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Seven Questions on Walt Jocketty with lboros

Yesterday I asked lboros from Viva El Birdos to give us a Cardinals fan's perspective on Walt Jocketty's downfall in St. Louis as well as what made him successful while he was there.  Being the good guy that he is, lboros obliged.  I want to thank him for taking the time to give some rather extensive answers.  I didn't ask him every question that I had, but I feel like we get a pretty good idea of why Jocketty left St. Louis and what fans thought of him towards the end.

Also, at the bottom post there are two links to an evaluation of Jocketty that lboros did at Viva El Birdos back in February that is definitely worth the read.  Thanks lboros!

What is your general impression of Jocketty's style?  Do you trust him?  Did you find yourself scratching your head a lot with his moves?  Was there anything in particular that frustrated you about his methods?  Anything that puts him head-and-shoulders above most general managers?

When he was fired, I characterized Jocketty as a big-game hunter --- “he was like de niro's character in The Deer Hunter, known for taking down his prey with one shot. he tracks without haste, without worry, seemingly without doubt. others might cover twice as much ground, but it's wasted effort, all for show --- they chase dead ends, squander rounds on wild shots, and lose kills they might otherwise have got. this guy just trudges along with his rifle dangling at his shoulder and his senses open to the world --- doesn't hurry, doesn't call attention to himself in any way, just surveys the field and waits for his opening.”

In that post, I quickly reviewed Jocketty’s incredible track record in the trade market. Between 1997 and 2002 he traded for an entire infield full of all-stars (McGwire, Vina, Renteria, and Rolen), plus Jim Edmonds, Darryl Kile, and Woody Williams. The best players he gave up for that package were a couple of so-so closers (Braden Looper and Jose Jimenez), an ok 2bman (Adam Kennedy), and a good 2bman (Placido Polanco). But a few things changed after 2002. First, the Moneyball era began: Advanced metrics and production-per-dollar analysis became more prevalent throughout baseball, and Jocketty’s trade opportunities dried up --- there were fewer teams he could outsmart. Second, the St. Louis ownership maxed out the payroll. Most of the players on the list above were acquire-and-sign additions --- with the lone exception of Renteria, they were all acquired in the last year of their contracts (which is why they were available for so little talent) and then signed to multimillion-dollar extensions. By 2005 the team had risen to #6 in big-league payroll, so this approach wasn’t as readily available to Walt. And finally, the Cardinal farm system stopped producing players that other teams wanted --- well, except for Dan Haren and Daric Barton. Jocketty got horribly burned in that trade (for Mark Mulder), and it really illustrated how the landscape had changed. His formula no longer worked. He could no longer get star players on the cheap and then sign them to extensions; he had to pay full price for them talentwise. That trade occurred in December 2004; he never made another significant trade.

How would you rate his drafts?  He looks like he's had some success in later rounds, but his top picks haven't done much recently.  Is there a clear strategy that has led to this?

I’m not a draft expert, so I’ll answer the question this way: Jocketty’s weakness with respect to the draft / player development was neglect. He didn’t place a lot of emphasis on it, and neither did the Cardinal organization for a number of years. The Triple A roster came to be regarded as a taxi squad for the big-league club ---- a place to stash ex-big leaguers like Wilson Delgado and Timo Perez in case there was a run of injuries. On his watch the team did produce four star-quality players --- Matt Morris, Ankiel, Drew, and Pujols --- but only one (Morris) truly reflected drafting acumen. Ankiel and Drew were pricey Boras signings (ie, everybody wanted them but only the Cardinals were willing to pay the price), and Pujols was a bolt from the blue --- a 13th-rounder who paid unexpected dividends. Producing players for the big-league roster was a secondary function of the farm system under Walt / Tony; its primary role was to produce tradeable commodities.

Would you say it was his plan that drove the team or La Russa's?  Gunn sort of implies that Jocketty was trying to play to La Russa/Duncan's strengths.  Would you agree or would you say that they just had similar philosophies?

I think it was a hand in glove thing. All three guys saw eye to eye in a lot of respects, but particularly this one --- they were aggressive about playing to win now. Jocketty trusted those guys quite a bit: If they said they had a hole, Jock would go out and plug it.

Knowing what we kind of know about Dusty Baker and what you've seen with Jocketty, how would you expect them to meld together?  Do you see similarities or differences in their styles?

Interesting question. Baker’s run of success with the Giants (1993-2002) was very similar to Jocketty’s run of success in St. Louis. The partings were similar too, in a couple of respects: Both men left feeling underappreciated by their owners, and both left just as the veterans on their rosters were evolving from potent late-prime players into overpaid past-prime ones. How will they work together? That’s hard for me to say, but the thing I’ll be watching is their handling of the kids. How will they try to extract max value out of Bailey / Bruce / Cueto et al? --- develop ’em, or trade ’em for established value? If I were a Reds fan, I’d want Walt / Dusty to take the long view, as the Indians did when they had a glut of young talent a few years back --- break the rookies in, give them a few years to hit their stride, and try to build a lasting contender.

As an outsider, it looked to me like Cardinals fans turned on Jocketty pretty quickly.  What would you say was the cause of this?  Or would you say that most fans still wanted Jocketty around this season?

I wanted Jocketty to stay and La Russa to go, and I knew many fans (not necessarily a majority) felt the same way. It worked out the other way around. To the extent that people grew disenchanted with him, it was partly due to this: It became clear that Jocketty was obstructing the organization’s need to get younger and more player-development oriented. Jocketty opposed the front-office rise of Jeff Luhnow, an MBA who never played baseball and didn’t work his way up through the ranks; when Luhnow became the Cards’ head of player development in late 2006, displacing longtime Jocketty ally Bruce Manno, the organization split down the middle. A story came out in the Post-Dispatch on the last weekend of the 2007 regular season in which unnamed figures in the Cardinals’ minor-league hierarchy said they were afraid to be seen talking to Luhnow or his underlings, because there’d be reprisals against them if word got back to Jocketty. Two days later, Jocketty was fired.

The Mulder trade also caused a lot of people to question Jocketty’s sanity (and not just the usual second-guessers --- a decent chunk of Cardinal nation opposed the trade at the time it went down). And then Walt compounded the problem by re-signing Mulder as a free agent after his shoulder surgery. It was as if Jocketty couldn’t admit he was wrong about Mulder --- as if the re-signing was motivated by concern over his personal reputation, rather than the team’s needs.

I don't know a whole lot about the Cardinals ownership.  Were they the driving force behind the team, or do they sit in the shadows and let Jocketty do what Jocketty do?

Not an either-or thing. The owners were a big, unacknowledged part of Jocketty’s success. When he took over, the team was in the bottom half of MLB teams in terms of payroll; by the time he left they were consistently in the top 10 and rose to as high as 6th. Jocketty deserves credit for picking the players; if Jocketty said a certain player was worth the money, the owners generally paid it. Not always, but most of the time.

Seriously, what's the likelihood that Tony La Russa will be working with the Reds in some capacity after his contract is up in 2009?

I wouldn’t bet on it. But nobody can predict what Tony La Russa will do next, or why.