The 20 best players of Tony La Russa’s managerial career

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

In his 33 years in the manager's seat, Tony La Russa managed three teams to six pennants and three World Series titles. Over the course of his tenure, he managed 625 players, seven of whom made it to the Hall of Fame and several others who have strong cases, including Albert Pujols, who's already a first-ballot no-brainer. Tony simply managed too many stars for us to present a list of his best players that cut off at his uniform number, No. 10, so here we present the 20 best players that Tony La Russa ever skippered to success.

Note: The * designates a Hall of Fame member who will soon be joined in Cooperstown by La Russa himself. All listed stats compiled in the player's time under TLR.

20. Ozzie Smith* .282/.358/.370, 2 HR, 18 RBI, 7 SB, 5 CS, 1.5 rWAR
19. Goose Gossage* 4-7, 69 G, 85 2/3 IP, 3.78 ERA, 0.8 rWAR
18. Steve Carlton* 4-3, 10 G, 63 1/3 IP, 3.69 ERA, 0.8 rWAR
These three players are all in the Hall of Fame, so it would have been hard to leave them off the list, but Tony didn't have much to do with their spectacular careers. The Wizard of Oz only played 82 games for La Russa, Gossage only pitched 85.2 innings, and Carlton only pitched 63 1/3 innings, all coming after each man had turned 40. {YSP:MORE}

17. Tom Seaver* 33-28, 81 G, 547 1/3, 3.67 ERA, 9 rWAR
Relative to his overall career, Tom Terrific is another player who didn't spend a great deal of time in uniform for Tony, and like the others, Seaver did his time at the end of his career, from ages 39 to 41 with the White Sox. But he was still solid, and at the age of 40 he had one of the better seasons of his career, a terrific 1985 in which he pitched 238 2/3 innings with a 3.17 ERA, finishing sixth in the AL in ERA and 12th in innings pitched.

16. Carlton Fisk* .252/.320/.434, 119 HR, 409 RBI, 54 SB, 23 CS, 14 rWAR
Fisk played six seasons for LaRussa in Chicago, from ages 33-38. For most catchers that would be the end of their careers, but Pudge was like the Energizer Bunny. He played seven more seasons after La Russa was fired, five of them as a productive everyday player. He retired in 1993, after he had turned 45.

15. Harold Baines .287/.331/.468, 140 HR, 589 RBI, 29 SB, 18 CS, 16 rWAR
There is a non-trivial case for Harold Baines as a Hall of Famer, but he has an uphill climb as a man who played the majority of his career as a designated hitter. He won't make it without a radical change in the current Veterans Committee or a willingness to expand the Hall of Fame.

14. Dennis Eckersley* 42-42, 386 SV, 645 G, 750 IP, 16.5 rWAR
It is not too much to say that Tony La Russa is the reason that Dennis Eckersley is in the Hall of Fame, as he moved Eck — a 32-year-old starting pitcher whose career was in decline — to the bullpen, where Eckersley quickly emerged as the most dominating closer in the game.

13. Dave Stewart 119-78, 257 G, 1717 1/3 IP, 3.73 ERA, 16.9 rWAR
The ace of the 1989 World Champions isn't often remembered as one of the best pitchers of the past quarter-century, but from 1987 to 1990 there were few more devastating pitchers in the game. He won 20 games and finished in the top four of the Cy Young ranking in each of those years, and went 7-3 with a 2.13 in 12 playoff games for the A's during those years, as the team won two league championships and one World Series.

12. Adam Wainwright 66-35, 3 SV, 182 G, 874 1/3 IP, 2.97 ERA, 18.4 rWAR
First emerging as the closer for the 2006 champs, the man whose preseason injury seemed to rule out any chance of a successful Cardinals season is on his way to being one of the great hurlers in the history of the franchise. Wainwright's injury history in the minor leagues was one reason that was cited for the Braves' willingness to trade him, but as long as he can stay healthy following his Tommy John surgery, he's likely to remain one of the top pitchers in the league for years to come.

11. J.D. Drew .282/.377/.498, 96 HR, 280 RBI, 59 SB, 19 CS, 19.4 rWAR
The man traded for Adam Wainwright was often criticized for his own propensity to injury, and what fans saw as an inability to get the most out of his talent. But despite the frequent injuries he was a pretty good player during his Cardinal tenure, basically a more fragile version of Bobby Abreu. There's no telling what he could have done if he had been able to play 150 games a year (his career high is 146, with the Dodgers in 2006), but when he has been on the field he has been a five-tool talent.

10. Dave Henderson .263/.325/.445, 104 HR, 377 RBI, 19 SB, 19 CS, 20 rWAR
The other Dave (and other Henderson, for that matter) on the world champion 1989 A's was this big power hitter. Hendu didn't have great plate discipline, and outside of his 1988-1991 peak he had a pretty mediocre career. But something clicked in Oakland, and he became Tony LaRussa's utility slugger, batting anywhere from second to fifth, in front of and behind the Bash Brothers, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco.

