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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mozeliak has done stellar job

Bernie: Mozeliak has done stellar job

When John Mozeliak was promoted to the general manager’s office before the 2008 season, the chair was uncomfortable.
In a harsh and tragic follow-up to the 2006 World Series championship, the 2007 Cardinals went 78-84 and finished a distant third in the NL Central. That was hardly the worst part. Relief pitcher Josh Hancock died in a drinking-and-driving wreck on April 29. On Aug. 30, outfielder Juan Encarnacion was struck in the face by a foul ball that caused severe damage to his left eye socket. The injury ended his career.
After a tension-filled summer wrought with front-office infighting, Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. fired GM Walt Jocketty at season’s end. Jocketty had resented losing control over the draft and player development, and his feud with scouting director Jeff Luhnow created an organizational fissure that couldn’t be resolved.
Less than a calendar after winning the World Series, Jocketty was out. DeWitt interviewed several outside candidates and seemed to be zeroing in on Cleveland assistant GM Chris Antonetti as the choice. But the Indians convinced Antonetti to stay, and DeWitt gave the job to Jocketty’s assistant, Mozeliak.
Manager Tony La Russa wasn’t exactly thrilled by the seismic shakeup. Jocketty and La Russa were close allies that had formed a winning partnership, and TLR didn’t care for Luhnow.
La Russa decided to return in 2008 after being offered a huge raise by DeWitt.
The organization was still roiling when Mozeliak took over for Jocketty. The new GM faced a difficult challenge on multiple fronts.
Mozeliak had to broker an uneasy peace between La Russa and Luhnow. It was a complicated arrangement. DeWitt valued La Russa’s leadership and record of impressive achievement, but DeWitt also wanted the franchise to put more emphasis on scouting, drafting and developing young players.
The old-school La Russa went along with the program, but maintained skepticism. And Mozeliak had to find a way to oversee the dramatic change in philosophy without alienating La Russa. To pull this off, Mozeliak had to display considerable dexterity and diplomacy.
Mozeliak succeeded.
I offer the history lesson for a reason: it’s easy to forget about the tumultuous period of transition that could have ripped the franchise apart. It’s difficult to win in a calm setting, but in his early days as GM Mozeliak had to deal with a potentially volatile set of circumstances. He handled the assignment with impressive skill.
So when people ask me if I think Mozeliak has done a good job as GM, it’s rather easy to answer the question. Mozeliak hasn’t done a good job as GM; he’s done a great job.
Over Mozeliak’s first five years, the Cardinals have maintained their level of success. This was never going to be a full-scale youth movement. Because the Cardinals are determined to continue winning, there will always be room for big contracts (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Kyle Lohse, Chris Carpenter.) Vacancies will be filled by imported veterans such as Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and Jake Westbrook.
The organization, however, has given expanded opportunities to young players. That in turn led to the difference-making emergence of David Freese, Allen Craig, Jon Jay, Matt Carpenter, Daniel Descalso, Jaimie Garcia, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Lance Lynn, and Joe Kelly.
Mozeliak has successfully balanced the roster; the Cardinals have an appealing mix of experienced, proven players and youthful, ascending talents.
The player-development plan is working, and there’s another wave of wave of young talent on the way. I don’t know if any major-league franchise can match the Cardinals’ collection of young power arms: Lynn, Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha. Depending on their progress and/or comeback from injuries, the list could be lengthened to include Tyrell Jenkins and Jordan Swaggerty.
On the player-position side, the Cardinals are legitimately excited by the seemingly imminent graduations of outfielder Oscar Tavares and second baseman Kolten Wong. And down the road there’s a potentially powerful third-base bat in teenager Carson Kelly. Matt Adams, the slugging first baseman, may get a shot at some point.
The infusion of young talent is real. It isn’t hype. The 2012 Cardinals even benefited from the surprisingly effective play from rookie shortstop Peter Kozma, who had tumbled from the list of top prospects. But Mozeliak has also made adept moves to plug in more expensive pieces. The 2011 Cardinals wouldn’t have won the World Series without Berkman. Without Beltran, the 2012 Cardinals don’t make the playoffs and advance to Game 7 of the NL championship series.
Mozeliak’s quality work includes the deal that sent an aging Jim Edmonds to San Diego for a young minor-league third baseman, Freese. Given what Freese has done here, this will go down as one of the best trades in franchise history.
Mozeliak’s insistence in relying on prospects also applied to the manager’s job. When Mozeliak had to replace the iconic La Russa, a certain Hall of Famer, he made an unconventional and somewhat controversial decision to hire the promising but inexperienced Mike Matheny. That decision appears to be a home run.
Because of the depth assembled by Mozeliak, the 2012 Cardinals were able to compensate for the free-agent loss of superstar Albert Pujols. With Craig, Matt Carpenter and Adams taking most of the at-bats, the Cardinals got 21 homers, 109 RBIs and a .293 batting average from the first base position in 2012.
By declining to match the Los Angeles Angels’ 10-year, $240 million offer to Pujols, Mozeliak created payroll flexibility for the future. That enabled him to sign the industry’s best catcher, Molina, to a five-year, $75 million contract extension. With Pujols gone, the Cardinals were able to give a full-time opportunity to Craig, who responded by leading the major leagues in RBI rate in 2012. (Craig had an RBI for every 5.1 at-bats, and led the majors with a .400 batting average with runners in scoring position.)
In Mozeliak’s first five seasons as GM, the Cardinals had the NL’s second-best winning percentage. Only Philadelphia won more games. The Cardinals made it to the playoffs three times in the five seasons, have won 18 postseason games, and captured the 11th World Series title in franchise history.
When Mozeliak succeeded the ousted Jocketty, it was natural to wonder if the Cardinals would slip, and lose ground. It hasn’t happened. I would never insult Jocketty or demean the work he did here by insisting that Mozeliak is a better GM.
That said, Mozeliak obviously was the right choice to take over during such a sensitive, tricky time. Given the thorny challenges that have confronted Mozeliak over the past five seasons, I don’t see how another GM could have possibly done a better job than Mo.

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