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Where will the Cardinals coaching carousel stop?

The St. Louis Cardinals have decided upon their manager for 2011, but three coaching positions remain unsettled.

Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan (AP/James A. Finley)The manager

As has been reported ad nauseum, manager Tony La Russa has announced his intent to return to the St. Louis Cardinals for a 16th season. His newest contract is a one-year deal with a mutual option for 2012.

The option was explained by general manager John Mozeliak as an attempt to avoid some of the “circus” surrounding La Russa’s annual Brett Favre-like end-of-season decision-making process over whether or not to return.

Not realistic.

Whether or not La Russa has a contract for the next season, he is still going to go through the same soul-searching at the conclusion of 2011 as he has done every year in recent memory. As the manager’s three decade-long career nears its end, these machinations will likely continue at least one more year – even though they are entirely unnecessary.

During the 2012 season, La Russa should pick up the 126th additional managerial win needed to pass legendary Giants manager John McGraw for second all-time. Though La Russa does not discuss it, that mark is likely a big deal to him and as such will be the reason he will almost certainly remain with the Cardinals for 2012 as well.

The pitching coach

One factor I had not considered before now was the effect of La Russa’s contact on his extraordinary pitching coach, Dave Duncan. By the manager basically dodging the subject of a two-year deal, he put extra pressure on his long-time collaborator, who recently came out publicly with a request for a three-year extension.

Let’s face it. At this point in their lives, mid-sixties in age, when most Americans are looking at their own retirement, it seems most likely that neither La Russa nor Duncan want to move on and resume their careers in a new organization. That is understandable.

While Duncan’s past work would justify such a multi-year commitment, it would be unusual to give a coach two more years of job security than his boss. Still, La Russa’s eventual successor should be delighted to be presented with a year overlap with one of the best pitching coaches ever.

The bullpen coach

Duncan’s former chief deputy, bullpen coach Marty Mason, was fired for making critical remarks about the organization’s player development function. Mozeliak has suggested that Mason’s replacement will come from within.

Fan interest immediately focused on two recent Cardinals players in their early 40’s who have until now resisted taking on full-time jobs with the team so they could be more involved in raising their families.

I am speaking of the former battery of pitcher Cal Eldred and catcher Mike Matheny, St. Louis teammates in 2003 and 2004.

Both seem to be good baseball men and solid communicators, assets important for the position. On the other hand, neither has paid dues in the minor leagues, learning first-hand what is expected of an everyday, all-day coach.

Further, it has been nine years since one of the hard-working coaches at the minor league level has been asked to join the major league staff, Joe Pettini back in 2002.

One has to wonder how giving Mason’s job to a former La Russa player with no regular professional coaching experience would be considered a benefit by those currently toiling in the bowels of player development.

The hitting coach

Speaking of which, the last coach to have joined the staff also had no pro coaching jobs on his resume. Hitting coach Mark McGwire is having second thoughts about coming back for a second season in 2011.

His family is obviously important to him and has multiple new members as his wife had triplets in June. The reality of three new youngsters has apparently become a major concern. As recently as early September, McGwire was still very much gung-ho on returning to the Cardinals, but perhaps being home every day since the season ended has eroded his coaching resolve.

Despite others crediting McGwire for leading the offense to increased run-scoring over 2009, the reality was a difference of just six runs in total over the entire six month season compared to deposed Hal McRae‘s hitters the year prior. In 162 games, six runs translate to a scoring rate of 4.54 runs per game compared to 4.51. Putting all the noise aside, the bottom-line statistical benefit of McGwire over McRae was insignificant to say the least.

McGwire has been critical of the club’s reliance on video scouting. One prominent columnist joined in the attack, calling the La Russa-driven process an “infatuation” and an “addiction.” Right or wrong, at a minimum, it would seem there is a fundamental mismatch here between La Russa’s favored approach and McGwire’s.

After the major investment the organization made in supporting his controversial hiring last winter and afterward, McGwire owes them a timely decision on his future so they can move ahead.

If Big Mac walks, a prime replacement candidate is assistant hitting coach Mike Aldrete, like several others a former La Russa associate with no past connections to the Cardinals. While the ex-Oakland player may have done well in his assistant role, looking to the minor league ranks for the new hitting coach would be an even more important step in building bridges than would the sourcing of arguably the least-visible member of the staff, the bullpen coach.

Mozeliak’s next steps will be most interesting.

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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