcosm of the Omar Minaya-built teams that just…barely….missed.

If anyone needs to get over it, it’s Beltran. The fans have moved on already. That’s what happens when there’s no emotional investment. It’s only partially due to him; it’s mostly the overt failure of that entire group that culminated in the collapse of 2007 and the subsequent firings, housecleanings and financial collapse.

The fans are not upset with Beltran.

They don’t care about him.

And that’s because he didn’t care about them either.

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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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Roy Oswalt Is Not a Relief Pitcher

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There’s been speculation that the Cardinals are interested in Roy Oswalt and Oswalt would love to pitch for the Cardinals. With the recent news that Oswalt would be willing to take a short-term deal, the number of teams seriously pursuing him increased exponentially; but Oswalt is still the Mississippi guy who’d prefer to steer clear of New York or Boston if he has a choice. Presumably, he would’ve liked to play in Texas, but the Rangers don’t have room for him and the Astros don’t need him as they rebuild.

The Cardinals would be a fine spot for him, but the surprising story is that the Cardinals would like Oswalt to consider a move to the bullpen with the possibility of moving into the starting rotation if he’s needed.

This will not work.

There are pitchers who can start and relieve and make the transition seamlessly. Derek Lowe could do it; Phil Hughes could do it; John Smoltz could do it. But the circumstances were vastly different for those pitchers and others who’ve shuttled from one role to the other.

Oswalt has been a starter his entire professional career; has had back trouble; and plainly and simply would not know how to relieve in preparation or practice.

It’s a bad idea if it’s a legitimate thought.

I don’t think they’re serious about it; nor do I believe that Oswalt would do it. Why should he? He’d have other options (including the Yankees and Red Sox) if he needed a job and wouldn’t have to go to the bullpen, so why should he do it for the Cardinals?

My guess is that the Cardinals want Oswalt for the starting rotation and are trying to find a taker for Kyle Lohse or Jake Westbrook. Westbrook is the more likely pitcher to be moved because he’s more consistent and cheaper.

Westbrook will be paid $8.5 million in 2012 and has an option for 2013 at $8.5 with a mutual option and a $1 million buyout if the Cardinals decline the option; simply put, he’s guaranteed $9.5 million.

Lohse has $11.875 million coming to him in 2012.

If we’re going by ability, Lohse is better; if we’re going by who’s a better pitcher, Westbrook is who you want. Lohse has always been and presumably will always be that pitcher who elicits sighs and lamentations of how good he could be if he ever put it all together. Here’s a newsflash: Lohse is 33-years-old and this is pretty much it. In a good year, he’ll pitch really well and the good years will be the bread of an overstuffed sandwich of 2-3 years where he got blasted, hurt or both.

Westbrook will give 180-200 innings and you know what you’re getting from him—he’s mediocre, but for a back-of-the-rotation starter on a short-term contract teams can (and will) do far worse.

Oswalt may be waiting until the other free agent chips—Edwin Jackson, Hiroki Kuroda—fall into place; then he’ll make his decision and it won’t be as a reliever for anyone.

With Oswalt, the Cardinals might sign him under the pretense of using him as a reliever with the pitcher publicly stating such inanities as, “I can make the transition”, blah blah blah; but the truth is that they’ll have Oswalt in the bullpen until they can deal either Westbrook or Lohse and make sure that Adam Wainwright is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery; that won’t happen until late in spring training when injuries make teams desperate for a veteran starter on a short-term contract.

Oswalt will not be a reliever if he signs with the Cardinals. He’ll be a starter.

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The Pujols Departure Makes Like Easier for Matheny

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No manager—especially one who’s brand new and has never done it before—wants to have to come to an agreement on the clubhouse power structure upon walking in the door.

Mike Matheny, whom Albert Pujols was said to like and respect when the two were teammates with the Cardinals, was going to be in just such a situation taking over for Tony LaRussa as the Cardinals new manager. Pujols was said to prefer Jose Oquendo as the new manager. Undoubtedly that will be referenced as part of the list of reasons why Pujols left; this is twisting the issue away from what really was the motivating factor—money—into something other.

