How To Fix the Cardinals

This Sunday at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, the Cardinals will complete the most disappointing season in 15 years under manager Tony LaRussa. Somehow, a team centered on two Cy Young candidates (Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter), a Rookie of the Year candidate (Jaime Garcia), and the finest player of the last decade (Albert Pujols) will have to scratch and claw to finish the season with a .500 record, well behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. (Making matters worse, the Cardinals carried a team payroll this season of $93 million, while the Reds spent merely $72 million to win the division.) What can be done over the winter to get the Cardinals back in flight? Five issues stand out.

• Should Tony LaRussa return as manager?

Hall of Fame basketball coach Chuck Daly famously quipped, “At some point, they just stop listening to you.” Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog left the Cardinals halfway through the 1990 season precisely because he felt the team — a band of veterans led by Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, and Terry Pendleton — no longer responded to his leadership. Has LaRussa’s time come?

The last four seasons aren’t exactly an endorsement for a 16th year at the helm for the manager who now ranks third alltime in victories. Even in the championship season of 2006, the Cardinals faded down the stretch (they actually played sub-.500 baseball over the season’s final five months). LaRussa brings a culture of intensity to the clubhouse he oversees, and to the decisions he makes before, during, and after games. It’s rubbed some prominent players (like Scott Rolen) the wrong way, and made it difficult for young players to crack the lineup and develop the kind of trust LaRussa requires before giving a player a significant role. (A clash with Colby Rasmus this season grew far too public before being resolved.)

It’s hard to imagine Cardinal management forcing LaRussa out. The likely scenario is a “mutual” parting of ways. Less likely is LaRussa agreeing — at age 66 — to adjust the culture he’s created in respect to four years of baseball he’d admit haven’t achieved expected heights. A possible successor: longtime third-base coach Jose Oquendo, who managed Puerto Rico in the last World Baseball Classic. Oquendo, it should be noted, gets along quite well with Pujols.

• Extend Albert Pujols’ contract . . . whatever it takes.

The Cardinals will certainly pick up their 2011 option on Pujols’ contract. The question, though, is will they extend the deal for the game’s greatest player before he can become a free agent after the ’11 season? (Imagine finding your dream home, just on the market. The last thing you’d want to see is an open house. The Cardinals have essentially 12 months to prevent an open house on their greatest player since Stan Musial.)

Pujols will earn $16 million in 2011. The Phillies’ Ryan Howard will make $20 million next season. So the conversation begins at the higher figure. In measuring Pujols’ impact on the franchise, the number of fans who flock to Busch Stadium from far and wide to get a glimpse of Pujols alone . . . you have to figure his impact is worth $25 million a year. The only variable may become the length of the contract. Letting LaRussa walk would be somewhat uncomfortable. Allowing Pujols to leave would be catastrophe, both on the field and at the box office.

Find speed . . . and get it on the field.

Whiteyball may be dead these 20 years, but the Cardinals have been a plodding, station-to-station baseball team for six years now. Since the 2005 season, St. Louis has had exactly one player steal as many as 20 bases (Cesar Izturis stole 24 in 2008). The great Pujols leads this year’s team with all of 13, and he steals bases less with speed than guile. Three-run homers are great, but they are lightning in a bottle. A team with speed at the top of the batting order — to say nothing of in the field — can generate rallies with as little as a base on balls. The solution to this area could be tied in with the next item on the checklist.

• Find production in the middle infield.

The two-year Skip Schumaker experiment at second base has had some ups, but Schumaker can build a long career as a utility player, spending time in the outfield and supporting an everyday second-baseman. As for Brendan Ryan, he plays a great shortstop, but a .220 batting average cannot be carried . . . unless some pop can be found at second base.

The Cardinals are forced to hope third-baseman David Freese fully recovers from his ankle surgery. If he does, the team will have marked improvement at the hot corner, where Felipe Lopez and Pedro Feliz played all too often this season. In addition, St. Louis must find a middle-infielder who might approach a .400 slugging percentage. In the National League, two holes in the batting order (counting the pitcher), can be hidden, but not three.

• Revamp the bullpen . . . entirely.

On July 6th at Colorado, the Cardinals entered the bottom of the 9th inning with a 9-3 lead. Nine runs later — six of them allowed by closer Ryan Franklin — the Cardinals left the field losers. The current St. Louis bullpen — led by Franklin, Kyle McClellan, and Jason Motte — strikes fear in the heart of no batter. Only Motte averages a strikeout per inning pitched.

Three members of this year’s Memphis Redbirds have earned consideration for a bullpen job in St. Louis next season: Fernando Salas, Adam Reifer, and Eduardo Sanchez. Franklin has had eight games this season in which he’s given up at least two earned runs. Not the kind of line you see on a closer’s resume. The next time St. Louis wins a postseason series, it won’t be Ryan Franklin recording the final out.

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