So the Cardinals have their long-sought backup catcher: Gerald Laird will caddy for Yadier Molina in 2011. In and of itself, this seems to be a fairly vanilla addition. Laird is a catch-and-throw type, and he’s put up miserable offensive numbers in three of the last four seasons. At age 31, Laird probably has little hope for significant improvement outside of some “lightning in a bottle” randomness.
On another, greater level, though, the addition of Laird (and the puzzling trade of Brendan Ryan) shows that Tony La Russa still has a major voice — some would call that voice shrill, loud and tiresome — when it comes to the Cardinals’ personnel decisions. Despite having a staff that shows strong groundball tendencies (tendencies that may be even stronger since Jake Westbrook will be around for a full season), the Cardinals dealt away an elite defensive shortstop and left in place a second baseman who, according to both eyes and numbers, is awful at the position. Now they’ve added a right-handed backup catcher who can’t hit — Jason LaRue 2.0, if you will.
The curious thing is that the Cardinals have a perfectly reasonable in-house solution in Bryan Anderson. Anderson is a left-handed hitter — something the 25-man roster could use more of — cheap and capable of actually contributing with the bat. Laird may be better with the glove, but given the proclivities of the staff the shortstop position was the obvious place to sacrifice offense at the alter of defense. But so much for that.
If you needed further evidence of La Russa’s tacit distaste for Anderson, it came last season on April 17. In that 20-inning root canal, La Russa twice — twice! — let a reliever bat with the walk-off run on third base. All the while, Anderson sat marinating on the bench.
Anyhow, La Russa is obviously getting his way this winter. Don’t be surprised if he contrives a way to become frustrated by reserve infielders Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene. If that comes to pass, Aaron Miles will be, menacingly, a phone call away (or maybe Mike Gallego?). Then, against all evidence, he’ll probably refuse to platoon Lance Berkman with Allen Craig, despite the fact that Berkman can’t hit left-handed pitching these days.
None of this is to suggest that La Russa is somehow an awful manager. That’s obviously not true. In many ways, I’m still awed that the ’96 Cardinals made the playoffs and the ’08 Cardinals mustered a winning season. But my suspicion is that La Russa is not very good at managing a team whose young contributors aren’t decidedly “old school” in carriage and bearing. Lack that window dressing, and you might find yourself marginalized, benched or traded.
If nothing else, with Laird’s addition the Cardinals at the margins are now La Russa’s kind of team, and that might turn out to be precisely the problem.