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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

The Cardinal Nation Blog top stories of 2009 #12: Duncan’s disc, discord and departure

Trying to return from disc replacement surgery in his neck proved to be too much for Chris Duncan, who was traded to Boston in late July for middle infielder Julio Lugo in a move that unearthed a number of issues.

    After having toiled without distinction in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system since being taken in the first round of the 1999 draft, Chris Duncan burst onto the major league scene with 22 home runs in 280 at-bats during the latter part of the 2006 season.

    Dave and Chris Duncan (AP Photo/Kyle Ericson)Along with several periods of great promise, the younger son of the Cardinals’ long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan also struggled with injuries and consistency over the following three years. Despite having played in the outfield in fewer than 100 minor league games out of roughly 800, the natural first baseman became a full-time outfielder in the majors.

    Duncan took considerable heat from impatient fans for both his hitting slumps and fielding woes, not to mention his family ties. After a double hernia wrecked his 2007, he underwent unprecedented surgery to remove a cervical disc in his neck and implant a metal replacement in August 2008.

    Later comments by those involved made it unclear as to how long Duncan continued to play while injured and who knew what. The level of seriousness had been kept under wraps almost until the surgeries were held, an environment that the Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss labeled a “conspiracy of silence”. The player had been lauded by his manager Tony La Russa more than once for playing with pain.

    No one knew what to expect from Duncan in 2009, but he showed he was apparently ready to go when he played in 28 of 31 spring games and his 86 at-bats was just one off the team’s Florida high. After a good March and April, Duncan fell off dramatically, however.

    In the midst of a long slump, the left-handed hitter was dealt to Boston on July 22 for overpaid and underperforming reserve infielder Julio Lugo, who remains under contract for 2010, but whose salary will be paid by the Red Sox*. From May 1 until the trade, Duncan had been 38-for-191, .199, with three home runs for the Cardinals, yet the move was a surprise to most. That included his father, who was unaware of the trade until completed.

    Likely in frustration, normally quiet Dave Duncan made uncharacteristically strong public comments critical of the trade, questioning the exchange of a player from the 40-man roster (Chris) for one who had been designated for assignment (Lugo) while taking a swipe at the players in the minor league system. Duncan criticized those who made the deal, suggesting they wanted his son out of the organization and also expressed dissatisfaction over the organization’s minor league pitching philosophy.

    Further, the pitching coach reportedly lashed out at team medical personnel over treatment of his son and at the segment of fans and media that ridiculed Chris. Dave also left an open question about his future with the organization, stating that when he made his decision, it would be “a personal decision, not a professional one.”

    The day before the trade, La Russa had expressed his own strong remarks to the media. The manager labeled Chris’ critics among the fan base as “unfair”, saying they “make me want to vomit”.

    Perhaps Chris pushed himself too hard too fast, he faded after a good start, and his poor 2009 stats were the result. His numbers did not improve in a new uniform, a situation his agent later attributed to fatigue. Duncan was released by the Red Sox on August 20 after batting just .185 with Triple-A Pawtucket and remains a free agent.

    Dave Duncan’s widely-publicized remarks led to speculation that he would leave La Russa’s side after 14 years in St. Louis and 26 years overall. Considered by many to be the best pitching coach in the game, his potential loss generated significant concern among many in the Cardinal Nation. Though not confirmed, there were reports of feelers having been sent out by other clubs to gauge Duncan’s interest in being their pitching coach or even taking on a managerial role.

    By late October, the tense situation had improved to the point that both La Russa and Duncan agreed to return for a 15th season with St. Louis. Considerable changes were made in minor league coaching assignments for 2010 and likely other Duncan concerns were worked out behind closed doors.

    * For the record, in the trade, the Cardinals received Lugo and cash considerations from the Red Sox in exchange for Duncan and a player-to-be-named-later or cash considerations.

    At the time of the deal, it was widely reported that Boston was to pay all or almost all of the approximately $13.5 million due to Lugo on his current contract for the remainder of 2009 and all of 2010.

    However, to complete the trade, the Cardinals later provided cash considerations back to Boston as opposed to giving up a second player. Those details were undisclosed, obscuring the net amount of cash that ultimately flowed between the two organizations.

    Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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