If the Cardinals had given Pujols a similar contract as what the Angels gave him, he would’ve stayed. They didn’t and he didn’t.

Already we’re hearing whispers from the netherworld of rumor and innuendo that may or may not be accurate.

“I thought Albert didn’t seem happy.”

“There was something off.”

Blah, blah, blah.

This is just the beginning as an explanation is sought.

Here’s the answer: the Angels paid him a lot more money than the Cardinals were going to.

Period.

This affects Matheny because he doesn’t have to cater to anyone in that clubhouse; that’s immensely valuable to a new manager. The only player on the current Cardinals roster that he played with as a teammate is Chris Carpenter.

That’s not a small thing.

Joe Girardi walked into a similar situation with the Yankees when he took over for Joe Torre, was managing a large segment of contemporaries and former teammates. What made it worse was dealing with a bunch of bratty superstars who’d grown accustomed to Torre and the known rift between Girardi and Jorge Posada that was never adequately repaired.

Matheny has a clean slate.

It’s doubtful any of the remaining stars—Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina—are going to give him a problem; nor do they have the cachet that Pujols had to try and exert their will over a rookie manager. Pujols isn’t the type to bully and take over the room as a Josh Beckett would, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a perfectly good soldier if the two disagreed about something, anything.

Is it easier to run a team on the field without a weapon like Pujols? Of course not. The Cardinals just lost the best player of this generation and one of the best players ever, but to think they can’t function without him is absurd; the Cardinals will absolutely be better off in the long run without that gigantic contract for a player reaching his mid-to-late-30s clogging up their payroll. That they wouldn’t have the DH position to stash him when he can’t play the field anymore and the contract and his stature would make him untradeable would make the situation exponentially worse.

Right now it’s remarkably simple for them: they move Berkman to first base and find a right fielder. They’ll have a ton of cash left over to keep Wainwright and Molina and possibly lock up David Freese through his arbitration years and have the foundation for a good team without that one Hall of Famer stalking the middle of the lineup and paying him $25 million a year during his inevitable decline.

The Cardinals didn’t want to lose Pujols, but the fallout will be muted by the World Series they just won and that they’re going to acquire a name player to fill the gaping hole in the lineup.

There are outfielders available and Carlos Beltran on a 3-year contract is a perfect addition; the offense won’t be diminished all that much and with Wainwright returning, the pitching will be the strength of the team.

Much like the Stephen Strasburg injury where, I’m convinced, there were numerous people within the Nationals organization who were somewhat relieved that he got hurt and there was no one to hold accountable for it, there will be people with the Cardinals who aren’t all that bothered to see Pujols go. They’ll never admit it publicly, but it’s the truth.There was going to be a transition from LaRussa to Matheny and now it’s made much easier without Pujols to run interference on what the new manager wants to do.

The Cardinals will survive.

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The Carlos Beltran Free Agency Profile

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Name: Carlos Beltran


Position: Right Field; Designated Hitter(?).

Vital Statistics:

Age-34; he’ll turn 35 in April.

Height-6’1″

Weight-215.

Bats: Both.

Throws: Right.

Transactions: Drafted by the Kansas City Royals in the 2nd round of the 1995 MLB Draft. Traded to the Houston Astros in June, 2004. Signed as a free agent with the New York Mets in January, 2005. Traded to the San Francisco Giants in July, 2011.

Agent: Dan Lozano.

Might he return to the Giants? Yes.

Teams that could use and pay him: New York Yankees; Toronto Blue Jays; Boston Red Sox; Baltimore Orioles; Detroit Tigers; Kansas City Royals; Minnesota Twins; Los Angeles Angels; Texas Rangers; Seattle Mariners; Atlanta Braves; Philadelphia Phillies; Washington Nationals; St. Louis Cardinals; Chicago Cubs; San Francisco Giants; Los Angeles Dodgers; Colorado Rockies.

