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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 2010 #5: La Russa and Duncan return

The long-time manager-pitching coach duo will be back leading the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011 despite a difficult 2010.

As the disappointing 2010 season came to its end for the St. Louis Cardinals, the level of ongoing speculation over the future of manager Tony La Russa increased substantially.

Coming off a playoff year in 2009 after two previous misses, La Russa’s 2010 club underachieved. They had entered the season as the clear divisional favorite, but fate led to a very different conclusion. The 86-win Cardinals finished in second place, five games behind Cincinnati and did not qualify for a Wild Card, either.

The winter prior, the future Hall of Fame skipper signed his first-ever one-year deal with the team and hinted his managerial days were nearing an end. Still, with 126 more wins needed to claim second-place on MLB’s all-time managerial list, La Russa’s 2011 return was expected by many.

The most important coach on the Cardinals staff is clearly pitching guru Dave Duncan, a constant at the manager’s side for almost three decades in Chicago, Oakland and St. Louis. La Russa had stated previously that Duncan expressed interest in coaching longer than he wanted to manage.

As the regular season concluded with no new contract announcements, there may have been as much or more speculation about Duncan’s future as La Russa’s.

The pitching coach would be a highly-desirable commodity if he chose to make a new start, with or without La Russa. Scribes from across the country wondered aloud about the improvements the pitching expert might inspire if wearing the local uniform.

On October 15, Duncan declared his hand but raised his bet at the same time, stating that he would like to remain with the Cardinals for three more years rather than coach just one more year for St. Louis and elsewhere for the next two. This created an apparent mismatch with La Russa’s more short-term desires.

During this time, the winningest manager in franchise history was playing his normal contractual give and take with the Cardinals that culminated in an October 18 announcement. La Russa would return for 2011 on a one-year deal. A relatively meaningless mutual option for 2012 was also included.

In a departure from past La Russa deliberations, contracts for his coaching staff were not announced at the time of the manager’s decision. Perhaps the Duncan multi-year request was taking extra time to accommodate.

There may have been at least one other complication. One announcement that was made in conjunction with La Russa’s return was the firing of bullpen coach Marty Mason, Duncan’s right-hand man.

The long-time Cardinals employee was separated over his ongoing remarks critical of the organization’s player development processes. Interestingly, this summer Duncan had been quoted making similarly-themed comments, stating that the farm system could not support a championship club.

When all was said and done, the parties apparently worked out any major differences. On October 25, the club announced that Duncan agreed to terms on a two-year contract with a mutual option for the 2013 season.

Duncan will be entering his 16th season as the Cardinals pitching coach, and his Major League record 32nd season overall as a pitching coach. The staff finished fourth in the National League in team ERA this past season while ranking second in both fewest walks and home runs allowed. Adam Wainwright became the team’s fourth 20-game winner under Duncan’s tutelage.

La Russa’s 2010 ups and downs

Perhaps at no time in his 15 seasons as Cardinals manager had La Russa been questioned as often as during this year. It began with his controversial hire of Mark McGwire and continued as the offense under his first-year hitting coach came was inconsistent for most of the season. Many felt the club lacked timely hitting which put more pressure on the pitchers.

The manager utilized his pitcher hitting eighth approach 76 times during the season and penned 144 different lineups over 162 games. Whether that can be explained as La Russa doing everything possible to exploit matchups or incessant tinkering is a point of debate for some.

A number of those lineup changes were necessitated by roster turnover. After trying a number of minor league prospects, both pitchers and position players, the organization turned to a series of major leaguers cut loose by other clubs. In-season additions included Aaron Miles, Randy Winn, Jeff Suppan and Mike MacDougal.

While La Russa encourages aggressive baserunning, the Cardinals lost over 100 runners on the bases, too often due to poor decision-making by the players.

His name made the papers in several off-field situations, drawing complaints from some quarters. La Russa came out in support of Arizona legislation calling for tougher enforcement against illegal immigrants. In the midst of a rough August road trip, La Russa gave an introductory speech for a humanitarian award bestowed upon Albert Pujols at a large Washington, D.C. rally. Despite non-political intentions stated by all, involvement in the event caused some ill will.

Around that same time, the manager divulged to the press that Colby Rasmus had requested a trade both in 2009 and 2010, setting off a firestorm of controversy about the clubhouse environment past and present. He later made comments critical of Brendan Ryan prior to the shortstop’s trade to Seattle. The manager also reportedly lobbied for the signing of outfielder Lance Berkman.

Putting all that aside, the bottom line is winning.

The 66-year-old has guided the Cardinals to a franchise record 1,318 victories since joining them in 1996. La Russa has led the team to eight division titles (1996, 2000-02, 2004-06 and 2009), two National League pennants (2004, 2006) and the organization’s 10th World Championship title in 2006.

La Russa currently ranks third on MLB’s all-time managerial wins list with 2,638, trailing only Connie Mack (3,731) and John McGraw (2,763). La Russa is second all-time in games managed with 4,935, including stints with the Chicago White Sox (1979-86) and Oakland A’s (1986-95). He ranks first on the Cardinals all-time games managed list with 2,429 and his 15 years of continuous service is also tops among all Cardinals managers.

La Russa’s Cardinals teams have finished above .500 in 12 of his 15 seasons. They recorded 105 wins in 2004 and 100 wins in 2005, making La Russa just the second Cardinals manager to oversee two 100-win seasons. Billy Southworth guided the Cardinals to three consecutive 100-win seasons from 1942-44. La Russa and Sparky Anderson are the only managers to have led both a National and American League team to World Series titles.

During La Russa’s 15 years at the Cardinals helm, the team has surpassed three million in attendance a dozen times, including a franchise record 3,552,180 fans in 2007. His Cardinals teams have finished no lower then third place in all but three seasons.

La Russa’s Cardinals clubs posted a National League-best 913 wins during the decade of the 2000s, winning a league-leading 33 postseason games during that same time period.

For those and many other reasons, La Russa and Duncan will be back in 2011 for another run.

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

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