Delicate Genius

Tony La Russa has more managerial wins to his credit than anyone not named Connie Mack or John McGraw, probably making him a lock for Cooperstown. While measuring a manager’s worth is a murky task, one thing we know just from reading the news on a regular basis is that some managers can earn their keep by making good players feel comfortable and causing them to want to stick around. Or in La Russa’s case, there can at times be the opposite effect.

La Russa and Scott Rolen publicly feuded during the 2006 playing time after Rolen was benched in favor of Scott Spiezio for a game in the NLCS. The bad blood continued to boil into the 2007 season, and while we don’t know for sure what happened behind closed doors, neither manager or player seemed to be man enough to put their egos and differences aside. In order to placate his Hall of Fame manager, newly installed GM John Mozeliak traded Rolen to the Blue Jays for Troy Glaus the following off-season in what was a “who will stay healthier?” challenge trade.

The trade looked good for the Cards after last season — Glaus played 151 games and was good for 5 WAR, while Rolen played in just 115 games and was worth 3. But a healthy Rolen has already been worth 3 WAR this year for Toronto while Glaus hasn’t taken a big league at bat. Glaus has recently suffered yet another setback in his recovery process from shoulder surgery. In Glaus’ absence, the Cardinals were forced to trade for Mark DeRosa mid-season at the expense of their two best relief prospects. Glaus is a Type A free agent this winter, but it’s hard to see him getting offered arbitration. Rolen on the other hand has another year on his contract and is generating interest in the trade market.

Adam Kennedy is another player that recently has butted heads with TLR. He mostly said the right things to the press about the lack of playing time he was getting, but for someone who was worth 1.8 WAR in 115 games, he did deserve to get in more games. While he wasn’t much with the stick (.305 wOBA in ’08), he was downright nifty with the glove (22 UZR/150). The moment he showed up to spring training, TLR requested that Kennedy be shown the door, which Kennedy was. The Cardinals are paying all of Kennedy’s $4M salary, who has been worth 1.5 WAR for the A’s.

The move was viewed as downright bizarre with no apparent replacement in sight. The Cardinals have since tried fitting a square piece into a round peg, making Skip Schumaker their everyday second baseman. Schumaker was a slightly above average player last season (2.4 WAR) and has been about the same with the bat this season, but he’s on his way to being the worst defensive second baseman in the game with a -9 UZR and -14 UZR per 150 games. His foibles with the leather are killing his value; he’s been a below average 2B with just 0.5 WAR.

Appeasing La Russa has been said to be one of the big motives for the Cardinals to gut their farm system to get Matt Holliday and DeRosa. He’s in the last year of his contract and wants to see some commitment from ownership before considering signing an extension. Maybe if he didn’t run off his players with these sort of immature personality clashes, the trades never would have been necessary. The Cardinals’ short-sighted attempts to assuage La Russa has razed their farm system and driven away productive big league players. I can only fear what will happen to the Cardinals if they keep him around longer.

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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.

35 Responses to “Delicate Genius”

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  1. Joe R says:

    Ever read the part in “3 Days in August” when he played Pujols despite a bad arm that could’ve really gotten injured badly without rest?

    TLR is the definition of overrated. Yoga Berra said it best when asked what makes a good manager, “A Good ballclub”.

    I will admit I thought Rolen for Glaus was a huge win for the Cards when it happened, though. I was wrong.

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  2. Nick says:

    I’m sorry, Erik. I agree with most of this thread and about LaRussa in general, but the parts about Schumaker and Kenneday are pissing me off.

    For one, Kennedy could not have been expected to be a league average player. For him to do that, given his CHONE projection of a .296 wOBA, he would have to be +15 at second. Despite his UZR rating in a ridiculously small sample size, he isn’t that good. His career UZR/150 is 8.4, and CHONE projected him to be +4. Averaging those two projects about a 1 WAR player.

    Schumaker, while he has been bad defensively, has his WAR severley affected by a -4.7 UZR in 76 inning in left field this year. I think that you should know well to discount that. Take away that, and he’s been a 1 WAR player this year. -15 defensively isn’t awful, if it also comes with above average hitting and playing a skill position.

