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Mike Matheny hiring opens a few more million for Albert Pujols

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The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games back on August 25. They weren’t supposed to make it to October.

The Cardinals drew an NLDS matchup with the 102-win Phillies. They were supposed to get out-pitched.

The Cardinals faced the high-powered Brewers in the NLCS, then the higher-powered Rangers in the Fall Classic. They weren’t supposed to win either series.

But all of those odds and predictions were defied.

Now, to add a surprise cherry to the astonishment sundae, the Cardinals — kings of the old school — have hired the youngest manager in MLB. A 41-year-old former catcher with zero managing experience and barely any official coaching gigs on his résumé.

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Mike Matheny, revered for his defense during a 13-year playing career, was named replacement to Tony La Russa, the third-winningest skipper in baseball history, in a press release delivered to the media late Sunday night. He will be officially introduced at a formal press conference Monday morning at Busch Stadium.

While recent speculation presented subtle hints, the hiring was a surprise. Terry Francona, with his big name and decorated resume, seemed a better fit for the Cards’ veteran core. Jose Oquendo, some suggested, would help carve an easier path to the re-signing of Albert Pujols. Even Ryne Sandberg drew buzz.

But the Cardinals made up their mind on Matheny before they even spoke with the former Red Sox manager or the former Cubs great, according to Tim McKernan of KFNS 590 in St. Louis and InsideSTL.com.

The Cardinals had their man almost as soon as the search began, and maybe even before.

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Guessing a front office’s strategy can be an exercise in frivolity, and it often is in the case of the close-lipped Redbirds. But this sure feels calculated, and the steps ahead would appear to be shaking clear.

La Russa was earning salaries of nearly $5 million per year by the end of his tenure in St. Louis, more than any other manager in the sport today. Matheny is sure to cost less, by perhaps as much as $3 million annually. Then there’s the decision to name Daniel Descalso as the club’s 2012 starting second baseman just weeks after the end of the World Series and the suggestion that Tyler Greene might fit at as a regular shortstop, all of which leaves Skip Schumaker and his $2.7 million 2011 salary as a non-tender candidate.

Make no mistake: the Cardinals like Matheny. They consider him a born leader, and someone well-versed in what is affectionately called “The Cardinal Way.” But they’re also freeing up every bit of payroll they can.

If Pujols is going to command a yearly rate of $23 million or more over the next seven, eight, or nine seasons, the Cardinals need to be more well-oiled. They need to run more efficiently, with better structure from top to bottom and more cost control in the big leagues. It’s something that GM John Mozeliak has known since taking over the job in October of 2007, and his decisions are now clearly being led by the idea.

Matheny is efficient. Descalso is efficient. So is almost the entire bullpen. And the talent budding in the farm system — as seen in top-grade prospects like Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez and Oscar Taveras — should keep the organization humming at econo-grade even if Pujols scores an SUV-sized deal.

Mozeliak has truly built something great, and the Cardinals are suddenly as streamlined as it gets in the capricious world of professional baseball. It would take multiple catastrophes for Matheny to screw it all up.

Brett Lawrie will take a pay cut to avoid arbitration with White Sox

MIAMI, FL - AUGUST 12: Brett Lawrie #15 of the Chicago White Sox fields a ground ball during batting practice before the start of the game against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park on August 12, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images)
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Infielder Brett Lawrie successfully avoided arbitration and signed a one-year contract with the White Sox on Friday, per a team announcement. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman added that the deal was for $3.5 million, significantly lower than the $4.125 million Lawrie was paid by the White Sox in 2016.

The White Sox acquired Lawrie last December in a swap for minor league arms Zack Erwin and J.B. Wendelken. After splitting time at second and third base for the Athletics in 2015, Lawrie slotted in at second base and DH for the White Sox and batted .248/.310/.413 with 12 home runs in 384 PA. While it’s strange to see a healthy, fairly productive player receive a salary reduction in arbitration, Lawrie missed nearly half of the season with a strain in his left hamstring, though he’s projected to return at full health by the start of the 2017 season.

Cubs sign LHP Brian Duensing to a one-year, $2 million deal

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 04:  Brian Duensing #50 of the Baltimore Orioles throws a pitch in the eleventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays during the American League Wild Card game at Rogers Centre on October 4, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
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Left-hander Brian Duensing signed a one-year, $2 million contract with the Cubs on Friday, per a report from FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman.

The free agent spent the bulk of his 2016 season with the Orioles after receiving a call-up from Triple-A Norfolk in early June. He underwent elbow surgery several weeks later when a freak bullpen injury revealed cartilage chips and inflammation in his pitching elbow, but recovered to finish the season with a 4.05 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings for the club. The Orioles utilized him for a final out during the AL Wild Card game, during which Duensing recorded a five-pitch strikeout in the ninth inning of their 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays.

The 33-year-old is currently expected to bulk up the Cubs’ left-handed relief corps, with fellow left-hander Mike Montgomery slated for the rotation in 2017.