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November 1, 2011

On the Beat

At Least One Era Comes to an End

by John Perrotto

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The Cardinals were feted with a parade through the streets of downtown St. Louis on Sunday afternoon, culminating with a gigantic fireworks display at Busch Stadium.

Two days after winning the 11th World Series in their storied history and pulling off one of the most amazing comebacks the sport has ever seen, the Cardinals could celebrate one last time.

It was truly a season worth remembering, as the Cardinals lost their best starting pitcher, Adam Wainwright, in the first week of spring training to a season-ending elbow injury, fell 10 1/2 games behind the Braves in the National League wild card race on August 25, and were three games back with just five to play in the regular season. Throw in upsets over the Phillies and Brewers in the NL playoffs and the seven-game victory over the Rangers in the World Series that included rallying from two-run deficits in the ninth and 10th innings of Game 6 to stave off elimination, and it’s hard to imagine writing a more inspirational script.

Hopefully, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak enjoyed the celebration. When he showed up for work on Monday morning, the first order of business on his offseason agenda was to start preparing a list of potential managerial candidates. Tony La Russa, the third-winningest manager in major-league history, informed Mozeliak on Sunday that he was retiring after 16 seasons with the Cardinals and 33 years overall as a major-league manager. The formal announcement came Monday.

“I was there one morning in my hotel room (in Dallas), staring at my calendar going, ‘Hmm, not a lot of time for other things because there are going to be other duties that are going to take time and that are required for my attention,’” Mozeliak said. “Special as the World Series is, it's going to ultimately be a fleeting moment. And in time it's going to be right back to it and roll up our sleeves and address the things that we have to do for the following year.”

Mozeliak and the Cardinals will need to find a manager, and there should be no shortage of candidates that want to work for a franchise that is coming off a World Series title, is consistently competitive, and has one of the game's most loyal fan bases.

Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who won two World Series in eight years in Boston, tops the speculation, but those close to the organization say Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo will get strong consideration. While the Cardinals have never had a formal—or even informal—line of succession, Oquendo has been the staff member considered most likely to become a major-league manager.

Whoever becomes the manager will most likely have to look for a new pitching coach to replace the legendary Dave Duncan, who figures to retire with La Russa stepping down and his wife in ill health. First base coach Dave McKay and hitting coach Mark McGwire, two other trusted La Russa lieutenants, may also decide to leave.

"The afterglow of winning the 11th World Series championship is very exciting, but now you look at the reality of looking to replace a Hall of Fame manager," Mozeliak said. "That's a daunting task. The next few weeks we'll have the opportunity to find someone with high energy and someone that's enthusiastic to join the organization. There's mixed emotions, as you can imagine. When you part ways with somebody after the success we've had, it is difficult."

The Cardinals might also be parting ways with one of the best players in their history at some point in the offseason. First baseman Albert Pujols is a free agent and isn't tipping his hand about what his plans are for 2012 and beyond.

"I don't think it's an appropriate time to ask that question," Pujols said last Friday night after the Cardinals beat the Rangers in Game 7.

Still, it's a question that needs to be asked, and La Russa was willing to answer it following Game 7 after respectfully declining all comment about Pujols' situation throughout the season.

"I know it's a great organization, he's a great player, and part of their greatness is their conscience and their intelligence, and I know both sides are going to try like heck to make it work," La Russa said.

Pujols reportedly turned down a nine-year, $195-million offer from the Cardinals just before the start of spring training, according to USA Today. The general consensus of people around the Cardinals is that is going to take a 10-year contract, probably for $225 million or thereabouts. Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt III called Pujols "an iconic player" last offseason, and Mozeliak does not downplay the slugger's importance to the franchise.

"Having a player play for 15 or 20 years with one organization, I think, might be considered more special at this point because it's so rare," Mozeliak said. "In the days of free agency, where you see so much churn from rosters, I think it's refreshing where you can have a player be identified with one organization, one like we have here with the Cardinals in which you have the Stan Musial era or the Red Schoendienst era. This is just a different time, and to have something where a player ends up like a Cal Ripken, plays somewhere for as long as he did for one organization, I think is just an anomaly. Hopefully we can accomplish another one."

The Cardinals' only other key free agents figure to be right-hander Edwin Jackson and shortstop Rafael Furcal, as they are expected to exercise the $7 million club option in catcher Yadier Molina's contract for 2012. The Cardinals likely won't be able to afford Jackson and will fill his spot in the rotation with one of two relievers—left-hander Mark Rzepczynski or right-hander Lance Lynn—but Furcal has made it clear he wants to return and would do so at a reduced salary.

Thus, the Cardinals figure to be competitive next season even if Pujols bolts, especially after signing right-hander Chris Carpenter and right fielder Lance Berkman to contract extensions during the season. St. Louis is expected to stay in-house for a replacement should Pujols leave, moving Berkman back to his natural position of first base and playing World Series hero Allen Craig regularly in right field.

"Clearly we still think we have a lot of core players, elite-type players, part of this organization," Mozeliak said. "One of the things that we've tried to really focus on over the last four or five years is really making sure that our minor-league system is going to be able to produce some everyday players or middle-to-top-of-rotation-type starters. So happy to say, we believe our pipeline is very strong, and so if this is an 'Albert-less' club in the future, we still think we have a lot of positives coming. But there's no doubt, he's been the identity of this organization for the past decade, and trying to just push one button or try to say you're not going to feel that loss would be very difficult."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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