Positives:

Beltran comes to play every single day; he hits for power, average and gets on base; he can steal a few bases when necessary; he’s a solid defensive right fielder.

In spite of the repeated whining and reminders of that one pitch from Adam Wainwright in which Beltran watched a curveball break in for strike 3 to end the 2006 NLCS, Beltran is a clutch player who’s come up big in the post-season repeatedly.

I’ve said it again and again: Babe Ruth himself wouldn’t have hit that pitch and even had Beltran swung, he had zero chance of hitting it or fouling it off. Get over it.

Beltran’s stunning decision to part ways with Scott Boras will put forth the sense that he’s not going to be a hard-liner when it comes to a new contract and isn’t looking to receive a “Boras Contract” in which the agent asks for something insane that only a few teams are capable of providing.

He can handle the big city and the spotlight as long as he’s not the center of attention.

Negatives:

His surgically repaired knee held up in 2011, but it has to be in the back of any club’s mind when they sign Beltran that it could be a major issue at some point during the contract.

Is he or is he not willing to DH?

If he’s willing to DH, his options will be extended to a large chunk of the American League; if he’s not, then he’s limited to the National League and will hamper his ability to maximize his dollars. Beltran preferred to go to a National League team when the Mets were trying to trade him. Does he want to stay in the NL? Or is he flexible? Would he even think about playing some first base?

He’s a quiet, background player who doesn’t want to be the out-front leader.

What he’ll want: 4-years, $70 million.

What he’ll get: 3-years, $48 million.

Teams that might give it to him: Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Royals; Twins; Angels; Rangers; Mariners; Phillies; Braves; Nationals; Cardinals; Cubs, Giants.

Beltran was one of the few players by whom Boras appeared to do entirely right.

Boras followed his desires by offering his services to the Yankees for less money than what the Mets offered; he got a clause inserted into the Mets contract that Beltran could not be offered arbitration, making him more attractive to prospective suitors due to the lack of draft pick compensation; and he got him paid.

Yet Beltran and Boras parted ways in advance of Beltran’s free agency and the player switched to Dan Lozano.

Who can speculate what it means?

Beltran must, must, must be open to DHing at least part of the time if he wants to get a contract of longer than 2-years.

Regardless of how desperate a club is to add his bat, his steadfast refusal to DH would hinder him terribly; and it’s a self-serving exercise in playing the outfield and running the risk of missing time and playing in 110-120 games when he could play in 150 games.

DHing isn’t for everyone—ask Adam Dunn—but this is a matter of exponentially increasing his ability to stay in the lineup as opposed to insisting on playing the outfield.

He has to do it.

The Red Sox could use Beltran’s quiet professionalism; the Yankees could use his switch-hitting power; he’d be a terrific acquisition for the Blue Jays; and the Cardinals could slot Beltran into right field if they lose Albert Pujols.

The Giants have spent freely on keeping middle relievers Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt and there’s been talk that they’ll be willing to trade Matt Cain for a bat. (I don’t think they’re trading Cain.) The easiest thing for the Giants would be to try and keep Beltran if they feel he can play the outfield on a 3-year deal.

The Rangers were very interested in Beltran but since he didn’t want to DH and made that clear, the Mets sent him to the Giants. Texas would be a great spot for him.

Would I sign Beltran? I like Beltran, but wouldn’t spend that amount of money for the number of years he’s going to want on a player with his knee issues.

Will it be a retrospective mistake for the team that does pay him? If it’s a NL team, it’s a safe bet that they’re going to regret it. If it’s an AL team, he’s more likely to produce and stay in the lineup.

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The Yu Darvish Free Agency Profile

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Name: Yu Darvish


Position: Right handed pitcher.

Vital Statistics: Age-25; Height-6’5″; Weight-185.

