The Cardinal Conundrum: Where Is The Real Genius Behind All The Winning?

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With Tony La Russa deciding to call it a career earlier this week, MLB will try to remember what it’s like to exist without him managing one of its teams. It hasn’t had to since 1978. As some reminders just how long ago that was:

–        Cardinals 10-time All-Star Albert Pujols wasn’t even conceived yet.

–        Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith, who retired in 1996, finished 2nd in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

–        Cardinals Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog hadn’t yet managed the Cardinals.

–        The Jimmy Carter administration had a 52% approval rating.

–        Jamie Moyer first became eligible for social security.

As long and as full of winning La Russa’s career was, the growing acceptance of Sabermetrics among front office executives in the 21st century, and later mainstream media, has led to a counter culture in baseball that sees La Russa and his old school ilk in a less favorable light. Aside from his small ball obsession, La Russa was too often accused of letting his ego take precedent over keeping the most talent on the team – and the Cardinals brass would allow it. Even former General Manager Walt Jocketty was fired by the Cardinals during his feud with La Russa, reportedly due to La Russa’s influence. This made room for John Mozeliak to be promoted to GM chair in 2007.

Mozeliak, who began his career in Major League Baseball as a number cruncher straight out of college with the Colorado Rockies, is no stranger to Sabermetrics. He has shown to be a shrewd GM for the Cardinals and has often enough balanced La Russa’s wills to keep his job. But with La Russa now gone, Mozeliak gets to do something most GMs get to do as their first executive action – choose a manager to his liking. One who likely wouldn’t, for example, refuse to play a rising star, power-hitting, center fielder, because, God-forbid, a 24-year-old millionaire is accused of having immaturity issues. Or perhaps one who likely wouldn’t push away his future Hall of Fame third baseman due to a feud that must be inconsequential compared to what’s best for the team.

2012 may be Mozeliak’s 5th season as captain of the good ship Cardinal, but it will be the first that he gets to choose how much autonomy he wants to share with the Cardinals manager. Ideally, Mozeliak would have the last say for every player transaction on the matter of who wears the Cardinals uniform – just like nearly every GM in baseball. In theory, this will make Mozeliak better at his job.

Or will it? Legendary pitching coach Dave Duncan (who’s face arguably deserves to be on La Russa’s future Hall of Fame plaque) has a tight bond with La Russa, and may not return to the team for the 2012 campaign. Worse, free agent Albert Pujols will now have less incentive to re-sign with the Cardinals, as he has been an outspoken La Russa backer through most of his career as well. And though the Cardinals have won two championships with Mozeliak as either the GM or Assistant GM, nobody is in doubt that neither would have been possible without Pujols in a Cardinals uniform.

Mozeliak may be having his dream come true by not having to manage La Russa’s hurt feelings anymore, but he has some hard work to do this offseason that may be impossible without the help of one of the longest-tenured and most respected baseball men in MLB.

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