Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to discuss Cardinals baseball with ESPN MLB Insider Buster Olney. The Cardinals are slated for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball for the second time in as many weeks, this time against the Pirates. Considering the fact that there are so many things happening around the club right now, it was a treat to talk with someone who knows a whole lot more than I do—someone who interacts with team managers, general managers, and players on a regular basis.
Viva El Birdos: Earlier this week, you wrote about Oscar Taveras and the possibility of his call-up to help with a sputtering Cardinals offense. With quotes coming out from both Matheny and Mozeliak since then, what are your thoughts on the topic now?
Buster Olney: Really no different than what I was thinking on Sunday, when I wrote that piece about how he’s an option that they potentially have, but they are trying to figure out how exactly he would fit. Because it’s a little bit of a "round peg-square hole," let alone from the player development, and they know the better part of that. I know that when we talked to Matheny on Sunday, he just didn’t even want to entertain the topic, where he basically said, ‘Look, we’ve got plenty of guys here.’ He was very specific about, in his eyes, he doesn’t want anyone to think of Oscar as being like the silver bullet—the guy that’s going to solve all the problems. He didn’t think that was fair to his own players or to Oscar.
VEB: As an insider, how do you view the Cardinals young pitchers?
Olney: Well, it’s very rare that you see such a talented group come up together. They actually remind you a little bit of the Braves guys in the early 90’s. You talk to the scouts, who know a lot more than I would, and they all talk about Michael Wacha with awe, and they talk about Trevor Rosenthal with awe. You talk to hitters with other teams, and they just have so much respect for what the Cardinals have, and the fact that all of these guys are basically at the outset of their careers is pretty impressive. You still have Adam Wainwright, of course, who is right in the middle of it. To me, when you look at [the team’s] issues right now, with their offense and questions about whether or not some of their defensive parts all fit together, the bottom line is I picked them to win the World Series before the year started, and I still stick with that. At some point, the unbelievable talent that they have in their pitching staff is going to manifest itself.
VEB: With reports [yesterday] of Joe Kelly likely being out until at least June, what do you think the Cardinals should do? Should they stick with Tyler Lyons like they have been? Or do you see them possibly inserting Carlos Martinez into that slot?
Olney: Well, without having had a chance to talk to Mike or Mo yet, I tend to believe that they probably, rather than take the time to extend Martinez, would prefer to keep their eighth inning weapon. During the course of Spring Training, when they were going through the competition, I think they were doing that out of respect for Martinez, and if at some point they had a gaping hole in their rotation, then they would look at [Martinez]. But it’s pretty rare, and we saw this to a degree with the Yankees with some of their guys. I think that [the team’s] general preference is to keep the back end of the bullpen stronger. [Martinez] is certainly a big part of that. Typically, I think you see more and more teams now doing that. They value that eighth inning guy.
VEB: What’s your take on the whole Kolten Wong situation?
Olney: Well, he’s clearly part of what they project to be their future. I think it is just sort of like a tune-up. They just want him to get back. We talked to Mike about it the other day, and he was pretty clear they just want him to sort of settle on some specific things that they had in mind. And they’ve got to make sure that with the amount of money they have invested in Ellis, it’s not like they just want to bury him early in the year. I think he’s actually probably benefited from the playing time.
There was a comparable situation with Wong in Wacha last year. You know, he got a taste and then you sent him back down. You put them with a mission statement, and then they come back up. I know that when I talked with scouts of other teams during Spring Training, they really like Wong, and they see him being a really good player going forward. And [the Cardinals] are going to need it because I think the one thing that has been sort of illuminated early in the year is it’s not a dynamic offense. It’s an offense that is built on its parts, rather than having a couple big bashers in the middle, and I think he’s going to have to be an important part of that, especially since they don’t have a lot of team speed.
VEB: Thirty-five games into the Cardinals season, what are your thoughts on the current state of the National League Central? Are the Brewers a surprise to you?
Olney: I don’t think anybody could say anything other than they’re a surprise with how well they’ve played early. I think eventually they’ll probably come back to the pack. The one thing that has been borne out is that there are no real runaway teams right now [in any division across the majors]. Every team’s got a major issue, so I do think the Cardinals’ concerns are real. I was talking with a scout the other day, and he said Allen Craig right now looks like he’s really hitting mostly with his upper half. He’s not really using his legs the way he did in the past. I talked to Allen the other day about whether or not there was any lingering effect from his leg injury last year, and whether or not that was affecting his base. He said no, he felt completely healthy. As Spring Training started, it was just a question of getting his timing off, but that’s a big issue for [the Cardinals]. They need to get him right, especially because so much is predicated on him being an important part of that lineup.
When you look at the Reds, I think they’re going to struggle all year offensively without Choo and as they try to integrate Billy Hamilton into their everyday lineup, and try to get somebody else like Todd Frazier to be a thumper in the middle, especially with Jay Bruce being down. Pirates are clearly struggling offensively. Maybe Gregory Polanco will help them with that. Pretty much, up and down the division, when you look at the teams, it feels like everybody’s got issues, and that’s why it was interesting. The other day I was talking to Matt Carpenter and the other guys around the cage, and the Cardinals still feel really confident they’re going to be able to figure it out: A) because of their history and B) they do have, when you look across the board at the rosters, more talent than anyone in the division.
VEB: What are your thoughts on Matheny’s proclivity to use a different lineup seemingly every game so far this season?
Olney: It’s interesting. I think it’s warranted because it really is a lineup that hasn’t functioned so well this year. We were talking to him on Sunday about how these guys are handling things, and I mentioned that we had talked to the guys, and there seemed to be a level of confidence they’ll be able to figure it out. But, he also acknowledged that there’s some frustration building, and he mentioned that you have a lot of guys who are professionals that expect a lot out of themselves. He said they’ve been coming back to the dugout and lighting it up in the runway, out of sight of the cameras. They are pretty upset, and the phrase he used was, "We’ve got a lot of guys on edge right now" because of the fact that they haven’t performed as well.
The players understand that he is looking for solutions, and the thing about the Cardinals’ culture, to me, is always been those guys get it, in terms of they’re just trying to find a way to win. They trust each other, and they trust Matheny. It’s not as if he’s coming up with big radical solutions or trying radical things that none of them can understand. They’re not going into the year thinking they’re going to bat Molina second, but boy, they’re looking for any sort of traction on their offense, so they get it. I agree with it. I think it’s important that he does try different things because stuff that he’s used so far compared to last year hasn’t worked.
VEB: What are your overall thoughts on the NL Central managers? Who would you consider the "best"?
Olney: To be honest, I think each guy brings a different strength. It’s funny, too, because they’re all sort of in different parts of their careers, such different places. You have Bryan Price and [Rick] Renteria starting out right now. I think Roenicke is really good, but he just hasn’t had teams like the other guys have had. I think Matheny is a nice fit, in part, because those guys all work so well together. I think he and Mo work really well together. It’s just one of those things that I think it’s hard to compare because there’s so much apples and oranges between the managers. It’s funny you say that because I was actually thinking about writing a column for tomorrow on the best managers of all time. That’s actually easier to compare in 2014 because so much of what the managers do these days comes down from the front office.
The Pirates last hosted Sunday Night Baseball on July 28, 1996 (18 seasons ago) against the Phillies at Three Rivers Stadium. Thus, Sunday night's game will be the first one at PNC Park. Buster will be working the game with Dan Shulman and John Kruk. You can find Buster on Twitter: @Buster_ESPN and on ESPN: Buster Olney Blog.
I am very thankful for the time Buster took in talking with me. I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and wish him continued success.