Duncan’s Departure Leaves Huge Hole

Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan’s expected decision to step aside from his job as the team’s pitching coach ends an amazing era not only in Cardinals history, but in baseball history. When Tony La Russa, Duncan and Dave McKay arrived in St. Louis in 1996, they had already spent eight seasons together in Oakland. In this or any era of baseball, there hasn’t been another group of manager/coaches that spent 24 years together. In fact, Duncan is the longest-tenured coach in major-league history with 33 years logged, the last 29 of those with La Russa. In 2010, he passed Galen Cisco as the longest-tenured pitching coach, and his records of longevity and length of service with La Russa likely won’t be broken.

As Chris Duncan noted in The Fast Lane on Thursday, the turnover with the Cardinals over the last two years is striking. We tend to focus on La Russa and Albert Pujols, but then factor in the departures since the end of 2010 of bullpen coach Marty Mason, bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy, bench coach Joe Pettini, McKay, director of player procurement Jeff Luhnow and several lieutenants of John Mozeliak that Luhnow took to Houston, including Sig Mejdal, who will be the Astros’ “director of decision sciences.” Really.

Those are some big shoes to fill from a World Series championship organization. It’ll be interesting to see how the product on the field responds.

None of us know what that turnover will bring. It’s smart to draw a line between regimes, and clearly this will be a club with Mike Matheny’s stamp. In fact, the only La Russa holdovers among coaches now are Jose Oquendo and Mark McGwire. Even though Derek Lilliquist, who by the way filled in for Duncan last year, was on the 2011 staff, La Russa and Duncan would have preferred to keep Mason. Lilliquist was a Mozeliak promotion. And Mike Aldrete the bench coach can’t be compared to Mike Aldrete the assistant hitting coach. Those are completely different roles.

Duncan will be sorely missed. His record of success with reclamation projects is actually pretty stunning. Cardinals fans can roll the names off the top of their heads: Darryl Kile. Woody Williams. Andy Benes. Chris Carpenter. Kent Bottenfield. Jeff Weaver. Joel Pinero. Kyle Lohse. Todd Wellemeyer. Edwin Jackson. All of those guys arrived in St. Louis as damaged goods, most with damaged psyches. But Duncan found a single problem with each one, helped fix that, implemented a game plan, and got them rolling. And if they left, guys like Williams, Benes, Bottenfield, Weaver, Pinero and Wellemeyer never pitched as well as they did with the Cardinals. Duncan’s presence was overarching with the staff. It will be different.

How about the idea of La Russa taking over for Joe Torre as director of baseball operations for MLB? Who has more respect for the game than La Russa? Who better understands what’s happening on the field, the emotion of the moment, and what’s right and wrong. If anyone knows how baseball’s unwritten rules should be implemented, it’s La Russa. Looking back at the guys that have held that position–Bob Watson, Frank Robinson and Torre–it’s hard to imagine that Bud Selig wouldn’t make the call.

La Russa has said he wants to stay in baseball in a meaningful capacity, doing a job where he can stay close to home. He can watch video replays of beanball incidents and baseball fights from Walnut Creek, Calif., as easily as New York. He’s already on Selig’s blue-ribbon panel for on-field matters. Torre was also on the panel before taking the job. And the job Torre left is meaningful and would keep La Russa in the game. My money is on him getting that position.

Speaking of Torre, would he leave his MLB post if he wasn’t pretty sure his ownership group was going to get the Dodgers? In joining Los Angeles developer Rick Caruso in an ownership group, he must have some inside info, right? The competition seems pretty stiff. There’s an ownership group led by Orel Hershiser and Steve Garvey. There’s one led by former Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, and another by former Dodgers general manager Fred Claire. How about that one, put together by former Dodgers bat boy Ben Huang and including former A’s president Andy Dolich. Magic Johnson, Larry King and Mark Cuban all head groups, too.

It would seem as if, as great as Torre is, he’d be behind the eight ball in trying to acquire the Dodgers franchise. So he must know something. And if he or Cuban gets the franchise, it doesn’t matter that Albert Pujols is in Anaheim. As long as everything in the standings is reasonably equal, the Dodgers are going to be L.A.’s baseball team. The energy and enthusiasm of Cuban, or the class and popularity of Torre, will give the Dodgers top billing in that market once again, which is good for the sport. Baseball doesn’t seem to like Cuban that much, so I’m betting Torre is the front man they want to own that franchise.

One other baseball note: Cubs general manager Theo Epstein seems to have a handle on a huge part of that team’s problems. It worked to everybody’s benefit in the NL Central when former general manager Jim Hendry brought in guys like Milton Bradley and Alfonso Soriano, gave a big contract to Carlos Zambrano, and had Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot as a big-league keystone combination. Epstein is removing the cancerous tumors from that clubhouse. In a couple of years, the Cubs could be scary.

Just kidding. They are, and always will be, the Cubs.