VEB Annals: Chris Antonetti, Almost-Cardinals General Manager

February 22, 2012; Goodyear, AZ, USA; Cleveland Indians general manager Chris Antonetti watches a bullpen session during spring training at the Cleveland Indians Player Development Complex. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

It happened just one season after the Cardinals won their 10th world Series. On October 3rd, 2007, Walt Jocketty was fired from the Cardinals organization. He'd been General Manager of the organization for nearly 13 years -- he was actually 11 days shy of his anniversary. Jocketty had been the architect of back-to-back 100 win seasons and made the club a perennial contender. In the VEB annals, you'll find some wonderful retrospective posts on some of the things that Walt Jocketty did right. And during his 13 years, he did a lot of things right.

This wasn't about the past though. It was about the future of the club. From the MLB.com article:

"I think that we had a little different philosophy and vision with respect to some baseball issues," DeWitt said. "There was clearly tension that was reported widely, not only locally but nationally in the organization. While I've said on several occasions that tension is in every organization, I do think it got to the point with the Cardinals that is was counter-productive. We couldn't achieve our objectives given what was going on inside the organization."

Tension. That was a rather benign word for what was going on behind the scenes. This was the organization that had been rife with discord since bringing Jeff Luhnow on board to run the scouting department and farm system. This was an organization with clearly divided lines of warfare. On one side stood the old-school, hard-liners with Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa. Less clearly defined was the emerging new school contingent and adherents of sabremetrics personified -- though less clearly "led" -- by Jeff Luhnow.

After Jocketty's firing, there was a general tone in the media about the Cardinals front office arrangement. There were too many factions and divisions within the organization. The hierarchical structure that most companies or organizations rely on was breaking down. Too many people had direct line of sight to Chairman Bill DeWitt's ear: Tony LaRussa, Jeff Luhnow, the eventual General Manager. This was a broken front office.

Here's a taste from Tracy Ringolsby -- clearly an old school scribe:

Luhnow's presence will be a hindrance to bringing in a quality general manager. What GM would take responsibility for an organization without having control over the key areas for long-term success -- scouting and player development?

Or try Bill Madden from the New York Daily News:

On the day Jocketty was fired, Cardinals president Mark Lamping declared, "The best job in baseball just opened." It's doubtful if you'd find any other veteran baseball people who would share that opinion.

The question facing the Cardinals after 2007, a season in which the team was third in the division with a 78-84 record, was less about what players they might acquire and more about who could run this organization. Likewise, who would want to?

Imagine that, as a new GM, you're hiring was essentially approved/vetoed in advance by the team's manager? There was a strong sentiment that Tony LaRussa would have the opportunity to do exactly that. Check out this VEB post quoting the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

about 10 days ago bernie [Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist] wrote that "there will be no surprises; La Russa will know in advance who the GM is, and in one form or another, he will have given a thumbs-up." that was consistent with la russa's previous statements that he couldn't commit to returning without knowing who the gm was going to be.

The man that will, purportedly, report to you, was allowed to dictate your presence in the organization. How many general managers would subscribe to that? Would Jeff Luhnow had gone to the Astros knowing that Brad Mills had right of first refusal on his arrival? Granted, Brad Mills and Tony LaRussa are vastly different managers.

Regardless of who the organization was actually vetting, there was a clear sentiment as to who the "popular" choice would be among much of the media and Viva El Birdos: Chris Antonetti. In Cleveland, Antonetti was the equivalent of Jeff Luhnow. He was responsible for the development and maintenance of the Indians' integrated scouting/sabremetric computer system called DiamondView. The Indians' had copyrighted the technology. Antonetti was the "it" executive of the moment back in 2007.

Again, VEB quoting the Post Dispatch:

The Cardinals won't call Chris Antonetti the front-runner to become their next general manager, but the club did call the up-and-coming Cleveland Indians executive and his wife to Busch Stadium for a meeting Friday morning with team president Mark Lamping and a tour of the facility

This wasn't the only place you'd find bloggers pining for Antonetti. Here's Dave Cameron's piece on Antonetti -- which almost reads sycophantic -- a year prior.

No one understands how to use both subjective scouting information and quantifiable statistical data together as well as the Indians, and Antonetti has been successful in both sides of the baseball operations department.

[...]

In this respect, Antonetti is set apart from other executives with an academic background. He commands the respect of his employees, but also exudes humility with his soft-spoken manner.

Corners of the internet were convinced that Antonetti was the next big thing. But he wouldn't be the next big thing in St. Louis. Antonetti would withdraw his name from the process. Later reports by Peter Gammons, with ESPN at that time, would indicate that it was the Indians' owner Paul Dolman who essentially assured Antonetti of his future as the Indians' GM. Since that time, the Indians have never been closer than 7.5 games from winning the AL Central Division. Since Antonetti became GM in 2010, the Indians have finished 25 games out, 15 games out and are currently 16.5 games behind the AL Central leader. LBoros termed Antonetti, in 2007, as "the one who got away".

The Cardinals hired John Mozeliak instead. (Aside: Has anyone read an article on Mozeliak's workout regimen? Check out the picture in that ESPN article compared to say this one from August 2011. Go, Mo!)

VEB was not particularly enamored of the development. The conspiracy theories were vast and plentiful. It was described as a win for Tony LaRussa and concerns that John Mozeliak would ultimately be a puppet for LaRussa's coaching philosophy, which often seemed to be veteran oriented -- were foremost in many minds. How deferential Mozeliak ultimately was during his shared tenure with LaRussa is almost impossible to know.

Over the intervening years, Mozeliak would acquire and re-sign Matt Holliday, begin a real (and what looks to be sustained) youth movement with the help of Jeff Luhnow, oversee the Cardinals 11th World Series title in 2011, have a future hall of fame player (Albert Pujols) and a future hall of fame manager (Tony LaRussa) depart in the same offseason and continue to build a contending team in 2012 after their departures. He would also watch the next "it" executive, Jeff Luhnow, become GM of the Astros.

This is, in part, a cautionary tale. Organizations are more than their General Manager. Chris Antonetti stayed in Cleveland with what looked to be a pretty good team. He hasn't sniffed the playoffs since spurning the Cardinals. Jeff Luhnow is now heading to a much worse situation in Houston. Jack Zdurinecik was supposed to be the GM to turn around the Mariners in 2008. That hasn't happened.

The Cardinals may or may not have gotten their first choice in 2007. All outward appearances are that Chris Antonetti really was the one that got away. John Mozeliak was not, however, chopped liver. He was, in many ways, a quieter, calmer force than expected to be. He bridged a deep chasm between Luhnow and LaRussa as best he could. In 2011, that turned out pretty well. Mozeliak is a little more than a third of the way into his tenure relative to Walt Jocketty but already has a title to his name.

In 2007, the Cardinals didn't get who they wanted but maybe, just maybe, they got who they needed.

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