So who replaces La Russa?


Wanted: Baseball manager.  Will replace legend. There is no way you can possibly top what happened last year. Possibility you won’t have the best player on the team next year.  Must have reliable transportation.

So who bites at that?

On the one hand, replacing Tony La Russa might be a tough thing for a guy to do.  There is nowhere to go but down and, given that this was the classic “play blah baseball all year but get hot at the right time” kind of team, there’s a non-trivial chance that they will go down.  Add in the fact that, at the moment, it’s unclear if Albert Pujols is coming back, and you might have to wonder who is crazy enough to take the gig.

On the other hand, if Albert Pujols does come back — and given that Adam Wainwright should be healthy to start the season — it could be the best possible job imaginable.  St. Louis loves the Cardinals. They’ve shown that they’ll stick with a manager for a long time, even before La Russa.  With Prince Fielder likely leaving the division in free agency there isn’t an obvious mega-team to contend with.  Sweet gig!

Potential candidates/non-candidates:

  • Terry Francona: He’s looking for work. If Pujols comes back this is a win-now team and Francona has helmed a win-now team for the majority of the past decade. Same kind of gig, lower pressure, less clubhouse noise;
  • Dave Duncan: Duncan has never expressed interest in a top job and the list of pitching coaches who became good managers is pretty damn short. Like, Roger Craig and no one else, at least recently. Duncan and La Russa have always been a package deal anyway. It just doesn’t seem like the job would make a ton of sense either for him or for the Cardinals;
  • Mark McGwire: He’s in-house too, but he has zero managing experience and only two years coaching experience. How a team like the Cardinals could go from The Genius to The Novice so quickly is beyond me. And that’s before you realize that it would just lead to another winter of rehashing the old ‘roids questions.
  • Jose Oquendo: My early favorite, not based on any inside knowledge, but based on the fact that he’s Jose Oquendo and was one of my favorite players when I was a kid.  More seriously, he’s been with La Russa for a loooong time now, coaches third base and has, by all reports, been groomed by La Russa for a managing job someday, be it in St. Louis or elsewhere.
  • Terry Pendleton: The Braves first base coach and former hitting coach who, obviously, had a lot of time in St. Louis. He’s always been tremendously popular with Braves players since he began coaching and could be a good choice if the Cards are looking to keep a happy team happy.  Worth noting also that, when he was removed as the Braves hitting coach, the Braves hitting went into the toilet. The man obviously has some skills.

Many more names will spin out of this, but those are who I got at the moment.  Who do you like? I mean besides Whitey Herzog?

2018 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2018 season. Next up: The Tigers.

We can’t blame you if you chose to erase the Tigers’ 2017 season from memory. They plummeted to the bottom of the AL Central division for the second time in three years, hobbled by Michael Fulmer’s chronic shoulder and elbow issues, an untimely implosion from Francisco Rodriguez and the worst version of Miguel Cabrera anyone’s seen to date. Their rotation ranked 13th-best among major league teams; their bullpen, dead last. By mid-July, it was clear the team wasn’t going to touch the division-leading Indians or the surprisingly hot Twins or the streaky Royals. Rather than make a pointless push for the playoffs during the second half, they seized the opportunity to get a head start on a lengthy rebuilding process instead.

Prior to the July 31 trade deadline, the Tigers had already jettisoned some of their biggest contributors—and biggest contracts. J.D. Martinez packed his bags for Arizona as the club gained a trifecta of Diamondbacks shortstop prospects: Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara and Jose King. Justin Wilson and Alex Avila were swapped for Cubs infielders Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. In one of the most nerve-wracking deadline deals, Justin Verlander and the outstanding $56 million left on his contract (not including the $22 million vesting option for 2020) were shipped to the Astros for prospect right-hander Franklin Perez, catcher Jake Rogers and outfielder Daz Cameron—with just seconds to spare before the cutoff time.