Agents: Arn Tellem of Wasserman Media Group and Don Nomura.

Chances of coming to North America in 2012: He might want to wait another year so the bigger money clubs like the Red Sox and Mets will definitely be involved. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s coming for 2012.

Teams that could use and pay him: Boston Red Sox; New York Yankees; Toronto Blue Jays; Baltimore Orioles; Detroit Tigers; Minnesota Twins; Kansas City Royals; Texas Rangers; Los Angeles Angels; Seattle Mariners; New York Mets; Washington Nationals; Florida Marlins; Milwaukee Brewers; St. Louis Cardinals; Chicago Cubs; San Francisco Giants; Los Angeles Dodgers.

Positives:

I went into detail—with pictures, comparisons, video and projections—on Darvish here.

He has a gregarious personality; an interesting heritage and history; and massive talent that will transfer well to the North American market.

His stuff is vicious; he doesn’t appear to have had his arm abused as Daisuke Matsuzaka did as a youth; he’s fearless and unafraid to buzz hitters—this will be imperative in the big leagues.

Darvish has a wide array of pitches including two blazing, moving fastballs, a slider, an Adam Wainwright curve and a forkball.

Negatives:

Japanese imports are always a gamble and teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have been torched by diving too enthusiastically into the market without realizing what they were getting.

The pressure and expectations on Darvish might be muted because of the prior failures of the likes of Hideki Irabu and Matsuzaka, but he’s still going to cost at least $100 million to $120 million in posting fees and for his contract. That’s a lot of money.

The market is relatively weak this season, but pitchers like C.J. Wilson and Edwin Jackson aren’t going to cost as much as Darvish and they’re proven MLB pitchers.

Darvish is raw and wild—on and off the field—but that could be seen as both a positive or negative. I take it as a good thing. Within reason.

What he’ll want: The posting fee for Matsuzaka was $51.1 million; it’s a blind bidding process, so the teams will have to calculate how much it’ll cost to sign Darvish.

Contractually he’ll want $75 million in guaranteed money over 5-years and the team that wins the bid will have to sign him.

What he’ll get: The posting will be around $55 million; the contract 5-years, $68 million.

Teams that might give it to him: Yankees, Red Sox, Rangers, Dodgers, Angels, Mariners, Blue Jays, Cubs, Tigers.

If you think for one second that the Yankees aren’t interested in Darvish and aren’t preparing a massive posting bid for him, you need to stop reading this and go enjoy the work of Joel Sherman.

The Yankees aren’t interested in Darvish…just like they were only moderately interested in Mark Teixeira.

They’re going after Darvish. Hard.

Ichiro Suzuki‘s career is winding down with the Mariners and they’ll want a talented replacement for the Ichiro fanbase. They’re building their club with pitching in mind and Darvish would slide in right behind Felix Hernandez for a devastating and young 1-2 punch.

Theo Epstein was torched by the Matsuzaka signing, but the Cubs have money to spend and he might want to make a big splash upon taking over in Chicago.

Would I spend the posting money and sign Darvish if I were a GM? I’d put my job on the line to get him.

Will it be a “bad” signing for the club that does pay him? No. Darvish is the real deal and is going to be an All Star and Cy Young Award contender. He’s a megastar in waiting.

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Tony LaRussa Was A True Innovator

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The easiest thing to do when examining a manager’s—or anyone’s—record is to look at the numbers.

Tony LaRussa‘s managerial numbers are up in the stratosphere of baseball history and will be there forever.

He managed for 33 years; made the playoffs 14 times; won 6 pennants; and 3 World Series.

He won 2728 games and had a .536 winning percentage.

But that doesn’t explain what it was he accomplished in baseball.

LaRussa was one of the true innovators, using data and in-depth scouting reports to adjust his lineups, fielder’s positions and pitching maneuvers according to what would best enable him to have an advantage and win the game. Before stats became so prevalent that laymen thought their utilization made them a baseball expert, LaRussa epitomized the best of both stat-based/detailed information decisionmaking and old-school baseball instincts.