    Also, I don’t think that Rolen was neccearily a bad deal. Even if the motives behind it weren’t pure, Glaus was just as good of a bet to put up solid numbers as Rolen.

    Other than that, Tony sucks and the Holliday trade was awful.


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    • Joe R says:

      I actually disagree, running Kennedy out of town was ridiculous. Understandable with an actual replacement, but LaRussa thought he could just slot in a corner OF into a much tougher position and be fine. By all accounts, that didn’t work at all, and they ended up trading away prospects to fix it. Now he has a Lugo/Schumaker 2B platoon; while it’s a pretty decent bat overall for the position, that out to be fun to watch defensively for all the wrong reasons.

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      • Nick says:

        He didn’t trade away prospects to “fix it”. Schumaker has been a solid player all year long. “He” traded prospects because the teams 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th options at third base all were injured and Joe Thurston, as a 29 year old rookie who was the 25th man on the roster, was not an acceptable replacement. Insinuating that Tony is the reason for DeRosa being on the team is disingenuous.

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      • Joe R says:

        As a hitter, sure, but as a fielder, it’s pretty much a fact he’s a grade-A butcher. And outside of Kennedy’s piss poor ’07, he’s always been solid. St. Louis essentially paid Oakland to take a perfectly fine player off their hands who, to be fair, lost a little defensively. Either way, he has too much control over his personnel and lets petty differences get in the way of professionalism. There’s no denying this.

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      • Nick says:

        Kennedy and Schumaker were projected to be of equal value going forward. Schumaker was an above average hitter with -15 defense, Kennedy was an awful hitter with +5 defense. Kennedy, however, implied on numerous occasions that he expected to be the starter going into spring training, and didn’t even want to consider having to battle for playing time. In fact, he requested to be traded. How do you think it affects managing your players when you are forced to give the starting job to a crappy player, who’s not much better, if at all, than other options?

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      • Joe R says:

        Glaus underwent surgery in January. The Cardinals were not in position to be giving away any MLB infielders. They did, and ended up with 60% of the season with no options but to keep running out some pretty mediocre players. Schumaker’s bat warrants playing time, but other than that, it was pretty brutal goings other than Pujols.

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      • Nick says:

        The Cardinals had David Freese, Joe Mather and Allen Craig who were all expected to be able to compete for the 3rd base job. Plus, neither Kennedy nor Schumaker can play third.

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      • Joe R says:

        Except Kennedy’s been the A’s regular 3B since trading away Hannahan and FWIW currently has an 18.5 UZR/150 as a 3B.

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      • Kincaid says:

        Skip is a solid player.

        Skip and Kennedy are of equal value.

        Kennedy is a crappy player?

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      • Nick says:

        Are you really arguing semantics? Regardless of whether or not I think Kennedy is crappy or solid, I don’t think he is much better than Schumaker or other options the Cardinals had at the beginning of the year. He shouldn’t have been guaranteed a job, why when he requested to be trade for lack of playing time, that put Tony in an impossible situation.

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      • Kincaid says:

        If you’re just going to randomly label players as crappy or solid with no regard for how good they actually are because it fits your argument, then yes, I’m going to argue semantics.

        Just because someone wants to play regularly doesn’t mean you cut him and hand his job to someone out of position who is not expected to be any better. Skip was no more deserving of simply being handed the everyday second base job than Kennedy was, but that’s what they did. If Tony can’t deal with making Kennedy compete for playing time to the point that he would pressure the team to cut him and eat his $4 million salary so that he can hand the job to an equally shaky player with no competition and little backup in case experimentally sticking a 29 year old corner outfielder who was moved off the infield in college because he wasn’t that good at it then doesn’t work, that’s certainly a fault as a manager.

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  3. Nick says:

    Also, while I think Tony is an awful strategist and has way too much influence on the construction of the team; he no doubt gets the best of his team. It’s been happening for so many years now, it’s undeniable. As much as I hate him, I think he is actually one of the best managers in baseball. If only he could leave the other stuff to people who know what they are doing.

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  4. aweb says:

    The Glaus-Rolen trade was a win-win challenge trade. Glaus didn’t like the turf and it caused him problems, and Rolen didn’t like LaRussa. Both got out, and both had a good year. Rolen just happens to have won the “stay healthy” sweepstakes up until now.

