Oquendo a risk, but reward may be rich

Hiring Jose Oquendo as manager not only gives Cardinals continuity after the retirement of Tony La Russa, it also give them their best shot at Albert Pujols.

Tony La Russa retired Monday, taking with him three world championships, six pennants, 2,728 victories and more double switches than any baseball zealot could count.

After La Russa’s announcement, fans and media types posed the most logical follow-up to any news concerning the St. Louis Cardinals: How does this affect Albert Pujols?

The quick answer was that the development would have a negative impact on the Cardinals’ efforts to re-sign Pujols, who became a world champion on Friday and a free agent on Sunday.

By nightfall, though, the forecast for Pujols’ return had improved considerably — because of something pitching coach Dave Duncan said.

Confused? Don’t be. This is much less convoluted than bullpen communication at Rangers Ballpark.

Here’s what you need to know:

1. David Eckstein, who played with Pujols for three seasons in St. Louis, told me in a Monday interview that he believes Pujols will return to the Cardinals if they hire third-base coach Jose Oquendo as their new manager. “Albert would stay if Oquendo got the job,” Eckstein said.

2. Duncan said in an interview later Monday that he intends to return to the Cardinals in 2012 — as the pitching coach, not the manager.

3. The presence of Duncan — possibly the greatest pitching coach of all time — gives the Cardinals greater leeway to hire someone who hasn’t managed in the major leagues . . . such as the 48-year-old Oquendo.

I don’t know if there is a frontrunner to be the Cardinals’ next manager. The search is less than 24 hours old. I do, however, believe Oquendo is the most logical option — if they plan on retaining their franchise player.

“I know that they are pretty close,” said Randy Winn, the former All-Star outfielder who played for the Cardinals last year. “They got along really well. But there’s going to be a lot of other factors in play. Albert’s a great, great player. He’s going to command a large contract.

“I wouldn’t say it’s all about money, because Albert loves St. Louis. He loves playing there. He loves everything about it. But it’s going to come down to more than a single relationship.”

For that reason, Oquendo must pass the Byron Scott Test: If the homegrown superstar leaves, anyway, can Oquendo still do the job?

The answer is yes.

He spent 12 seasons as a major league infielder. He has worked for 12 seasons as the Cardinals’ third-base coach, a job that requires feel for how to run a game. He managed the Puerto Rican team in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classics. He interviewed for managerial openings with the Padres, Mariners and Mets over the past several years.

A native of Puerto Rico, Oquendo would be the fourth Latino manager in the major leagues, joining Manny Acta (Indians), Fredi Gonzalez (Braves), and Ozzie Guillen (Marlins).

Oquendo offers continuity — the Cardinals’ offseason watchword, at least where Pujols is concerned. With the possible exception of Pujols, the team’s core is going to return in 2012. Co-ace Adam Wainwright will be back from elbow surgery. Lance Berkman re-upped.

General manager John Mozeliak has decisions to make at second base, shortstop and center field, so it’s not as if the roster will be stale. But there is no need to overhaul a program that has worked so well for so many years. This could be baseball’s answer to the coach-in-waiting plans that are all the rage in college football.

Duncan is the linchpin. He handles the pitching staff with painstaking care, drawing on decades of experience and consulting his hallowed book. Oquendo understands how Duncan works, in a manner that an outside candidate would not. Oquendo’s inexperience would be mitigated by Duncan’s pitching expertise, allowing the new manager to focus on other aspects of the game.

A veteran manager, meanwhile, likely would arrive in St. Louis with strong ideas about the makeup of his staff. What, then, would become of La Russa’s longtime employees? Dave McKay has been the first-base coach for 16 years, Joe Pettini the bench coach for 10. Hitting coach Mark McGwire is a longtime La Russa loyalist. Imagine the message that would be sent if they were let go. Congratulations on the championship, but we don’t need you anymore. The new manager is bringing his own coaches.

How do you think Pujols would interpret that?

But hire Oquendo, and Pujols would be motivated to return to St. Louis and help his friend succeed.

“My initial reaction (after learning of La Russa’s retirement) was, ‘It needs to be Jose Oquendo,’ ” Eckstein said. “When you played for Tony, you didn’t want to disappoint him. When I was playing infield for Jose, I didn’t want to disappoint him. I know how much he has put into this. . . . The guys love Jose. When I was there, I could tell they were grooming him to be the next manager if he stayed around.”

Eckstein dismissed any notion that Oquendo’s relationships with the players would hurt his ability to lead and impose discipline when necessary. In fact, Eckstein said Oquendo compares favorably to Joe Maddon and Ron Roenicke, who coached under Mike Scioscia while Eckstein was playing for the Angels. As managers, Maddon (Rays) and Roenicke (Brewers) led their teams to the postseason this year.

“He’s living and dying with you on every play,” Eckstein said of Oquendo. “He’s very well-respected in St. Louis, very well-respected by the players. He’ll make you play hard. . . . I think he might be a little more aggressive (than Tony) in some ways. He loves to put guys in motion and play that kind of baseball — the kind that wins, year in and year out.”

Candidates who have managed in the major leagues will line up for this job. The Cardinals are the defending World Series champions. They have a lot of talent coming back, Pujols or no Pujols. This is a really good gig. Terry Francona, suddenly a free agent, has experience in the National League — not to mention two World Series rings.

Bobby Valentine has been mentioned, but it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals choosing a celebrity manager with whom La Russa has clashed over the years. La Russa is unlikely to recommend Valentine as his successor. The organization will want to do right by him.

Oquendo would be a risk, as is every first-time manager. But of the eight teams to reach the postseason this year, four were led by men who are still in their first managerial jobs. They all have to get their start somewhere. The Cardinals can offer that opportunity to someone who deserves it — and just so happens to be tight with the man whose signature would make the offseason an unqualified success.

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