Friday, July 23, 2010

I-55 Showdown, Lou Retires, Cards Finally Lose a Game

The Cardinals opened the second half with 8 consecutive wins. During the run, they played as well as they have all season. The offense, for the most part, resembled the one that we all expected coming into the season. The most gratifying of the wins in this stretch was a come-from-behind win vs. the Dodgers last Sunday -- all with Albert Pujols taking a much deserved day off. Birthday boy Allen Craig filled in at first and had a big day -- driving in 3 runs, including the tying run. Matt Holliday, who is starting to look like a player worthy of being a team's highest paid, drove in the winning run. The Cards followed up the sweep of the Dodgers by taking 3 of 4 from the reeling Phillies before falling 2-0 in extra innings yesterday. From here, the scene shifts to Chicago as the I-55 rivalry is renewed. I've said time and again that for my money this is the best rivalry in baseball. The one element truly missing, however, is that it is extremely rare to have both teams in position to win it all. The last time this rivalry was ratcheted up due to a playoff berth was 2003. Both teams have been in the mix since, but that was the last time that you saw the off-field quotes that make a rivalry all it can be.

We also learned this week that Cubs manager, Lou Piniella, has decided to hang it up after this year. His time in Chicago hasn't been as successful as many had hoped. He did lead the Cubs to two consecutive division titles in '07 and '08, but both times the team was swept out of the playoffs. In '09, it was the Cardinals turn to win the division and get swept by a team from the NL West. 2010 has seen the Cubs underperform at almost every turn, so it comes as no surprise that Lou is ready to move on.

So the spotlight in Chicago shifts to the search for a new manager. Many expect Hall of Fame 2B Ryne Sandberg to take over, as he's paid his dues managing in the Cubs minor league system for the past 4 years, working his way up from low A to the AAA Iowa Cubs. I've had the pleasure of seeing him manage several games at for the single A Peoria Chiefs, and have to say that I'm surprised at the great job he did working with the young players. That said, I really hope that he doesn't get the job. I am always of the belief that your franchises great players get nothing but trouble when they return to manage/coach their team. Too often, you're just setting yourself up to boo and ultimately fire one of your great players. With apologies to Cubs fans that might read this, I really don't see the Cubs being World Series contenders over the next few years, and in this day and age, no manager gets long to prove he's the right man for the job. I would expect the 2011 Cubs to be similar to the 2010 edition, so you've already got one down season for Ryno if he gets the job. It could be as soon as 2012, then, that you start to wonder about his job security. Ryno's been far too classy of a player and now manager to put him through that.

I do think the Cubs need to promote the guy, though, and would think making him the bench coach/manager in waiting is a good move. Some other names that have been floated are Joe Girardi, Joe Torre, Bob Brenly, Pat Listach and Freddi Gonzalez. I'd be shocked of Girardi leaves the Yankees for the Cubs -- even though he is an Illinois native and began his baseball career with the Cubs. Torre would be intriguing, and would be amenable to a shorter term deal, but the fact that he'd be replacing a retiree that is younger than he is to manage a team that doesn't appear to be WS ready -- well, that makes me skeptical. I don't know much about Listach, who currently coaches for the Nationals. Gonzalez is believed to be the man that will replace Bobby Cox in Atlanta.

That leaves Brenly, and I really believe he'd be a fine choice. He's better equipped to ride out some of the bad contracts as the team phases out some of its veteran players (Soriano, Zambrano, Ramirez) in favor of a younger team (Castro, Colvin, Wells). I think Ryno would have a great influence on these guys, and Brenly's no-nonsense, "Just play hard" attitude would help to teach them the right way to play like a big leaguer. A younger Piniella would likely have been better for them, but you sense that he came to Chicago thinking a title was almost assured and that he didn't have much to do besides sit on the bench and let it all come together. Not to suggest that he hasn't done a better job than many give him credit for -- winning the division two years in a row is an accomplishment that you can't really discredit. But I also don't think this is the same guy that managed Cinci to a title and turned the Mariners into perennial contenders.

But first things first, the Cardinals are in town. I expect the Cardinals to take 2 of 3, losing on Friday, then winning both weekend games. No matter what, it will be a great weekend for baseball.

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