There was a melancholy feel around the Cardinals‘ offices last weekend as they finished out a disappointing season. Though they had ended on a high note with a sweep of the Pirates in Pittsburgh–a fitting farewell to Pirates manager Jim Tracy, who compiled a dismal 133-189 record in two season with the Buccos before being jettisoned on Friday–it wasn’t the year that St. Louis expected. The Cardinals didn’t even crack .500 just a year removed from their surprising march through October to the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1982.
The Cardinals went 78-84 to finish in third place in the National League Central, seven games behind the division-winning Chicago Cubs. That concluded a season in which manager Tony La Russa was arrested for driving under the influence in spring training, relief pitcher Josh Hancock was killed in an automobile accident, and pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel went from being one of the most amazing comeback stories in recent years to being implicated in an HGH scandal.
La Russa was clearly weary during the season’s final days. “I’m more beat up than I was at the end of last year when we went through three rounds of the postseason and won the World Series,” La Russa said. “It’s been a draining year, very draining.”
The year took on another twist this past Wednesday when Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt fired General Manager Walt Jocketty, who had one year left on his contract. DeWitt cited tension that existed between him, Jocketty, and Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals’ vice president of amateur scouting and player development. Jocketty had served as the Cardinals’ GM for 13 seasons. “There was clearly tension that was reported widely, not only locally, but nationally, in the organization,” DeWitt said.
Luhnow was given added responsibilities by DeWitt last year after previously overseeing only the first-year player draft. He was put in charge of player development and amateur scouting because DeWitt felt it would be more efficient to combine the two. Jocketty disagreed with that decision and made no secret of his displeasure with the setup. Jocketty was also said to be unhappy that Detroit President and GM Dave Dombrowski received a four-year contract extension last winter, even though the Tigers lost to the Cardinals in the World Series. Jocketty rarely spoke with Luhnow, using assistant GM John Mozeliak as a buffer. Mozeliak was named interim GM and will be considered for the job on a permanent basis, while DeWitt plans to keep Luhnow in his current capacity.
The big question is where the fallout leaves La Russa, who hinted throughout the season that he thought it might be time to leave the Cardinals after a 12-year run. La Russa and Jocketty had a close relationship, as they had also worked together in Oakland when La Russa was the Athletics’ manager and Jocketty was the assistant GM to Sandy Alderson.
La Russa hasn’t commented since Jocketty was fired, but said in the final days of the season that he wants to manage somewhere in 2008. “I know guys I respect who say when you feel this gassed, wait a minute before making any decisions,” La Russa said. “Suppose my chances are to manage St. Louis or not manage? There’s a choice. Maybe it’s time to shut it down. I just know that (ownership) is not pressing me to say anything, so I’m going to take some time.” Rumors have been rampant for months that Cincinnati owner Bob Castellini, who used to have an ownership stake in the Cardinals, would like to bring La Russa and Jocketty to the Reds. The Pirates and Kansas City are also looking for maangers.
Although La Russa is the third-winningest manager in baseball history behind Connie Mack and John McGraw with a 2,375-2,070 record in 29 seasons, he isn’t so sure there would be a market for him.< "I frankly don't think there's going to be a lot of interest," La Russa said.
Colorado Rockies owners Charlie and Dick Monfort took their share of heat from the fans on Opening Day when they announced two-year contract extensions for General Manager Dan O’Dowd and manager Clint Hurdle. The Rockies had enjoyed a winning season in O’Dowd’s first year on the job in 2000 but none since. Hurdle had compiled a 352-436 record since replacing Buddy Bell early in the 2002 season.
However, the Monforts look smart now, as the Rockies won 15 of their final 16 regular-season games, including beating San Diego in a tiebreaker, to reach the NL playoffs as the wild card team. The Rockies then swept Philadelphia in the National League Division Series for their first-ever post-season series win and will now face Arizona in the NLCS.
Charlie Monfort, the Rockies’ chief executive officer, said there was a reason for their decision to extend O’Dowd and Hurdle–stability. “It reached farther than the manager and general manager,” Monfort told the Rocky Mountain News. “The farm system was good, the scouting was good, and we knew Clint could bring them together at the big-league level. This is gratifying not for ownership but to know that after the slings and arrows that everyone in our organization took maybe we did know what we were doing.