Of course, the writing was on the wall well before Al Avila decided to host a fire sale. Francisco Rodriguez logged six blown saves in his first 25 appearances with the club and was released after he proved incapable of handling any high-leverage situation. His struggles might have been more easily overlooked had Bruce Rondon not tanked as well, depleting the Tigers of much of their bullpen depth as they dropped yet another closer candidate—Justin Wilson—off with the Cubs.

A dilapidated bullpen wasn’t the team’s only weakness. Perennial All-Star and future first-ballot Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera labored through the worst year of his career, slashing .249/.329/.399 with 16 home runs and a .728 OPS in 529 PA. His power and productivity was zapped by lingering back issues, and he finished the year with two herniated discs in his lower back and a career-worst -0.2 fWAR. Not helping matters was a series of explosive, bench-clearing brawls against the Yankees in August, during which Cabrera got slapped with a seven-game suspension after he incited the first fight against New York catcher Austin Romine.

The offseason yielded few returns. The Tigers declined a $16 million option for Anibal Sanchez and found a taker for Ian Kinsler in the Angels, who helped restock Detroit’s farm system with minor league outfielder Troy Montgomery and right-handed pitching prospect Wikel Hernandez. The team committed another $12 million to rotation and outfield depth with right-hander Mike Fiers, lefties Francisco Liriano and Ryan Carpenter, and outfielder Leonys Martin. Perhaps most notable was a change in management: Brad Ausmus capped a four-year run with the team as Ron Gardenhire stepped into the dugout.

Looking ahead, the Tigers still have a few items to check off their to-do list before they can stage a full-scale rebuild. That includes offloading the remaining $184 million on Cabrera’s contract, something that will be impossible to do unless and until the 35-year-old has a monster bounce-back year in 2018. It also means exploring trade options for Fulmer, who profiles as one of the biggest assets on the Tigers’ 2018 roster and, with four years of control remaining on his current contract, could net some serious talent as they continue to build for the future. Likewise, closer Shane Greene, shortstop Jose Iglesias and outfielder Nicholas Castellanos are all expected to be made available at some point this year.

Come Opening Day, the club will likely roll out a rotation featuring Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmerman, Francisco Liriano, Mike Fiers and Matt Boyd. Daniel Norris is also competing for a starting role, though he will likely get edged out by Liriano to start the season. Despite the serious health concerns that were raised last year, Fulmer remains the undisputed ace of the pack after putting up All-Star numbers in 2017, including a 3.83 ERA, 2.2 BB/9 and 6.2 SO/9 in 164 2/3 innings. No one else (save Verlander) managed an ERA under 5.00 last year; Zimmerman kept a 6.08 ERA, 2.5 BB/9 and 5.8 SO/9 in 160 innings and led all major-league starters with a league-worst 108 earned runs.

Mikie Mahtook, Leonys Martin and Nick Castellanos project as the Opening Day outfield trio, though JaCoby Jones has looked versatile enough to back up all three spots this spring. Both Mahtook and Castellanos had decent runs last year, while Martin will try to stage a comeback after slashing just .172/.232/.281 with three home runs in back-to-back gigs with the Mariners and Cubs.

Cabrera, naturally, is expected to resume his post at first base and fellow veteran Victor Martinez will continue to slot in at DH. Both Cabrera and Martinez have looked exceptional at the plate this spring, but take that with a grain (or several hundred) of salt. Dixon Machado is set for a full-time role at second base, with Jose Iglesias at shortstop and Jeimer Candelario at third. James McCann and John Hicks are scheduled to share time behind the dish again. Barring a lot of surprises and bounce-back efforts, that doesn’t make for a very intimidating lineup, and probably not one that can supersede the collective .258/.324/.424 batting line the offense managed last year.

In a nutshell: Rebuilds are no fun to watch. The Tigers were very bad last season, and they’re going to be very bad this season. Cross your fingers that Miguel Cabrera looks as sharp in the regular season as he has in camp, keep an eye on that no. 1 draft pick this June, enjoy the September call-ups, maybe attend a few minor league games, and keep reminding yourself that contention is only a few years away (probably).

Prediction: 5th place, AL Central