Being a journeyman infielder who batted .199 in 203 career plate appearances in the big leagues and lasted for 15 years in the minors (he had a few good minor league seasons), he soaked up the knowledge that contributed to his innovations as a manager; his legal training (he graduated from law school) provided a linear method of thinking that he adapted to baseball; and he had the courage of his convictions.

There were no, “I’m doing this to keep my job” moves with LaRussa. Immediately upon getting the White Sox job, the likes of Billy Martin and Sparky Anderson—baseball lifers and great managers—noticed and were impressed with his fearlessness and attention to detail.

Blamed for the advent of the “bullpen roles” with the Athletics and Dennis Eckersley, that too was an example of coldblooded rationality rather than reinventing the game. In his early seasons managing the White Sox, LaRussa used his short relievers for multiple innings just as every other manager did; it was when he got to Oakland and the veteran former starter Eckersley was making the transition to the bullpen that LaRussa decided it was best to use him for only one inning at a time. He had the other relievers in his bullpen to do it and it worked.

No one told the rest of baseball that this new strategy was the template of how to run a club without deviation—that was never the point—they were copying while LaRussa was creating.

The stat people cling to the concept of a bullpen-by-committee. This can only succeed, in part, if there’s a manager who can’t be questioned if he decides to use it—the 2011 Cardinals used the closer-by-committee with eight different pitchers recording saves.

Planning hand-in-hand with his pitching coach/aide-de-camp Dave Duncan and his GMs Sandy Alderson, Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak to find players who fit into what he wanted to build, he rejuvenated and saved the careers of dozens of players. Without LaRussa and Duncan, there’s no Dave Stewart; Mike Moore would’ve been a “what might have been” disappointment; Chris Carpenter would’ve been a journeyman bust; and Eckersley would’ve been finished at 33.

Rightful in his indignation at his portrayal in Moneyball as a “middle-manager” who wasn’t supposed to have his opinions granted any weight, he won and won and won and did it under a budget—his Cardinals teams were generally in the top 10 in payroll, but never competed financially with the Yankees and Red Sox.

Moneyball became the bane of his existence long after its publication as his longtime Cardinals GM Jocketty was forced out as the club mitigated the power of both LaRussa and Duncan and tried to use numbers and baseball outsiders to save money and restructure the organizational philosophy. LaRussa rebelled. Competing in the big leagues is hard enough without having one’s experience and strategies questioned by outsiders who think that calculating a formula can replace 40 years of analytical observation and in-the-trenches baseball.

He fought back viciously and eventually won that organizational tug-of-war.

He didn’t have much patience for young players who didn’t catch on quickly; his doghouse was entrance only and his feuds with players like Scott Rolen bordered on the embarrassing; he could be condescending, thin-skinned and Machiavellian; he overmanaged in circumstances where he shouldn’t have; he was a skillful manipulator of organizational politics to maintain influence; and his teams didn’t win as much as they should have judging by their talent.

But when a team hired Tony LaRussa to manage, they would never be outworked and if he was given the players to compete, he’d get them to the playoffs. Sometimes he got them to the playoffs when he wasn’t given the players to compete.

In an interesting footnote, the championship teams—the 1989 Athletics; 2006 Cardinals; 2011 Cardinals—weren’t anywhere near as good as the teams that got bounced in the playoffs or shocked in the World Series. The 1988 and 1990 A’s were better than the 1989 team; the 2004-2005 Cardinals won a total of 205 games, but those teams didn’t take the title.

The 2006 club collapsed in September and nearly missed the playoffs; once they got in, they regained their footing and, carried by a journeyman starter Jeff Suppan and a rookie closer (who wasn’t a closer) Adam Wainwright, they were the underdogs in every post-season series and won them all.