    Given the few examples here (Rolen, Kennedy), it appears that LaRussa doesn’t value defensive play much when he has a bat to paly instead. Is that a fair characteristic to put on him in general? I don’t see any indication his Cardinal teams have been bad defensively in general, but he has been blessed with some very good field/hit combos.

    Don’t forget LaRussa’s other problems too – the DUI. I don’t see it as a funny or minor incident in his career.

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  5. 405z06 says:

    The Schumaker to 2B has really irked me all year. If you are going to take a guy from the OF and plug into the IF KNOWING that he is going to be one of worst, if not THE worst, defensive players in the league at that position, that player needs to carry a big stick to make up for it. Skip does not carry such a stick.

    It’s not his fault – he is who he is – but the decision making on that one was very questionable, imo.

    At least I don’t have to watch Duncan flail around in the OF and at the plate anymore, so I have that going for me.

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  6. Steve says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t Skip HORRIBLE in the field in April, but since then his UZR has actually been even to slightly positive. I’m fairly sure he was at about -9 by early May, and he’s hovered around that area since with his UZR/150 steadily declining. He used to look like he was thinking all the time; now he actually looks much more natural at the position than he did a couple months ago, and it seems to be showing in his range…which appears to be about average.

    Plus, for a 2B he has a really strong arm and that has shown up to save runs on more than one occasion when a normal 2B wouldn’t have made the throw…in particular I am thinking of a few plays made at the plate on GBs or as a relay man…aren’t those defensive plays that are ignored by UZR?

    In any case, you can’t ignore the fact that he has improved as a 2B.

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    • JH says:

      I had a similar thought, Steve. I believe his UZR/150 was in the mid-high -20s through 40 games or so, and it’s been essentially cut in half in another 40 games to -13.8. Obviously there are some sample size concerns here, but doesn’t that imply he’s been a league average (or close) 2B since mid-May? Also, since we’re talking about his first 80-85 games at the position, wouldn’t some amount of improvement be expected ashe learns the ropes since we’re not talking about a guy who has played the position in the minors? Past results are what they are, but going forward, we should get a better indication of his true talent level at 2B in the next 1000 or so innings.

      If he’s a -5 to -10 /150 defender at 2B, he’s a league average 2B and this becomes a great use of resources (and potentially – although I hate to say it – a feather in LaRussa’s cap) since he’s also cost controlled for the next 3 years.

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  7. cboone21 says:

    TLR isn’t perfect, but he’s been damn good in STL, and if he has one strength, it’s identifying good players, identifying spots where they are needed, as well as spots where a team can “get by.”

    Losing Dan Haren is the only real knock I can raise on the issue of player retention. Rolen’s case was messy and nobody truly knows whom to blame for that. Kennedy, Eckstein, Marquis, Suppan, now Glaus – those guys were simply not good enough or brought it on themselves. TLR and Duncan’s track record of attracting and/or keeping McGwire, Edmonds, Ankiel, Carpenter, Wainwright, and of course Pujols and Molina is pretty solid evidence of his ability over the last decade and a half. That and 11 winning seaons out of 14 (.542 win%) is pretty damn good.

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    • spence says:

      LaRussa didn’t trade haren so that has nothing to do with it. Rolen’s case was a direct result of a personality clash. Eckstein, Marquis, and Suppan were averageish players who left in their free agent years–again, nothing to do with LaRussa. Glaus is still signed, but is hurt, so i’m not sure what you’re trying to prove with this. Fing Ankiel is about to be a free agent for the first time and his career was OVER a couple years ago. WW could have still been under team control. Basically you’re saying TLR “kept” mcgwire, edmonds, carp, and pujols….even though he had no influence over them getting signed? this makes very little sense and you’re cherry-picking evidence.

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  8. Gabriel says:

    As others have said, it is hard to blame LaRussa for Glaus being injured long after the trade. There was no way to predict which of Glaus and Rolen would get injured and Glaus was a better player until the injury.

