John Mozeliak's choice for a new manager will be his most important decision since becoming the Cardinals' general manager after the 2007 season. Yes, bigger than his controversial call to trade Colby Rasmus. How do you replace Tony La Russa? You can't really. But it's possible to make a terrific hire.
If Mozeliak makes the wrong pick, it could set the franchise back for years. In some ways, the jockeying for a new manager represents the first challenge match between Mozeliak and the Cubs' new regime, led by team president Theo Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer.
That's especially true if the Cubs and Cardinals each pursue former Boston manager Terry Francona, who teamed with Epstein to win two World Series (2004, 2007) for the Red Sox. Though both men departed Boston after a stormy end to the 2011 season, Epstein and Francona are said to be on good terms.
Advantage, Cubs? Not so fast. Though Epstein and Hoyer should make the Cubs more formidable, and they will be worthy opponents, there's a lot of work to do at Wrigleyville. If we're talking about the potential for winning big over the next couple of seasons, the Cardinals have the better situation for a manager.
It's hard to understand this dragging out. If Francona wants your job, then hire him and get on with the next item of business. This team has to attempt to sign Albert Pujols, find a shortstop, locate a lefty reliever and come up with a right-handed bat that can complement Jon Jay in center field.
The Cardinals are not a rebuilding franchise. The Cardinals are not a training-ground franchise. The Cardinals aren't on a five-year plan. This job shouldn't be given to a star-search audition winner.
The St. Louis managing job is ready-made for success. Since the start of the 1965 season, the Cardinals have played 7,484 regular-season games. And 6,849 of the games - 91.5 percent - were managed by Red Schoendienst, Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre or La Russa.
Does this sound like an assignment that you hand to an unproven manager or a newbie?
Jose Oquendo has waited for a shot at the managing job, and his loyalty is appreciated. But that doesn't mean he's entitled to the job, or the best choice for it. Truth is, we don't know what kind of manager Oquendo would be. And hiring him for the wrong reason - because he's Pujols' buddy - would be a mistake. The Cardinals could use a fresh presence at the top.
Unless he is committed to rejoining Epstein in Chicago, Francona is the obvious choice for the Cardinals. This should be Mozeliak's easiest decision of the offseason.