Will LaRocque Dodge Another Bullet or Get the Mets GM Job?

photo: Gary LaRocque (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

St. Louis Cardinals Director of Player Development Gary LaRocque was one of the first publicly identified candidates for the current general manager opening with the New York Mets. Before the 65-year old joined the Cardinals a decade ago, he filled various executive positions for the Mets, including scouting director, and is reportedly highly-respected by owner Fred Wilpon.

Several other high-profile executives across the game have declined to interview for the position. Speculation about reasons why include direction from the Wilpons – Fred and his COO son Jeff – that the incumbent assistant general manager and two special assistants, both former GMs themselves, will remain in their current roles. The Wilpons also have a reputation of being hands-on owners.

In other words, there are already a lot of cooks in the Mets’ kitchen. Will the new GM be allowed to be the head chef?

LaRocque has another admirer in high places, Boston Red Sox vice president and special assistant and retired St. Louis’ Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa. Most ironically, four years ago, La Russa interviewed and turned LaRocque down for his own general manager opening in Arizona.

Tony La Russa (Getty Images)

In an interview with the New York Post, La Russa offered his support of LaRocque for the Mets job, both for what the latter has accomplished with the Cardinals farm system and because he had impressed La Russa back in September 2014 when LaRocque interviewed with him for the Arizona Diamondbacks’ GM position.

La Russa, then Arizona’s Chief Baseball Officer with responsibility for the team’s baseball operations, told the Post he was “blown away” by LaRocque’s presentation, but his actions at the time did not jibe. Player agent and La Russa’s former Oakland pitcher Dave Stewart received the job instead.

LaRussa then tried to hire LaRocque for a position he paints as being equivalent to general manager, but says that permission was denied by St. Louis.

It is great that La Russa is backing LaRocque and I hope the  Cardinals executive gets his chance to lead a major league organization. His extensive history with the Mets make it appear to be his best possible and maybe only remaining shot. Like it or not, most of today’s new GMs are age 30-something Ivy League-educated MBAs, not 50-year baseball lifers with broad and deep experience in the game.

Having said that, La Russa seems to be playing loose with his words. While the rage in baseball is to have multiple presidents, a custom I find perplexing, no team has had two general managers at once, to the best of my knowledge. That included his own Arizona regime.

Dave Stewart (Mark J, Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Stewart’s official title under La Russa was Senior Vice President and General Manager. De Jon Watson, who had been with the Dodgers, was hired in La Russa’s supposed “equivalent to GM” position, titled Senior Vice President, Baseball Operations. In layman’s terms, Watson was responsible for scouting and player development – just a portion of what a regular GM oversees – and closer to Jeff Luhnow’s role when he was with the Cardinals.

While La Russa can call that equivalent to a general manager, it was not. Stewart was his GM – plain and simple.

Knowing that LaRocque was already leading Cardinals player development and had previously been a scouting director made it understandable why the Cardinals allegedly put the brakes on La Russa’s Arizona Plan B.

As two tumultuous seasons in the desert for La Russa, Stewart and Watson neared conclusion, in August 2016, the club did not immediately pick up options on the latter pair’s contracts.

De Jon Watson (Mark J, Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports)

Watson reportedly pressed the matter, anxious to clarify his status, and was let go in September.

At the time, La Russa shared his take.

“As we’ve worked through a couple of years, there’s more communication like I’m having with scouting and player development, and Stew is having the same,” La Russa said. “It’s not that there’s not a role for someone like De Jon, but that’s a possibility that there’s some duplication.”

A month later, La Russa was told to fire Stewart.

It was hardly unexpected, given a series of high-profile missteps and criticism over Stewart’s inexperience, as well as the most damning factor – no improvement of the Diamondbacks on the field.

Stewart famously reacted in the following manner.

“To be honest with you, I’m kind of relieved,” he said. “Quite frankly, I’ve got better things to do.”

A few weeks later, Dave Hazen was hired as general manager to oversee all of baseball operations and La Russa was stripped of his power. The latter remained for the final year of his contract in another specially-created position, chief baseball analyst-advisor.

In early 2017, Arizona team president Derrick Hall looked back at the La Russa-Stewart-Watson regime.

“We probably had ‘too many cooks in the kitchen’,” Hall told MLB Network Radio. “If we had to do it over again, we probably wouldn’t have done it that way.”

In other words, LaRocque seems to have dodged a bullet by not joining La Russa’s collection of short-order (or perhaps more appropriately, short-tenured) cooks in Arizona.

It remains to be seen if LaRocque’s chances to develop a recipe for success would be better in New York, but one cannot fault him for trying.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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