Mozeliak's Cardinals and Matheny's New Coaches

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Mike Matheny should not be the St. Louis Cardinals' manager. He has no coaching or managerial experience at any level other than as a special instructor during Spring Training. The Cardinals, and John Mozeliak in particular, encouraged his return to baseball because of how much they respect him. However, of the six candidates Matheny was by far the least qualified. It seemed at first as if the Cardinals were looking only at candidates with major league experience, but clearly that was not the case. "Mo" and Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt made it clear they were not as concerned with his lack of experience, and Matheny himself said after his interview,

They made it clear that this is a leadership position and that what they were looking for to fill the role is a leader. Yes, there are the baseball things and the knowledge of baseball, but we talked a lot about the characteristics that are necessary to be a leader at this level and a leader of that clubhouse.

While there is a great deal of truth to that assessment of the role of modern major league manager, Matheny's lack of experience with "baseball things and the knowledge of baseball" is so utterly deficient compared to the other candidates it seems almost absurd he would be given the job. In any corporation in America, he would have to be the son of the CEO's best friend in order to get the job. Which, as many beat writers and bloggers have pointed out, is probably precisely why he got the job.

What a number of fans probably don't realize is Tony LaRussa was the most powerful man in the Cardinals organization since he won the World Series in 2006 and Walt Jocketty was fired after the 2007 season. Since Mozeliak took over there has been a concerted effort to return to the days of Branch Rickey when for years the Cardinals had the best farm system (and indeed the only farm system for several years) in all of baseball that regularly produced cornerstone players for the parent club. Two recent examples provide illustration of what Mozeliak is trying to prevent with Matheny's hire.

By now no Cardinals fan is unfamiliar with the stories of Brendan Ryan and Colby Rasums. TLR forced the trades of both players because they did not get along with him.** The only reason Rasmus (a five-tool player in the Grady Sizemore mold) was ever available in the first place was because of his strained relationship with TLR. What is more interesting is Brendan Ryan's story. The Cardinals have for years now been looking for their "shortstop of the future", ever since The Wizard retired and Edgar Renteria wanted more money than the Cardinals were willing to give him. They have made several trades and moves to acquire a shortstop in the past year (Ryan Theriot, Daniel Descalso, Nick Punto, Tyler Green, Pete Kozma, Rafael Furcal) out of concern for their defense, when all along they had an elite defensive shortstop in Ryan. He was driven out of town for the cardinal (no pun intended) sin of having the wrong attitude; something that could have been fixed through veteran leadership. But because he rubbed TLR the wrong way, he was shown the door.

**I will admit the Rasmus trade can no longer be questioned because it gave TLR the pieces he needed to win the World Series. It did not guarantee a WS win, but it would not have happened without trading Rasmus. I no longer care what Rasmus' career arc is; it was worth sacrificing him for our 11th World Series.

I am not saying the Rasums and Ryan trades should not have happened or were bad or good, nor am I discounting the importance of team chemistry. What I am pointing out is those trades were made with no thought given to the big picture plan for the team. They were made solely because TLR wanted those two players gone.  That is the sort of thing that will never happen with Matheny as the manager. Mozeliak is making it clear this is his team and he will run and build it as he sees fit. Yes, Matheny will have input as far as the 40-man roster, Spring Training invites, trades and the several MLB drafts are concerned, and clearly if there is a problem in the clubhouse he will work with Mozeliak to resolve it. However, Matheny will largely work with the players he is given, and any problems will be resolved in respect to the overall blueprint Mozeliak has for the team, not Matheny's whims.

The other side of the Matheny hire is no one really knows how he will fare as a manager. He has no track record on any level, and the reviews on unconventional hires (such as his and Robin Ventura's of the White Sox) are mixed. The Diamondbacks were terrible in their one-plus year under front-office-man-turned-manager A.J. Hinch, who was promptly fired in July 2010. Two even more unconventional hires, Jerry Coleman of the Padres (1980) and Larry Dierker of the Astros (1997), were both former broadcasters before being hired as their teams' managers. Coleman only lasted a year, going 73-89. This wasn't a surprise; they were terrible the year before and actually improved by five wins. Dierker actually won four NL Central titles with the Astros, though that had much more to do with the fact the Astros were loaded with a core of Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman than any managerial skills he possessed (as a side note, the Astros lost in the NLDS all four of those years).

Now, at the top of the blog I said Matheny should not be the Cardinals manager. That is not my opinion of the hire, merely an assessment of his resume compared to the other candidates'. Whether this will be a good hire or a poor one will depend much more on the talent Mozeliak can put on the roster than any managerial skill Matheny might have. He might turn out to be a fantastic manager, being able to be a leader of men and a decent tactician. What he lacks in TLR's skill with the X's and O's of the game, he will have to make up for in his leadership abilities in order to succeed. The Rangers and Ron Washington proved you can have great success and be one of the worst tacticians in the game. Sure, they lost the World Series two years in a row, but they were also in the World Series two years in a row, something incredibly difficult to do in the Wild Card era.