In 2011, the Cardinals were all but finished in late August before getting a reprieve because they had a great September and due to the Braves falling apart. Seemingly overmatched by the mighty Phillies and the pitching-rich Brewers, the Cardinals took both out. Then, down to their last strike twice in the World Series to the superior Rangers, the Cardinals came back and won an unlikely championship.

I have to wonder whether LaRussa takes more pride in winning when he wasn’t supposed to win or wanted to win with the teams that were great in every conceivable metric other than taking home the World Series trophy.

One accomplishment lends itself to his managerial skill; the other to his ability to put a club together over a long year from the winter to the fall. Neither is more important than the other, but more credit is doled for winning when a team isn’t supposed to win.

LaRussa got away with the things he did because he won and in a circular occurrence, he won because he had the nerve to do things that other young managers might not have done. He didn’t do them to be quirky; he did them because he believed in them. As much as he tried to keep his thumb on everything in his world, he was a big picture, deep strike thinker who took risks for big rewards.

Not every manager can say that.

Most new managers are going to make calls that are safe; that can be explained to the media and meddling bosses; that will keep the players in their corner—but not LaRussa.

He was a rarity among mangers for that fervent adherence to his theories and the courage to implement them.

There won’t be another LaRussa not only because he won, but because of the way he won.

He went out on top and walked away from a lot of money.

There have been intermittent and idiotic caveats from know-nothings diminishing all he did in baseball.

They need to be ignored.

LaRussa deserves to be applauded for his dedication to the game and a career that won’t be surpassed in its duration and scope.

He’s one of the best managers in the history of baseball.

LaRussa’s retiring on his own terms and he’s going out as a World Series champion.

It fits the story of his managerial career perfectly.

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The Albert Pujols Thing

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Tony LaRussa‘s going year-to-year as manager and has a 2012 option—he’s going to be back; Chris Carpenter is turning 37 and Lance Berkman 36; the Cardinals have exercised their 2012-2013 contract options on Adam Wainwright; Marc Rzepczynski is far from free agency and has potential as a starter; Jaime Garcia is locked up at a reasonable rate.

The only player on the roster who has a super-long, super-expensive contract is Matt Holliday who’s signed at $17 million per until 2016.

Yadier Molina‘s contract is up after next season and they have to keep him, but apart from that and the “Albert Pujols thing”, the team is set and they’re going to contend in 2012…even without Pujols.

It’s unfathomable to imagine Pujols in a different uniform than the Cardinals red, but there’s always that small possibility that he’ll leave. I’ve said forever that Pujols isn’t going anywhere.

And he’s not.

But what if he does?

What could the Cardinals do?

They could do plenty.

They could shift 2010 top draft pick, third baseman Zack Cox to first base; they could move Berkman to first and sign Michael Cuddyer; they could make a trade; they could keep Edwin Jackson and sign Jonathan Papelbon to have a devastating rotation backed up by a dominant closer; they could sign Jose Reyes to make up for some of the lost Pujols offense in a different way.

Could, could, could…

As long as the Cardinals have LaRussa and Dave Duncan and the core of players—especially the pitchers—they currently have, they’re going to be competitive sans Pujols.

That money allocated to Pujols—$20-25 million per year—would fill multiple holes with high-end players.

And Pujols has as much invested in the Cardinals legacy as they have in him; maybe more.

Would he want to muck with the Joe DiMaggio aura and his aesthetic by having teams other than the Cardinals on the back of his bubblegum card to make a few extra dollars?

It wouldn’t be as attractive as the “one team for his whole career” that is part of MLB lore.

The Cardinals need Pujols.

But Pujols also needs the Cardinals.

Examining it more deeply and with a ruthless and businesslike calculation, it just might be that Pujols needs the Cardinals more than they need him. Judging from their roster, their manager and the sudden availability of money to spend on other players, they’d win without him.

He needs to think about that before looking for the rumored Alex Rodriguez contract because as unthinkable as a Pujols-less Cardinals are, they could let him walk and still be very, very good.

