Tony La Russa's retirement isn't exactly shocking -- he's not the first head coach to go out on top, and the man is 67 years old -- but it's certainly surprising, as nearly every indication was that La Russa would return to the Cardinals in 2012.
But he's not returning. Not unless he changes his mind real soon. About 2012, anyway. By historical standards, La Russa's old for a manager and not getting any younger. But in recent years, Bobby Cox managed at 69, Joe Torre at 70, and Jack McKeon at 80. So let's not completely discount the possibility of La Russa returning to the dugout somewhere, eventually.
It sure looks like he'll be taking 2012 off, though. Which will have certain ... ramifications.
Is Albert Pujols gone for sure?
No man except Pujols can stay. But he and La Russa seemed to enjoy a wonderful relationship. If Pujols were going to stay, one imagines that sentiment would play a part in his decision. There presumably is still some sentiment, but La Russa's exit certainly wouldn't seem to help the Cardinals' chances of retaining Pujols. And probably hurts them.
What happens to Dave Duncan?
For years, when asked how long he would manage, La Russa would jokingly respond that he would manage as long as Dave Duncan would run the pitching staff. After stints as pitching coach with the Indians and Mariners, Duncan joined La Russa with the White Sox in 1983 and they've been together ever since; when La Russa moved first to Oakland and then St. Louis, Duncan moved right along with him. La Russa's always given a great deal of credit for his teams' successes to Duncan, and at least one observer (me) believes that Duncan deserves Hall of Fame consideration.
Is this the end of the line for Duncan? Managers usually prefer their own coaches. If the Cardinals promote from within, or if they hire some unknown with little leverage, perhaps Duncan will be retained. But if they hire a name manager, he'll probably want a clean slate on the coaching staff. But if Duncan wants to keep working in baseball, there will be other opportunities.
What happens to Mark McGwire?
Remember when the Cardinals, at La Russa's behest, brought McGwire aboard as hitting coach in 2010? And people said he would be a distraction? And/or that he didn't have any meaningful experience as a coach?
In 2010, the Cardinals moved up one notch in the scoring column, from seventh in the National League to sixth. But in 2011 they jumped to first and just kept on hitting in October. If you believe that hitting coaches make a real difference, you almost have to believe that Mark McGwire richly deserves his forthcoming World Series ring.
Will the Cardinals' new manager want to keep McGwire in place? Will McGwire want to work for anyone but La Russa, who has been such a stalwart supporter? I have my doubts on both counts, especially the latter.
Who's going to manage the Cardinals now?
Who knows? But there are now three excellent jobs available: Cardinals, Red Sox, Cubs. And the opening in St. Louis is going to give the top candidates for those jobs just a bit more leverage, as all three teams might be looking at the same sort of candidate.
Most of all, we might assume that the Cardinals' chances of repeating, not good to begin with, just fell another few percentage points. Say what you want about La Russa, bu the combination of him and Dave Duncan presumably meant a few extra wins for the Cardinals, most years. And replacing them will be difficult if not impossible.