The Real Work Is Just Beginning in St. Louis

On Saturday evening, the Cardinals made the necessary — though arguably tardy — decision to fire manager Mike Matheny. The now-former Cardinals skipper was at the helm of some successful teams, but after two consecutive playoff misses and a mediocre 2018 season, Matheny was shown the door. While managers often receive too much praise for success and too much criticism for a club’s failures — Matheny certainly benefited from inheriting a World Series champion and might ultimately have been fired for piloting this year’s club to just a .500 record — the last few weeks shined an unwelcome light on the Cardinals due to communication issues with Dexter Fowler and the defense of Bud Norris and old-school antics.

While Matheny’s poor bullpen management and recent internal troubles will get a lot of attention, his biggest deficiencies as a manager were (a) an inability (or refusal) to discern his players’ present talent levels and (b) his related preference of managing with his gut. While the latter quality might function as a virtue in some situations, it most famously caused Matheny trouble in the 2014 NLCS when he turned to Michael Wacha after weeks of rest. It has also forced the Cardinals front office to make roster moves around Matheny’s weaknesses instead of playing to his strengths.

When Matheny was provided with depth, he would neglect it, exiling useful players to the bench. When he was provided with clear starters, those starters would receive so much playing time that they were exhausted by late summer. Prospects were sent to Memphis not because they had something to prove in Triple-A but because playing time was at a premium in the majors. Veteran relievers were required because younger options were ignored, and Matheny’s need for fixed roles led directly to the acquisition of Greg Holland, whom Matheny persisted in using even when all indications suggested that such a thing was hurting the club. Mike Mayers drew raves in spring training but, due to Matheny’s insistence than an eighth reliever ought to be reserved for emergencies, was ignored once the season began. The front office is, of course, complicit in accommodating Matheny’s wishes, but they apparently desired to be free from the restrictions the manager put on their decisions. Now they can turn to other, fundamental questions.

Mike Shildt was essentially handpicked by John Mozeliak for his current role. Mozeliak, now serving as the president of baseball operations, hired Shildt back in 2003 when the former was still serving under GM Walt Jocketty. Shildt worked as a coach in the minors for five years before managing short-season Johnson City. He helmed the summer club annually for three years before earning promotions to Double-A Springfield and Triple-A Memphis before eventually earning a post as an MLB coach before the 2017 season. When Mozeliak fired his first shot across Matheny’s bow by removing Chris Maloney as third base coach midway through last year, Shildt took on that role. Shildt has more seasons managing professionally for the Cardinals than the departed Matheny possesses.

Shildt is a George Kissell disciple. Kissell, the longtime organizational fixture, created the work that was eventually codified by Shildt and others into a manual, The Cardinals Way, designed to help learn and teach the fundamentals of the game and created before the haughty pejorative connotations associated with the phrase emerged in public discourse. Shildt earned the managerial job after years of toil in the minors and is considered old school by Yadier Molina but wouldn’t have advanced to this job with the blessing and encouragement of Mozeliak without understanding, embracing, and teaching the modern analytics involved in the game. His presence for the rest of the season should provide the Cardinals with an opportunity to reshape the team, but how best to improve a team in a tough situation involves more questions than immediate answers.

With the All-Star break upon us, this is what the Cardinals’ playoff situation looks like:

If the chart is difficult to decipher, blame the parity in the National League. There are 10 teams with a reasonable shot at the postseason and only two teams — Chicago and Los Angeles — who appear to have a real advantage over the rest. That potentially leaves eight teams fighting for three spots, and five of those clubs look to be in much better position than the Cardinals based on our projections. Those projections present both positives negatives. On the positive side, the Cardinals are projected at roughly average or better at every single position except for Dexter Fowler’s right field. Even there, between Fowler, Harrison Bader, and Tyler O’Neill, the Cardinals should be able to identify some combiantion that gets them close. They have four good, healthy starters plus the injured Michael Wacha and current fill-in John Gant.

As far as the rotation is concerned, there isn’t a whole lot the Cardinals can do to make their team better with external additions. They are basically average or slightly better at every single spot, which means only an All-Star-caliber player is going to represent an upgrade, and even then we might be talking about just a single game of improvement over the course of the regular season. If the Cardinals are going to be better this season, they are going to have to get better internally, and they are going to have to exceed their current expectations. The team still has a decent shot at the playoffs — that might have been what spurred a move now, rather than when hope is lost — but they will need their outfield of Fowler, Ozuna, and Pham to play like they did a year ago and the pitching to stay healthy. Further complicating any moves, most of the team is under contract for next season, as the graph below indicates.

Even if the front office decides not to play for 2018, the Cardinals will have to make hard decisions to compete a year from now. There are nine position players on that list signed through next season at the very least — and that does not include Dexter Fowler, whom the club will employ through the 2021 campaign. There are five starting pitchers under contract for next season, as well. If the Cardinals were indeed a playoff-caliber team heading into the season, as our projections indicated they were, it’s possible that nothing needs to be done. Missing the playoffs for a third straight year would indicate otherwise, though.

No player should be considered untouchable as the team heads to the deadline. Molina won’t get traded, obviously. A deal for Carlos Martinez and probably Paul DeJong seems unlikely, too. Matt Carpenter is probably safe, but the Cardinals have lacked a star for some time, and if they want to turn themselves from fringe playoff contender into something more, they need a five- or six-win player to give themselves a head start and supplement all of the solid, but unspectacular players on their roster. Jose Martinez might fit better on an American League team. Maybe one of their young pitchers our young outfielders need to be packaged for a player who will be with the team beyond this season.

The Cardinals made a necessary move to take their franchise forward. Mike Matheny wasn’t a fit for the organization like they hoped he would be when he was hired. Mike Shildt has earned his spot, understands the organization and its players, and brings together the tradition of the franchise with a willingness to adapt and learn new methods. Attempting to assess what they have and what they need on their roster in the next couple weeks is the organization’s next tough decision. The team’s play on the field, including a crucial five-game set against the Cubs later this week, will determine whether the team is buyers or sellers in the short term. Longer term, removing Mike Matheny might be one of the easier decisions they have to make in trying to return the franchise to the playoffs.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Original Greaser Bob
4 years ago

This could use some editing. Example, “asses”. Feel free to down vote me.

Chicago Mark
4 years ago

The down vote is childish Bob. We need to be more positive.