In the past I have said that I thought Terry Pendleton, Jim Riggleman and Tony Pena would all be good candidates to fill Tony La Russa's shoes when he stepped down as Cardinals manager.
But I think times are a lot different now than they were two or three years ago when La Russa started his annual retirement watch three or four years ago.
In 2006 the Cardinals were an aging team that was going through a lot of turnover after losing the majority of its starting rotation to free agency. In 2007 it appeared as if the club was resigned to a rebuilding process. But in 2011 the Redbirds seem like a good mix of veterans and younger players who could be built for the long hall. They need a skipper who is experienced enough to win now -- but who is young and hungry enough to be around for years to come.
I think the best guy for the job is a guy who seems a lot like Tony La Russa did when he jumped ship from the Athletics to the Cardinals in 1995. A guy who has managed in the World Series, who has a winning record in the regular season and the playoffs and a guy who respects the tradition of the St. Louis Cardinals.
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And the person I have set my heart on is current Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Maddon took over a sad sack Tampa franchise in 2006 and lost 101 games the first year and 96 the second. But since then he has led the Rays to more than 90 wins three times in the last four years including 97 in 2008 when he led Tampa to the American League pennant and 98 in 2010. That's no small feat for a club in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.
Maddon is a huge Cardinals fan. He has talked many times about listening to Cardinals games religiously on KMOX when he was growing up in Pennsylvania. He's talked about the thrill of meeting Cardinals Hall of Famers and of managing against St. Louis in interleague play. It may seem like a small factor, but I think it's important to have a guy who cares deeply about the Cardinals way. I think it's important to have a guy who wants this job over any other one who is here for the long haul and who wants more than anything else to own a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals logo on it.
In the last year of his contract with the Rays, Maddon would likely jump at the St. Louis opportunity. He's seen his payroll shrink to $42 million as Tampa has shed high dollar contracts of Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and Matt Garza in the last year. His $1.4 million salary is on the low end of major league managers. The Cardinals could double his pay and still save nearly half of the cash they have been paying to La Russa the last couple of years.
Maddon is 57. He's young enough to believe that he could have 10 years left in the tank. But he's old enough that if he wants to be a bigger fish in a bigger pond, he doesn't have a lot of time to wait.