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On Thursday, the St. Louis Cardinals announced they were extending the contract of GM John Mozeliak by three years. Cardinals Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. described it as a "well deserved extension" and it is indicative if Mozeliak's ability to balance payroll while continually keeping St. Louis competitive in the National League.
Mozeliak's biggest splash came this past offseason with the signing of free agent Matt Holliday to largest contract in club history. The seven-year, $120 million deal came on the heels of a midseason trade with the Oakland Athletics for the slugging outfielder that catapulted the Cardinals to the NL Central crown.
Mozeliak was very active last season in tweaking the roster to provide manager Tony LaRussa with the pieces needed to turn a good team into a favorite for the National League pennant. Those dreams died when St. Louis was surprisingly swept out of the playoffs in the first round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, but the GM had played his part well.
He dealt a package of prospects to the Cleveland Indians for veteran utility player Mark DeRosa and then landed the big fish in Holliday. Though DeRosa injured his wrist shortly after the trade and didn't perform as hoped, the trades seemed to invigorate the clubhouse as the team went 20-6 in August and cruised into October. Perhaps more importantly, the moves erased growing frustration amongst an agitated fan-base.
Mozeliak Provides Harmony in the Front Office
Before he was hired as GM after the 2007 season, Mozeliak served as an assistant to Walt Jocketty (now the current Cincinnati Reds GM). Mozeliak is credited with encouraging the club to sign oft-injured OF Ryan Ludwick and current closer Ryan Franklin. Though neither were well-known at the time, they blossomed in St. Louis with both appearing in the All-Star Game during their Cardinal careers.
And in a fractious front office split in a power struggle between Jocketty and VP of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Jeff Luhnow, Mozeliak was often in the unenviable of position of go-between.
While Jockett chafed at the power and the sabermetric-minded Luhnow had been given by DeWitt, Mozeliak has embraced the new style of scouting. He has provided harmony by balancing sabermetric analysis with old-fashioned, first-hand reports from scouts.
Despite initial fears that Mozeliak would be overpowered by the strong will of LaRussa, the two appear to have a good working relationship and mutual respect. Mozeliak has provided the veteran role players the Redbird skipper prefers (Randy Winn, Aaron Miles) and LaRussa has worked well with young talent from the Cardinal farm system (Jaime Garcia, David Freese).
Last season's trades for Holliday and DeRosa depleted prospects from the top levels of the farm system, but most of the young talent involved had low-ceilings (Jess Todd, Shane Peterson) or simply duplicated players already ensconced on the big league roster (Brett Wallace, Chris Perez). Despite being depleted at Triple-A Memphis, the farm system is accumulating high-end talent in the low minors, exemplifying a more cohesive approach to the draft than the Cardinals experienced under Jocketty.
The Khalil Greene Trade
Like any general manager that actively works to improve the roster, mistakes can be made. Injuries and other unforeseen circumstances can unravel even the most sound decisions. Mozeliak did a masterful job of adding Kyle Lohse and Brad Penny to the pitching staff, but now both are on the DL and their chances of making contributions this year seem to fade daily .
But there is one transaction that Mozeliak would love to take back. In the winter of 2009, he traded minor league reliever Mark Worrell and a player to be named later to San Diego for shortstop Khalil Greene. Greene was coming off a disappointing 2008 season , but had enjoyed a superb 2007 campaign .
There were some grumblings at the time of the trade because of his struggles in 2008 capped by having to go on the DL after breaking his hand, punching a clubhouse storage chest out of frustration. But Greene brought hope of an impact bat at SS, and it seemed the Cardinals got him for very little in return.
Greene was a flop with St. Louis. His struggles with social anxiety disorder are well documented and his career is now in shambles. If that wasn't bad enough for the Cardinals and Mozeliak, the PTBNL in that traded ended up being Luke Gregerson. He has since developed into a superior middle-reliever with the Padres.
Mozeliak placed the blame for the failed trade on the Padres, telling The St. Louis Post-Dispatch that "the team had no inkling of Greene's issues before they traded for him." He inferred that San Diego GM Kevin Towers was not forthright about Greene's anxiety issues. Maybe Towers pulled a fast one on the Cardinals GM, but it is also clear that Mozeliak did not do enough research on Greene before pulling the trigger on the trade.
But Mozeliak has earned the benefit of the doubt regardless of that one mistake. He has shown a gift for finding valuable players for very little investment. Last season, he picked up Boston Red Sox castoffs Julio Lugo and John Smolz, who proved to be valuable pieces in the team's second half surge to the playoffs. In spring training this year, he signed Felipe Lopez for a mere $1 million, and Lopez has filled in at many positions vacated by either injuries or poor performance.
For a franchise with big dreams in a small market, such bargains are crucial to the team's continued success on the field.
Now the Hard Work Begins
The contract extension shows ownership's belief that Mozeliak is a fully capable Major League general manager. Such confidence is necessary because in the next three years, he faces more pressure than perhaps any other GM in Major League Baseball.
Priority number one is re-signing Albert Pujols before his contract expires at the end of next season. Pujols is best player in the game and the face of the franchise and Major League Baseball as a whole. Negotiating a contract that pays Pujols his worth, while fitting it into a budget that allows the team to remain competitive, will be tricky. He will need to get this accomplished before being faced with the excruciating decision to either trade the Cardinals' best player in generations for a stockpile of talent or risk losing Pujols to free agency with only compensatory draft picks in return.
There is also the issue of retaining dominant starters Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
2012 is the final year of Carpenter's current contract the club is expected to exercise its option to retain him. He is 10-3 this season, finished a close third in Cy Young Award balloting last year, and provides valuable veteran presence for the pitching staff while being a huge crowd favorite. But Carpenter will turn 38 years old just after the beginning of the 2013 season and Mozeliak must decide how much to invest in an injury-prone, aging right-handed starter.
One of Mozeliak's wisest moves was one of his first. In March 2008, he signed Adam Wainwright to a $15 Million contract good through 2013, including team options. Now, the 28-year old right hander is one of the top starting pitchers in the majors with a 13-5 record and a 2.11 ERA.
He finished second to Tim Lincecum for last year's Cy Young Award that many baseball insiders thought Wainwright should have won. He signed his current deal choosing security over money, but barring something unexpected he would be at the top of the 2014 free agent class and ready to cash in a huge contract. The pressure starts now on Mozeliak to keep room in the payroll to retain this superstar.
If Mozeliak is able to keep these core players and keep St. Louis competing for the National League pennant year after year, he will not only have repaid the club's faith in spades, but also emerge from the long shadow of his former boss, Walt Jocketty.