What Matheny's downfall may ultimately be is too high of expectations. TLR is arguably the best X's and O's manager in baseball history and no one is going to be able to teach that level of understanding to Matheny. He must learn through experience, and more importantly, failure. For baseball is a game defined by failure. And it is not critically important Matheny be a great strategist right off the bat. As discussed above, the talent level of players usually has more to do with the success or failure of a manager than his tactical skill set. However, where bad X's and O's managers are exposed are in small sample sizes like 7-game playoff series. If Ron Washington had Nelson Cruz positioned properly, Game 6 would be remembered as the sloppy, run-happy conclusion to the run-fest everyone predicted the Rangers-Cardinals World Series would be. The Cardinals won the World Series in large part because TLR simply out-managed and out-maneuvered Ron Washington. But it would be hard to be as bad tactically as Ron Washington, so take heart Cardinal fans. 

I personally like Matheny's hire. Or at the very least I do not dislike his hiring. I hope he succeeds because I always respected and liked him as a catcher. I also believe he has the intellect and drive to be a very successful manager. But it is clear his power will be limited, unlike the incomparable TLR.

With that said, Matheny must get to work hiring a new coaching staff. I originally set out to write this post about the new coaching staff, then got sidetracked and wrote about Mo instead. So here are some thoughts on who could be back at the five major coaching positions and whom they might get to replace them.

Pitching Coach. Dave Duncan. Thankfully, Dunc is already under contract for next year, with an option for 2013. The Cardinals' most important coach, he could be the first coach ever elected to the Hall of Fame. He is also probably the only member of the coaching staff Mozeliak respects enough to keep around, as his contributions to the team over the years are undeniable. Duncan has said he is only as available as his wife's health permits, but at last one year of Dave Duncan as his pitching coach will give Matheny the smoothest possible transition into the majors. When looking to replace Duncan (most likely after the 2012 season), the Cardinals should turn to either Padres' pitching coach Darren Balsley or Greg Maddux. Maddux-Lite of the Rangers is a possibility, but he seems to want to make a career move up, not sideways. I personally vote for Greg Maddux, who could very well be the next Dave Duncan 

Bench Coach. Former: Joe Pettini. Who Matheny should pick: Pettini. Who the Cardinals will hire: Chris Malony (formerly of the AAA Memphis Redbirds). Reasons for hiring Pettini: he was TLR's bench coach for 9 years. He would be invaluable in helping Matheny understand the X's and O's of the game from inside the dugout instead of from behind the plate. He, along with Dave Duncan, would just make Matheny's landing that much easier. Reasons against hiring Pettini: he was TLR's bench coach for 9 years. This is Mozeliak's team now, and he may not be comfortable with keeping many vestiges of the TLR era around. But with the Cardinals promoting Malony, the most obvious place for him is as the bench coach. It allows Mozeliak to retain total top-down control of the organization, and gives Matheny someone to teach him how to be a manager.

Batting Coach. Former: Mark McGwire. Who Matheny will pick: Not Mark McGwire. This was a TLR hiring 100%, and if Mo had had any say in the matter he probably would have never been hired in the first place. It was not that he was a bad hitting coach (Albert and co. always sang his praises and had great respect for him, and the Cardinals did have the best offense in the NL last year so he certainly didn't hurt the team), but TLR was always fiercely loyal to "his" players, and Big Mac was just one of those guys. I personally would love to see McGwire back, but I just don't think Mozeliak will allow it.

First Base Coach. Former: Dave McKay. Who Matheny will hire: Not Dave McKay. While no one really dislikes Canadians, McKay has spent his entire coaching career (since the 1986 A's) under TLR. In the Cardinals novo ordo seclorum, McKay is too close to TLR to survive.

Third Base Coach. Former: Jose Oquendo. Who Matheny should hire: Oquendo. This is the only other coach who has a shot to remain on in a post-TLR world. Matheny and Mozeliak have both said they want him back; it is now up to Oquendo to decide if he wants to come back. Cardinals fans love him, but what is more important is The Great Pujols loves him. Matheny and Mozeliak both know this, which is why they want him to stay so badly. Now, if the Cardinals lowball Pujols, it does not matter who coach is or managers are, he will sign elsewhere. But that doesn't mean the Cardinals shouldn't try and help their chances as much as possible. But it remains unclear how much Oquendo wants to come back. He was just passed over for a job he was much more qualified for than the candidate the Cardinals hired, so it just depends on how much his pride was hurt with the Matheny hire and if he can coexist with him. Eveyone wants him back, he just has to decide if he wants to be back.        

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