9. Terry Steinbach .275/.326/.411, 97 HR, 495 RBI, 15 SB, 17 CS, 21.4 rWAR
As the A's catcher, Steinbach was one of the better backstops of his era. He had a bizarre power peak at age 34 on the 1996 Athletics, hitting 35 homers after never having hit more than 16 in any single season. But he was a three-time All-Star for LaRussa, playing his first 11 seasons in Oakland before finishing his career in Minnesota.

8. Ray Lankford .278/.377/.513, 145 HR, 478 RBI, 107 SB, 37 CS, 22.6 rWAR
One of the underappreciated stars of an inflated era, Ray Lankford played all but 121 of his career games in St. Louis, where he had a career remarkably similar to J.D. Drew's, a five-tool player who struggled to stay on the field.

7. Scott Rolen .286/.370/.510, 111 HR, 453 RBI, 33 SB, 17 CS, 25.3 rWAR
Of all of LaRussa's players on the Hall of Fame bubble — along with Harold Baines, Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds — Rolen is perhaps the most deserving of being enshrined. But because he played third base, the most historically underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame, he'll have to get in line behind Ron Santo.

6. Chris Carpenter 95-42, 195 G, 1331 2/3 IP, 3.06 ERA, 25.7 rWAR
Carp cemented his hero credentials with a gutty performance in Game 7, holding the Rangers to just two first-inning runs as his Cardinals won their second World Series in his time with the team. Like Roy Halladay, Carpenter was a Blue Jays pitcher of massive promise who initially struggled to harness his gifts, but who later transformed himself into one of the best hurlers in baseball. He has struggled with injuries, missing the 2003 season and most of 2007 and 2008. But when he's been on the field, he's been spectacular.

5. Jose Canseco .266/.347/.512, 226 HR, 706 RBI, 126 SB, 52 CS, 27.5 rWAR
Perhaps it's remarkable that Canseco, a one-time rookie of the year and MVP who was the first player in major-league history to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season, is hardly remembered for his on-field accomplishments. But Canseco almost singlehandedly touched off the firestorm, pulling the curtain on steroids in baseball and forever changing his legacy — as well as the legacy of his onetime teammate Mark McGwire. La Russa has always denied any knowledge of steroids in his clubhouses, but his critics often wonder how he could not have suspected anything.

4. Rickey Henderson* .295/.425/.471, 102 HR, 320 RBI, 308 SB, 68 CS, 37.3 rWAR
Calling Henderson the greatest leadoff hitter of all time is almost reductive; so is calling him the third-greatest left fielder ever, behind only Ted Williams and Barry Bonds. His former teammate, Mitchell Page, had a much simpler description for Rickey:

It wasn't until I saw Rickey that I understood what baseball was about. Rickey Henderson is a run, man. That's it.

3. Jim Edmonds .285/.393/.555, 241 HR, 713 RBI, 37 SB, 24 CS, 45.3 rWAR
I took a fair amount of heat for putting Jim Edmonds ahead of Lou Brock on my list of the 10 best Cardinals in team history, but there's just no way around it. During his eight years in St. Louis, Edmonds was the best all-around center fielder in baseball, combining good defense with massive power and a terrific batting eye. (Andruw Jones had the first two but lacked the third.) Edmonds was a three-time All-Star, twice was in the top five of the MVP vote, and was nearly as good a hitter as Pujols during much of their time together.

2. Mark McGwire .258/.389/.574, 497 HR, 1220 RBI, 11 SB, 8 CS, 53.9 rWAR
Mark McGwire well encapsulates the problems of the steroid era: One of the most gifted power hitters of all time, McGwire hit 583 homers in his career yet finished with only 1,626 hits in 16 seasons. (Just for comparison, Juan Pierre has 2,020 hits in 12 seasons.) During his record-setting 1998 season, McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the two faces of baseball's resurgence, restoring fan love for a sport that had severely tested their patience by canceling the 1994 playoffs. So it was understandable that no one in baseball wanted to confront the ugly truth behind all those home runs. But while we still dealt with the fallout, La Russa moved on, bringing a confessed McGwire aboard as his hitting coach. Several of the Cardinals' young hitters, including World Series hero David Freese, have cited Mac's influence as a big part of their success.

1. Albert Pujols .328/.420/.617, 445 HR, 1329 RBI, 84 SB, 35 CS, 89 rWAR
After La Russa announced his retirement Monday, many in St. Louis immediately turned their thoughts to Pujols, a free agent who has only ever played for one manager, and whose loyalty to Tony La Russa was seen as a major factor keeping him in St. Louis. If Pujols remains a Cardinal for another five years, he would be the consensus greatest player in the history of the franchise, unseating the venerable Stan Musial. If he goes elsewhere, he will merely remain the greatest player of his generation, not to mention the greatest player La Russa ever managed. To be a great manager, you have to be both lucky and good. In his time with Pujols, a Single-A player in 2001 who parlayed a torrid spring training into a starting job, LaRussa was assuredly both lucky and good. Two world championships later, their partnership has ended. But it was remarkable while it lasted.

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