    The Kennedy thing perhaps was a mistake — though the discussion above proves it was debatable. Nevertheless, year after year, LaRussa has been successful at keeping big stars happy. I think as long as Pujols is happy and not insisting on being traded to a “major market”, LaRussa should get some credit on the management of player personalities.

    Finally, the Cardinals are contenders year after year. Yes, it is in a weak division, but still, they haven’t had great players besides Pujols, and yet they still have gone to a couple of World Series. I think this post is unfairly negative, without the complete analysis that Fangraphs usually provides.

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  9. WY says:

    I’m a Cardinal fan, and even I think this sort of post has no place on Fangraphs. It’s just Manning pushing an anti-TLR agenda.

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  10. chem says:

    They have the best player in baseball, a recent World Series championship, and routinely finish ahead of the Cubs. Let TLR get in pissing matches with players if he wants; the important results are there. He manages games better than most coaches in the NL Central, that’s pretty obvious.

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  11. Boxkutter says:

    I think you are ignoring team chemistry a lot in all this.Now, I have never met any of the players being discussed, but isn’t it wrong to assume that it all comes down to numbers with baseball? Just because a player is a +2 win player on another team doesn’t mean they would be on every team. And in fact, it’s possible that the team may be worse off if they had stayed. LaRussa gets the best out of his players he puts out there, and I think the whole is greater than the sum of it’s parts.

    Just like in football, player interaction and team chemistry matter. Terrell Owens may be one of the top five wide receivers in football right now, but I wouldn’t want him on my favorite team.

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  12. Edwin Nelson says:

    WAR, farm system, personality issues blah blah. The only thing that really matters at the end of the day is results.

    TLR: .534 winning % with some good and some bad teams. That’s over 31 years so I think we can rule out luck.

    5 Pennants
    3 World Series Wins
    12 Division Titles

    In 1995 the Cardinals were a mess and it was unclear where they were heading. By the end of 1996 they’re in first place, and although that wouldn’t last it was clear from 97′ on that there was direction within the organization.

    As a Cubs fan I hate and respect the Cardinals and #1 on my wish list is that they fail to resign TLR. We will welcome him with open arms on the north side.

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  13. Steve says:

    I don’t think Manning’s agenda is anti-LaRussa per se; it is anti-raze the farm system for some 2-month rentals who are not guaranteed to sign. They are going all in at a great expense to the future. It is possible that the Cardinals don’t resign Holliday or Derosa or Pinero….and now they have fewer prospect to replace them or to trade for replacements. That is a “worst case” scenario, but it is a pretty bad case: bad MLB team, depleted minors, and Pujols more likely to leave because of the situation.

    Calling a risky strategy risky isn’t anti-anything, it’s just true.

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    • Gabriel says:

      I guess my point above was that it is interesting for a stats based website to begin analyzing how personality and team chemistry work and then try to apply it to personnel management, trades, etc. Yet, the author uses an extremely small sample size (two), doesn’t make an especially strong case that LaRussa was wrong in those cases (the case is stronger with Kennedy), and yet then has an extremely strongly worded final paragraph.

      As I said above, I just don’t think it was a high quality post. If he feels so strongly as indicated in the final paragraph, he has decades of LaRussa to look at and find more cases to examine (and obviously should try to be fair in his assessment of those). He could also compare LaRussa’s issues with those of other managers who have been around awhile, like Dusty Baker, Joe Torre, Lou Piniella, etc.

      On a website like this, I generally expect high quality articles based on a fair amount of data, not quick conclusions based on little. I have seen various articles about the mishandling of the Royals, and those are compelling because of the sheer multitude of cases of terrible management, plus obviously the field results have failed.

      Maybe Manning is right, but he needs to back it up.

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  14. cpebbles says:

    Running off Kennedy without a better backup plan was inexcusably stupid, and 2B has been a position of weakness all season long because of it. The good news is that his defense appears to have stabilized at just a little below average, and for the past two months or so Skip has been a league-average 2B. It was still a ridiculous assumption that it would happen, and the Cardinals paid for it with below-replacement level performance for almost half a season.

