By Bernie Miklasz
When John Mozeliak took over for the deposed Walt Jocketty last October, he inherited something of a mess: a tired, worn and aging ballclub that needed a transfusion after sputtering to the end of an era in 2007.
Moreover, Mozeliak was replacing a popular general manager who mapped out the plans that landed the Cardinals in the postseason seven times from 1996-2006.
Mozeliak would be working with manager Tony La Russa, a Jocketty loyalist.
And Mozeliak would have to find a way to solder an organizational split that aligned director of player development Jeff Luhnow's sabermetric-based approach against hardened old-school philosophies.
Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt insists that the GM post was offered to no outside candidates. Mozeliak was promoted from inside the organization.
But this wasn't a coveted job, because of the perplexing roster issues and hazardous political minefield that awaited the new GM.
As it turns out, the Cardinals found the right guy, anyway. He was there all along. Mozeliak has done a fine job so far as a rookie GM, deliberately steering the Cardinals to a new direction. And as the season nears the break for the All-Star Game, the Cardinals are outperforming predictions and expectations.
The stale roster was pepped up by the appearance of nine rookies, including Rule V draftee Brian Barton. Unproven veterans who longed for a shot — Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel — were plugged in for their career opportunities. Unhappy, unhealthy and/or disruptive players — including Scott Spiezio, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and David Eckstein — were moved out or set free.
Veterans such as third baseman Troy Glaus, starting pitcher Kyle Lohse and shortstop Cesar Izturis were presented with fresh starts in baseball's most supportive environment.
The disconsolate Rolen, who despised La Russa, was traded for Glaus in a swap of third basemen. Glaus has played outstanding defensively, is a positive clubhouse influence, and is on a pace to drive in 100 runs. Izturis has upgraded the defense at shortstop. And though Lohse got smacked around by the Tigers on Wednesday night, he entered the game with a 9-2 record and 3.63 ERA. Where would the Cardinals be without him?
Mozeliak signed Lohse at the bargain, one-year rate of $4.25 million in March, after many other GMs passed.
Mozeliak was criticized in some circles for giving starting pitcher Joel Pineiro a two-year $13 million contract extension, but given the limited options (and absurd cost) of available starting pitching, the deal made sense. Mozeliak also signed lefty reliever Ron Villone. While Villone's overall ERA is poor (5.65), lefthanded hitters are batting only .159 against him. And that's the role Villone was recruited for; to suppress LH batters.
If you want to harangue Mozeliak for taking one gamble that blew up — spending $1.5 million on rehabbing pitcher Matt Clement — then go right ahead. But it's inconsequential.
Mozeliak had a plan. To shed old layers, stimulate energy and growth and clear the way for younger, rising talent. The strategy was endorsed by La Russa, who recognized the advantage of having a hungry, eager mix of players who must compete with each other for playing time.
In all, Mozeliak has moved the Cardinals into a surprising position: that of a contender. But to get the team into a postseason, he has some work to do:
— Acquire a lefthanded reliever.
— Search for an effective starting pitcher. And let's be fair here; that's probably unrealistic.
— Put an end to the Mark Mulder farce. Mozeliak didn't sign Mulder to this bad deal; that was Jocketty's doing. Unless Mulder can prove soon that he's capable of pitching respectably at the big-league level, it's foolish to block the path of the organization's younger starters (or Brad Thompson) in a stubborn attempt to squeeze something from the Mulder investment.
— Assume tighter control of the roster. Players who aren't producing shouldn't be on the roster at the expense of others who are more deserving of a chance. Example: If Chris Duncan continues to be lost at the plate, he needs to find his swing in the minors. The majors aren't the place for remedial training. As La Russa always is quick to remind us: these games count in the standings.
And so far, Mozeliak has the winning touch.