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Chris Carpenter’s Contract And Albert Pujols

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It’s a positive sign for the Cardinals that they’ve chosen to keep Chris Carpenter by agreeing to a contract extension through 2013. The contract eliminates the $15 million option and the $1 million buyout for 2012 by paying him $21 million over two seasons. This decision and that they’re going to exercise the 2012 option for Adam Wainwright means that their starting rotation will be formidable for 2012 with Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Wainwright.

Scott Boras represents Edwin Jackson, so you can forget about the Cardinals keeping him as they need to come to contract agreements with Albert Pujols and/or Lance Berkman.

This is also a precursor to Tony LaRussa remaining as manager. LaRussa has a mutual option with the Cardinals and it’s simply easier for him to stay with the club than to look for another job and start all over again even if it was an agreeable location with a neat story like going back to the White Sox.

What does this mean for Pujols?

Don’t automatically think the Cardinals are going to go insane to keep their star player, but he won’t leave. You can forget about the $200 million that was floating around as what Pujols wants. It’s notable that this “demand” came from voices other than Pujols himself. He’s not getting that from the Cardinals; he’s not getting that from anyone.

What hurts him on the open market are the other available first basemen Prince Fielder and Berkman and possibly Paul Konerko via trade. It works in the Cardinals favor that Pujols doesn’t want to leave St. Louis and they don’t want him to leave; because he’s so entrenched with the club and in the community and he never hired Boras as his agent, he’s not going to demand an Alex Rodriguez-style contract to be the alpha-male of baseball with the contract to prove it.

Pujols is this era’s Joe DiMaggio; he’s proud but not greedy just for the sake of it; nor is he going to look to extract every last penny from the Cardinals by means of extortion, emotional and market-driven.

That doesn’t mean he’s going to take short money or an offer that would be perceived as insulting for a player of his stature; under no circumstances should Pujols be expected to take substantially less money than inferior players like Ryan Howard, but with the Cardinals taking steps to get their financial house in order by extending Carpenter and exercising Wainwright’s option, they’re keeping the longtime core together to make it reasonable for Pujols to take less money than he would be entitled to in comparison to that which A-Rod received.

They could let Pujols leave if things get out of hand; Pujols could seek a larger offer elsewhere, but like Derek Jeter and the Yankees last year, the rest of baseball knows the reality with Pujols and the Cardinals and won’t bother making a competitive offer.

Part of the reason he’s going to stay is the alteration of Carpenter’s contract; part of the reason is the doesn’t want to leave; and part is that the Cardinals won’t let him leave.

The Carpenter contract extension is another piece to that puzzle.

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2012 Starts Now For The Blue Jays

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The Blue Jays can and will contend for a playoff spot in 2012 if they make smart personnel decisions this winter.

Here’s what they have to do:

Get a legitimate closer.

GM Alex Anthopoulos is notoriously close-to-the-vest in how he runs his team; there’s no ironclad “strategy” of using stats or scouting; he doesn’t betray his hand and acts stealthily and aggressively in making his moves.

He may or may not care what’s said about him, but he doesn’t allow it to interfere with what he does.

This past winter, Anthopoulos signed two former closers in Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch; he also traded for Frank Francisco.

In the logistical sense, they were all interchangeable and were signed to short-term deals to preclude widespread complaining about not being the closer. But if the Blue Jays want to be taken seriously next season, they have to get someone better and more trustworthy than Rauch or Francisco. (Dotel was traded to the Cardinals at the end of July.)

The market will be flush with established closers via free agency and trade. Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Jonathan Papelbon (who worked with Blue Jays manager John Farrell with the Red Sox) and Ryan Madson are all free agents or potential free agents. Jonathan Broxton is a probable non-tender; and Joakim Soria is a trade candidate.

All are worthy of consideration and are better than Rauch/Francisco.

Find a veteran anchor for the starting rotation.

The Blue Jays let a future Cy Young Award winner get away.