    Rolen-for-Glaus was a bad trade IMO. Glaus was a surer thing, Rolen had more upside, and the Cardinals needed to gamble to stand any chance at contention in ’08. It worked out for a year when Glaus had a great year, it’s worked out very poorly this year when Rolen finally adjusted to the weak shoulder. I’m not happy it cost us two very good relief prospects and a half-season of suckage from Joey Thurston et al to remedy this.

    I happen to agree with some of the posters above that Tony is brilliant at getting the absolute most from his ballplayers, and I think his strategic shortcomings are way overblown. I don’t hold it against him that he tries to get rid of people he’s personally incompatible with–I hold it against Mozeliak for deferring to him on this and not making better trades. I’m willing to forgive that and a whole host of other moves I didn’t like if he can get DeRosa and Holliday signed for next season.

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  15. Brian Gunn says:

    I’ve followed and written about La Russa extensively over the years, and I’m inclined to agree with Nick here. TLR is a complicated mix of flaws and virtues, and to call him “the definition of overrated,” as Joe R does, is simply too facile.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to pillory La Russa, after the fact, for the Rolen-Glaus trade (which at the time looked to me and many observers like a win for the Cards, or at least a wash, and that’s without even factoring in the personalities involved). What’s more, it was the loss of Glaus — and not the loss of Kennedy — that motivated the DeRosa trade.

    Otherwise I like this comments thread — good points all around.

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  16. Alireza says:

    Tony is easy to classify. He is a poor player-personnel guy and an excellent field manager. He is basically the opposite of Joe Torre, who is good in the clubhouse but awful at strategy.

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  17. brent in Korea says:

    Jays fans love Rolen around to make the games more exciting with some excellent defense, and he brings some personality to a pretty vanilla team.

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  18. jlive says:

    TLR drives me crazy. Take last night as an example, when in the top of the twelfth, he has Motte intentionally walk Ethier, who was 0 for 4 at that point, so that he could get the platoon matchup against Blake, who was 2 for 3 with a walk at that point. Blake got a hit, but luckily, Ludwick managed to throw out Manny at the plate. I’ve seen this sort of luck way too many times to think that TLR is a good strategist, but the baseball gods must love him.

    On the other hand, TLR always seems to get the players who buy into his system to play at or above their potential.

    In order to evaluate the Kennedy situation, I think we also need to ask whether any team would have been willing to trade for him at the beginning of the season. Once he was released, Oakland incurred no real cost in picking him up. But would they have been willing to send a prospect in exchange for him, even if we had picked up the $4M contract? I kind of doubt it. The question, then, is whether *the Cardinals* could have gotten value (including how much poison is being brought to the clubhouse) by playing Kennedy.

    But whatever the deal with Kennedy, I have no explanations for other ridiculous moves (or lack of moves) by the Cards in the off-season. Why did they think Khalil Greene was a good option? Why didn’t they sign Lopez (who plays solidly average defense at 2B and has some limited experience at 3B)? Why didn’t they manage to get some better relief options (especially when they were available for less money than expected)?

    How much of that can be laid at TLR’s doorstep?

    Anyway, though I often disagree with Cards management, I still want them to succeed. So, may Holliday and DeRosa and Lugo hit like the Babe and field like Mays or the Wizard or some other good-fielding-guy from here on out!

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  19. Taylor says:

    For having an abrasive personality and complex personality, TLR has a more WS wins than Bobby Cox, Earl Weaver, Lou Piniella, Jim Leyland, and Dusty Baker. He also was the brains behind bring Mark McGwire to STL which was the impetus toward 3-4 millions fans per year at Busch Stadium. Look Rolen was my favorite player while with the Cardinals, but he went from future HOF to average fast. Notice he wasn’t part of Toronto’s long-term future. As for Kennedy, the Cards have had remarkable success filling the void at 2nd over the years: Polanco, Vina, Womack, Grudzielanek, Kennedy, and now Schumaker. Skipper has settled down since April and is doing at least average. Also remember, the Rays had Kennedy at their AAA club in Durham before Oakland picked him up. So apparently one of the class teams in the AL didn’t see much value in him either.

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  20. Taylor says:

    Another comment on TLR, how many pitching careers have he and DD resurrected? Namely Chris Carpenter, Bob Welch, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan, and Dennis Eckersley. They even made Jeff Weaver look brilliant in his stint in STL.

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