As La Russa goes, so might Pujols

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

It is easy to get entangled in the hysteria of the moment, and that’s what the whole Tony La Russa-Colby Rasmus(notes) conflagration was: hysterical, sticky like pine tar and, ultimately, short-sighted. The biggest issue isn't whether La Russa or Rasmus goes. It's whether Albert Pujols(notes) stays.

Never forget this: When it comes to baseball in St. Louis, everything circles back to Pujols – to his happiness, to his continued success, to his wearing a Cardinals uniform until he retires. The fan base is split practically down the middle on the La Russa-Rasmus issue. If Gallup surveyed 100 Cardinals fans on Pujols, 101 would want him to remain in St. Louis after the 2011 season, when he's set to become a free agent.

So as the fallout from La Russa and Rasmus unfolds, it's important to view the issue through the Pujols prism. He isn’t going to bolt town if Colby Rasmus leaves. He damn sure might if Tony La Russa does.

"I hope he can continue to be my manager for the rest of my career," Pujols said. "But that's not my job, and I don't make those decisions. I think this city should be appreciative of the things he has accomplished in his 15 years as manager in this organization. Hopefully, he'll be here next year and for the rest of my career."

Throughout an interview Sunday morning, Pujols exhibited unflagging loyalty toward La Russa, whether through the hopes that he returns this offseason – La Russa's contract runs out after this year – or in the manager's battle with his 24-year-old center fielder. Rasmus' wavering on his commitment to the Cardinals organization bothered Pujols so much he went public with his distaste to Yahoo! Sports, then later reiterated it to a crowd of media. Never, Pujols said, has he questioned La Russa's motives or intentions.

"He cares about winning, and he cares about this organization," Pujols said. "That's something he has shown since the moment I got to the big leagues – to be able to help us players, young players, and give us trust and let us play. That's something you need to appreciate from your manager."

The Rasmus situation comes at a particularly rough time for La Russa's survival in St. Louis. It isn't just the feud. The team cauterized its self-inflicted wounds too late for a playoff berth during a season in which it will finish with three starters whose ERAs are below 3.00. Whether he has worn out his welcome is immaterial. Perhaps the welcome has worn him out.

There will be plenty of jobs open this offseason, plenty of places where La Russa can do what he enjoys most: (over)manage games, and do so successfully. Not through his players' talent alone, either, but an incredible force of will – an ability unmatched in baseball, and perhaps American professional sports, to foster a culture that breeds winning. The tips and tricks and psychological ploys La Russa utilize make him invaluable: the manager who, in addition to the little things on the field, manages the big ones in the brain.

How that plays with the next generation of players will determine whether the 66-year-old La Russa turns into a fossil overnight. The previous generation wasn't exactly immune to La Russa's act; Scott Rolen(notes), Jim Edmonds(notes) and J.D. Drew(notes) left on poor terms. Rasmus is a wildly talented, productive player whose habits have chafed La Russa like underwear made of sandpaper. Jon Jay(notes), on the other hand, is a moderately talented, moderately productive player whose attitude tickles La Russa. The proper use of whippersnappers is at the heart of the debate.

"My favorite team is the team that has a nice mix," La Russa said. "You have some veterans and some young guys who are enthusiastic. They don't get hurt as much. They want to learn. They don't have all the answers. I enjoy the young players. If you have a totally young club, you're probably going to be at a competitive disadvantage at some point because you're learning to lose games. Experience is an equalizer."

This is particularly important for La Russa, and for the Cardinals, because if they do re-sign Pujols, their new manager must be adept at handling a revolving kiddie squad. Let's assume Pujols will cost $25 million a year – a conservative figure considering this is his last big free agent contract and his agent, Dan Lozano, recently broke off from the Beverly Hills Sports Council and will look for a landmark deal to establish himself in the Scott Boras ether. And also, for argument's sake, figure the Cardinals will look to extend ace Adam Wainwright(notes) beyond his current contract, which, with options, runs through 2013. That will take around $18 million a year. Plop Matt Holliday's(notes) $17 million-a-year deal on top of that, and suddenly the Cardinals are top heavy $60 million a year, with owners preferring to keep the team's payroll under $100 million.

Spreading out the remaining $40 million over 22 players is an unenviable task, particularly with the minimum salary likely to jump in the next collective-bargaining agreement. Already the Cardinals have trouble with Holliday, Pujols and Chris Carpenter(notes) making a combined $47.5 million. If Pujols does re-sign, it puts an serious burden on the Cardinals' farm system to produce.

Which it has, to some degree. Starter Jaime Garcia(notes) probably will win Rookie of the Year. Third baseman David Freese(notes) looked good before season-ending ankle surgery. Jason Motte(notes) should close next year. It's the upside of the system from Jeff Luhnow, the Cardinals' scouting-and-player development point man, that has been in question. He skews toward safe. Walt Jocketty, whose divorce from the Cardinals was a product of Luhnow's ascent, is succeeding as Cincinnati Reds general manager with high-risk, high-reward players.

The Reds aren't going away, not this year and certainly not in the future. And so Cardinals GM John Mozeliak heads into this offseason not just with the La Russa decision or the La Russa-vs.-Rasmus decision but the Pujols decision, and how that affects everything.

The irony is rich: If Pujols stays, La Russa might have to go.

"All I'm thinking is to try and finish this season strong," Pujols said. "I've still got another year next year."

This offseason, as the Cardinals assess their future, only one thing will be certain: They will pick up the $16 million option on Pujols' contract and bring him back for his 11th season. He turns 31 in January, and it will still be the no-brainer of no-brainers. He has the highest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage among active players. He was the third fastest to reach 400 home runs. He is a good citizen, active in the community and charity, never in any trouble. And he is St. Louis' – for now.

Beyond that is not a given. If Pujols wants eight years, is that too many? And if he asks for more than $25 million a year, is that too much? And if the Cardinals get the sense in this integral offseason that they might not be willing or able to match his demands, how does that affect La Russa, who looks at Pujols like a son as much as Pujols regards him a father figure?

The issues bubbling to the surface go far beyond Rasmus' future with the Cardinals or La Russa's legacy with the team. This is about Albert Pujols. It always will be. And those who love him so can only pray the web being woven in St. Louis won't ensnare him.

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