No. I’m not talking about Roy Halladay. I’m talking about Chris Carpenter.

To be fair, when the Blue Jays non-tendered Carpenter under J.P. Ricciardi’s regime, Carpenter was injured and hadn’t been particularly effective; the talent that made him a 1st round draft choice wasn’t going to be fulfilled until he was streamlined—mentally, mechanically and physically—under Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan with the Cardinals. The Blue Jays wanted to bring him back for less money, but he smartly went to the Cardinals, rehabbed his injury for a year and became a star when he got healthy.

Carpenter has a $15 million option for 2012, but he’s a 10-and-5 player so he can veto any trade; for him to waive it, the trading team would presumably have to give him a contract extension.

The Cardinals are in major flux, but if they’re looking for salary relief and want to bolster a sagging farm system, they could exercise the option rather than pay Carpenter’s $1 million buyout and trade him. This would all have to be done within a rapid series of maneuvers to make it work.

Shedding that $15 million and trading him would give the Cardinals room to re-sign Albert Pujols; re-signing Pujols might be the key to LaRussa coming back for another year; Adam Wainwright will be back next season and they could bring back Joel Pineiro to fill Carpenter’s slot and hope reuniting with Duncan will return Pineiro to his Cardinals form.

The Blue Jays have prospects to trade.

Carpenter leading a rotation with Ricky Romero, Brandon Morrow and Kyle Drabek would be superior to most of baseball if the younger pitchers fulfill their potential; Carpenter could teach them how.

Be flexible and think outside-the-box.

They don’t have the cash to go after Jose Reyes and they signed Yunel Escobar to a contract extension; but Brett Lawrie‘s ability to play third and second base allows the Blue Jays to go after a David Wright.

The recently acquired Kelly Johnson is a free agent, but if they offer him arbitration he’d probably take it. An infield of Adam Lind, Johnson, Escobar and Lawrie can mash—whether it’d be adequate defensively for the pitching staff would have to be determined.

The Mets probably aren’t going to trade Wright, but the Blue Jays have a lot of young pitching and outfield bats. Anthopoulos thinks outside-the-box and goes after players who “probably aren’t” getting traded. Sometimes the players who “probably aren’t” getting traded do get traded and extract a major chunk of a trading team’s farm system. (See Ubaldo Jimenez.)

Alter the strategy on the bases and with the lineup.

The Blue Jays run the bases with abandon. If they’re doing it at the bottom of the lineup to try and make something happen, it’s an arguable premise; doing it in front of a basher like Jose Bautista is a mistake.

Without doing any deep statistical research into the matter, there’s no excuse for Bautista to have 37 homers and only 83 RBI.

Before Corey Patterson was traded, he was batting in front of Bautista for much of the season; Patterson steals bases, but has a woeful on base percentage. Escobar also batted in front of Bautista and gets on base at a good clip. Since his arrival, Colby Rasmus has been batting second with Bautista third.

A better plan would be batting Bautista fourth and having Escobar lead off; Johnson would bat second; Lawrie third; and Rasmus and Lind behind Bautista.

The haphazard stolen bases also have to stop.

Temper expectations and idol worship.

There was recent talk of Anthopoulos being a “genius”.

Yah. Well. Billy Beane was a genius once too. So was Theo Epstein. So was Jack Zduriencik.

Are you getting my point?

Listening to sports talk radio on Friday, Jim Mora Jr. was being interviewed about the upcoming NFL season and he subtly hit back at the notion of Patriots coach Bill Belichick being a “genius” saying something to the tune of, “he’s a good football coach; a genius is someone who comes up with life-saving vaccines”.

He’s right.

The Blue Jays have been built the right way so far, but expectations and idolatry have doomed even the smartest people with the most coherent and logical plans.

They’re in a great position now to take the next step, but keeping from doing something stupid isn’t as easy as it sounds.

If they follow some incarnation of the plan I laid out (or something similar), they could be a playoff team in 2012.

If….

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