One of the last things former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said at the podium Sunday night during a dinner that, in part, celebrated his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was to compliment the man who replaced him.
Of all the moves general manager John Mozeliak has made – and there have been many, from acquiring Matt Holliday, to replacing Albert Pujols with Carlos Beltran, to rehabbing and reloading the farm system – La Russa said the best will never swing a bat again or a throw a pitch for the club. He will, however, help define it.

That move, La Russa said, was hiring Mike Matheny as manager.

“When you hear one of the greatest managers of all time pay a compliment to the organization, to Mo, and to myself that’s something that I just don’t dismiss,” said Matheny, who was seated on the dais at the annual St. Louis Baseball Writers’ dinner next to Mozeliak at the time of La Russa’s verbal bouquet. “I also realize that he knows, too, that I walked into a really good situation here and it’s something that I’m very, very grateful for and he knows, too, that I’ve got a long way to go.”

Matheny took over a club that won the World Series and has done what no Cardinals manager before him has – earned a playoff berth in his first two years at the helm. While Matheny’s first roster came pre-stocked with All-Stars and established pitchers, the club he’ll take into his third season shows a shift that has happened behind the sustained success.

The team he inherited has increasingly become the team he’s nurtured, one that reflects him more than predates him.

Fresh off a 97-win season and the league pennant, the Cardinals saw little turnover to their roster but significant change. It’s possibly only Holliday and Yadier Molina will return to the same position they manned last season. Only three pitchers who threw for La Russa in the 2011 World Series remain. Five positions players are still here.

Each previous spring, Matheny described how he would like to deploy more speed in the offense. This spring he has it. Mozeliak traded for fleet-footed center fielder Peter Bourjos and the club intends to give steal-hungry rookie Kolten Wong a chance to win a starting job at second base. Matheny values defense, and the Cardinals upgraded theirs at potentially four positions, including Matt Carpenter shifting to third base. Matheny has embraced the team’s youth movement, turning to 20 rookies during the 2013 season. The club will continue to skew young as 2014 could have four starters with less than three years of experience and ascending prospects in contributing roles. La Russa would recognize only a few faces.