With Tony LaRussa retiring today after winning the 11th championship in St. Louis Cardinals franchise history, the best choice to replace him is Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon.
Maddon has a year left on his contract, so Tampa Bay would have to give permission for St. Louis to negotiate with him. Much of what is outlined here hinges on the idea that the Rays would allow the only successful manager in their 13-year history to leave, which is far from a given.
So let's say Maddon and the Cardinals are able to discuss the opening. Why would Maddon want to manage in St. Louis? After all, he's made the playoffs three times in the last four years and is seen as a savior in the Tampa Bay area.
Well, for one thing, he's been a Cardinals fan since he was 10.
"My dad took me with my Uncle Pete and Hank Toth to a Yankees-White Sox game," Maddon says. "The Yankees won 3-0, Whitey Ford pitched, Johnny Blanchard hit a home run, we exited out the center field gate by the monuments and when we walked outside my dad asked if I wanted a hat.
"I said yes, and I chose the St. Louis baseball Cardinals hat. That's the year I became a Cardinals fan."
On top of that, there's a monetary incentive for Maddon to slide into LaRussa's spot in the dugout.
In the final year of his contract, Tampa Bay will pay him $1.4 million. Right now, the Cardinals could afford to double that and still save money on the managerial spot. LaRussa made $3.8 million in 2011. Hiring Maddon, even at a huge salary increase, wouldn't put a dent in the Cardinals' payroll.
Speaking of payroll, it'd be fascinating to watch Maddon, who managed to make the playoffs thrice with about a $41 million dollar payroll, construct a roster with nearly twice the cash. In 2011, the Rays payed nearly half of what the Cardinals did per win.
If the Cardinals are going to retain Albert Pujols, he's going to take up a serious chunk of cash. The rest of the team will be mostly comprised of young up-and-comers and bargain players, exactly the type of team Maddon's succeeded with in St. Petersburg.
Of course, Maddon would have big shoes to fill. Since 1980, the Cardinals have only had three managers, LaRussa, Joe Torre, and Whitey Herzog. One is already in the Hall of Fame, and the others will join him soon.
Unparalleled stability at the manager position has been a trademark of St. Louis baseball. Joe Maddon, the best manager in baseball, is easily the best choice to join that lineage.