Tony La Russa is back for year sixteen, which means that this is more or less going to be the team we were excited about last March. I'm in favor of this move, but I know a lot of people aren't, and I understand that position. My own, titled "Because somebody has to be the manager", is informed by the following fake bullet points:
1. I think most of what we ascribe to Tony La Russa as his own particular foibles are the foibles of nearly every manager in baseball. I think there's an instructive quote from Joe Posnanski's most recent blog entry about Ron Gardenhire, on whom Poz has long had an immense manager-crush:
... the anti-Gardy crowd was overpowering. They bludgeoned me with stories of crazy lineup moves and bizarre bullpen maneuvers and folksy Gardy quotes that suggested he was at least Cardinal in the Roman Church of Grit.
I think you'll find those same faults applied to almost every manager some fanbase cares about enough to disagree on. For instance, Joe Maddon, the official manager of the internet—there's a joemaddonsucks.com, although it is devoted mainly to claims that he is both too sabermetric and, in his avowal of pitching and defense, presumably too traditional.
2. I think Tony La Russa's own flaws are played up too much, because they're easy to write about. Of course, this is my fault as much as it is anybody else's. It's easy to talk about when the Cardinals are playing somebody who should not be playing baseball; it's difficult to say when somebody who should not be playing baseball is playing over his head and it's thanks to some brilliant managerial trick or hunch.
In 2009 the Cardinals got an adequate season at second base out of a fourth outfielder; in 2008 they got one out of Aaron Miles, who most certainly did not get them one in 2010. It's easy to say that the 2010 situation is La Russa's fault, because Aaron Miles is his guy and Tyler Greene could be playing in 2010; it's difficult to say whether Schumaker or 08-Miles would have succeeded elsewhere.
3. I think this is a team that is still well-served by continuity.
The core remains Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, and Chris Carpenter—all veterans, all presumably unhindered by La Russa's always-on intensity. And for all the complaints in 2010, Aaron Miles was the only clearly La Russian gamble that cost the team relative to its other options; the major sub-replacement-level dent in the Cardinals' erstwhile depth was Felipe Lopez, whose disastrous cliff-diving led to an admittedly inexplicable Pedro Feliz acquisition.
Elsewhere—Colby Rasmus was the source of a lot of drama but also had an OPS+ of 132 in 144 games. Randy Winn saw his playing time disappear almost entirely after Jon Jay played over his head and acted thereafter as the fifth outfieder. Allen Craig disappeared to AAA ostensibly to get at-bats, something we might believe if Joe Maddon said it; hit the stuffing out of the ball in AAA; and, returned to action in September, was played frequently. I don't know how he did it, but Jeff Suppan had an ERA of 3.84 over his 70 innings.
What killed the Cardinals last season was not the La Russa moves we can easily identify and criticize—it was widespread underperformance from Felipe Lopez, Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, Yadier Molina. That might be Tony La Russa's fault, too, but La Russa as a manager who doesn't get the most (or in the case of Felipe Lopez even a little) out of his players doesn't jibe with my own observations and his propensity for choosing players who appear less talented over players who are, well, better.
I can't make a really strong argument for Tony La Russa because I don't know enough about managerial analysis to hold a strong position in either direction. But I think his culpability for 2010 is naturally overstated from the traditional sabermetric position: He was bad at the few things we could prove he influenced, but their total value was small, and his position compared to a replacement manager not especially retrogressive.
I don't think he'll put that blurb on his business card, but I'm more willing to defer to a manager's reputation than, say, a right fielder's. Tony La Russa's is still excellent, and it would take either an incredibly dim view of managerial value (at which point I'm not sure it matters whether he's around or not) or an incredibly bright view of the teams he's had in his career to take nothing positive from his career record.