“You have to realize that when you get rid of one person in baseball you get rid of the organization. Dan O’Dowd is also (scouting director) Bill Schmidt and (VP of baseball operations) Bill Geivett and (player development director) Mark Gustafson. Consistency is what you need. You want people to feel they can do their job and not look over their shoulder after every loss. Consistency is what you need and we’ve had a system in place for eight years. The players understand who they are going to play for. They know Clint is in charge. They know Dan is in charge. Stability in any business is good.”
The thought of sitting home last October still stings for the Red Sox. They had the best record in the majors last year with a 61-38 record on July 25th, but proceeded to go just 25-38 the rest of the way while finishing third in the AL East behind the New York Yankees and Toronto.
Red Sox GM Theo Epstein, though, believes the organization learned a lesson from missing the postseason and used it as a springboard to end the Yankees’ run of nine consecutive AL East titles this year. “This game will make you cry more often than not,” Epstein told the Boston Globe. “Not making the playoffs was a horrible disappointment, especially the way it happened. We had the best record in baseball after four months, we were playing a good brand of baseball and then it all fell apart really quickly because of a freakish run of injuries and because of lack of depth that I should have prepared better for.”
The Oakland Athletics‘ seven-year run of finishing over .500 and first or second in the AL West despite having one of the game’s lowest payrolls ended this year, as they were 76-86 while winding up third in the division.
That is why General Manager Billy Beane plans to take a different approach this offseason. Instead of just trying to bolster the major-league roster, he will look to upgrade a depleted farm system. “As much as anything, we’ll be aggressive in reinvesting in our infrastructure,” Beane told the San Francisco Chronicle. “We’ve been successful at the major league level and our focus, to some extent, has been using every dollar at the top, but our long-term success will be based on our ability to stay an organic organization, where we’re drafting and developing players.” Beane would like to increase scouting in Asia and Australia and also put more money toward the Athletics’ scouting and development program in Latin America.
Beane also admitted that the Athletics may reach a point in the next few years where they will have to go into a rebuilding mode, like most other small-revenue franchises, and trade a player with a favorable contract situation for a package of prospects. If Oakland decides to do that this winter, right-handers Joe Blanton and Dan Haren and closer Huston Street are among the players who could be moved in the right deal.
From the rumor mill: Atlanta’s decision not to try to re-sign center fielder Andruw Jones as a free agent means two things. One, they will make a big pitch to retain first baseman Mark Teixeira, who becomes a free agent after next season. Two, they will look to acquire a stopgap in center field until top prospect Jordan Schafer is ready, and San Diego’s Mike Cameron, who is eligible for free agency, is at the top of the list. … San Francisco will consider signing a big-ticket free agent like Jones, Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, or Minnesota center fielder Torii Hunter. If that doesn’t work out, the Giants will probably include left-hander Noah Lowry as part of a trade package to try to land a big-time bat like Florida’s Miguel Cabrera or Tampa Bay’s Carl Crawford. … Regardless of who becomes their next GM, look for the Cardinals to target a high-end starting pitcher via trade, most likely Marlins left-hander Dontrelle Willis or White Sox right-hander Jon Garland, though Minnesota left-hander Johann Santana could also be in their sights. The Dodgers will also have a lot of interest in Santana if the Twins opt to trade him. … Though Philadelphia was swept in the NLDS by Colorado, the Phillies will try to retain manager Charlie Manuel, whose contract has expired. … Milwaukee manager Ned Yost will return next season but be on a short leash after the Brewers blew an 8 ½-game lead in the NL Central and he had a number of meltdowns in the final week of the season. … Seattle is willing to exercise its $9 million option on right fielder Jose Guillen for next season but is looking to sign him to a long-term deal. Guillen wants a three-year contract in excess of $30 million. … Arizona reliever Bob Wickman is leaning toward retirement. … The White Sox are undecided on exercising the $5-million option on shortstop Juan Uribe. If they don’t bring Uribe back, the White Sox will try to trade for Milwaukee center fielder Bill Hall with the idea of moving him back to shortstop. … Washington is considering not tendering a contract to shortstop Felipe Lopez, who is eligible for salary arbitration. … The Nationals have asked Major League Baseball to schedule them for the Sunday night season opener on March 30 so they can showcase the opening of their new ballpark.