I'm writing this post at 6:30 PM Sunday, CDT. Right now, it looks like Mark McGwire will be the next hitting coach of the St. Louis Cardinals. As someone who first heard the opening strains of "Welcome to the Jungle" as an eleven year old in Busch Stadium while everyone emptied out their disposable cameras, I'm excited.
As someone who watched multiple Cardinals flail around last year without even the unsubstantiated insistence of some new approaches in the air, I'm even more excited. Mark McGwire is—or is typically seen as—a less-than-engaging communicator, so we know, at least, that the various Cardinals and future Cardinals who have shown up at his door to retool and refine their swings in the last several years have not done it because he's hilarious, or the nicest guy you'll ever meet.
These are the straws we grasp at, when talking about hitting coaches: he hit a lot of home runs and he did not subscribe to Vladimir Guerrero's newsletter. (As funny as it can be to think of Mark McGwire, one of the unique hitting talents of all time, suggesting an approach for Matt Pagnozzi ["don't swing"], his approach, provided he does not tell Joe Thurston to take that outside pitch and just pull it 500 feet, can be basically replicated by mortals.)
We don't yet know what McGwire will say, if he accepts the job, and how sportswriters will respond to whatever it is. Which makes this the eye of the news-cycle hurricane. But while I'm out I'd like to suggest, if nothing else, a little measured calmness; if this really is the beginning of a three day festival of pomposity, just look congress in the eye and say: "I'm not on the internet to talk about your idea of the past."
What, bad advice?
That's the exciting part of the day's almost-news, but of course there's more, and maybe more important: Tony La Russa may be returning, possibly on a multi-year deal. So the real news is this: The Cardinals braintrust is ready to keep refining the Cardinals of the aughts into a second decade. Given those teams' success, this is probably a good idea, and a confirmation that Mozeliak and company aren't the overreacting types.
With organizational restructuring unlikely, then, and new blood coming in the form of a good-faith attempt to get the team's hitters to at least face in the right direction when they swing at pitches out of the zone, the off-season narrative comes down to this: how crazy will Bill DeWitt get?
Possibility #1: Really crazy. I think all of these possibilities come with the understanding that, within a year of his shopping spree, the erstwhile DeWallet will realize that lots of season tickets depend on him getting Really Crazy and trying to pretend that there isn't a blank giant novelty check with Albert Pujols's name on it behind one of his filing cabinets. With that in the back of his mind, I think getting Really Crazy in 2009 is a remote possibility. But it's not my money.
With that in mind, the Cardinals are currently in the running on Aroldis Chapman, who wants Daisuke money despite having spent his career, to this point, not in Japan's major leagues but in Cuba, which is usually assigned a position somewhere in the A-ball spectrum. They're also at least theoretically interested in retaining Matt Holliday. If they do both of those things the payroll is immediately somewhere in the vicinity of $95-100 million, and all of the payroll relief they got when Pineiro, Glaus, and Greene became free agents is gone. That's a workable team this year, if the Cardinals see Chapman as an immediate contributor in the rotation, but when Pujols comes due and Adam Wainwright's contract becomes less unbelievable these moves are going to require a long-term move from around $100 million to, say, $120 million. Again: it's not my money. And I get the idea that DeWitt was impressed by the bump in fan interest that followed the team's dramatic trading deadline activity. But we'll see.
Possibility #2: A little crazy. La Russa's return means that 2010 will not be a rebuilding year, and for me that signifies a probable move in this direction. The bare-bones team we saw in the roster matrix would be great for a rookie manager, who can be content with Surprising People—in the real way, not its current status as a La Russa mind-games chit in good standing—but with Pujols, Carpenter, and La Russa all under contract a surprise-year would seem like a waste of resources in the short term.
Retaining Matt Holliday without, well, wasting resources gets tough past a certain point. And Aroldis Chapman's contract demands might put him in a position where his only career option is to become an inevitable Yankees Disappointment by only winning 16 or 17 games in his first year. (The Cardinals could do worse than to hire Hideki Irabu and Jose Contreras to talk to future pitching phenoms as their official emissaries.) But those are the two spaces in which the Cardinals could most easily improve the skeleton team they have now; signing one, or going after John Lackey, makes this a better team in 2010, and as of today that seems like an important objective.
Possibility #3: Not very crazy. The Cardinals have two holes, in left and at the back of the rotation, and there are cheap ways to fill them, too. But there were cheaper ways to fill out the coaching staff, too; unless La Russa is signing up with the idea that he's going to steward this current team toward further surprises over the next two or three years, this seems like an increasingly odd combination.
[Programming note: First: great job by tom and vep, right? I was glad they were both willing to help out around here. Second: I've noticed some minor blow-ups of late, and I realize that Mark McGwire is a potentially explosive topic. I'm not going to be around as much as usual to moderate, so I'd like to urge, well, moderation; if a discussion gets both heated and all the way to the right side of the page, take a step back. Jay Mariotti is one thing, but assume, at least, that your fellow Birdos are reasonable human beings.]