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St. Louis Cardinals promote David Bell to bench coach, whatever that means

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been repeated to the point of cliché: Among fans, managers get too much credit and receive too much blame. This is due to the nature of the position. Fans can see a manager’s tactical decisions and read his explanations or, as the case may be, non-explanations for such moves while simultaneously being left largely in the dark regarding the people managing part of the job. And that part of baseball managing might very well be the most important one of the job.

And then there’s the bench coach, a job carried out almost exclusively in the shadows (of the dugout). Some bench coaches find the public. Joe Torre’s right-hand man, Don Zimmer, was a media magnet—as much dugout mascot as coach to the public. But even in the case of Zimmer, as prominent a bench coach as exists in recent memory, the exact nature of his role is difficult to define. It’s easy to categorize Zimmer as the experienced Baseball Man and sounding board for Torre, though with Torre’s own lifetime of experience, the designated hitter, and Mariano Rivera, one wonders how often sounding was needed.

Most bench coaches stand in contrast to Zimmer, though. They fly below the radar. That’s how it was for Mike Aldrete, the St. Louis Cardinals bench coach from 2012 through 2014.

After Hall-of-Famer Tony La Russa retired, the Cardinals plugged his replacement, Mike Matheny, into the manager job. Gone from Matheny’s staff were La Russa stalwarts first base coach Dave McKay and bench coach Joe Pettini. The rookie manager’s bench coach would be Aldrete, who served as the assistant hitting coach for the Cardinals from 2008 through the miraculous #11in11 World Series run. It was more a coaching-staff shift than shakeup, which was understandable for the reigning world champions. The move could also be interpreted as an endorsement of the Cardinals’ batting philosophy under Mark McGwire, who remained on as the 2012 hitting coach.

Prior to Eric’s post last week on Aldrete departing the Cards for the A’s, had I seen Aldrete in public, I’d have been struck with the inescapable notion that I recognized him from somewhere but, try as I might’ve, I would not have been able to place him. Put otherwise: Aldrete was no Zimmer. His role in relation to Matheny is nearly impossible to pin down. Did Aldrete advise against Little League double-steal plays or endorse the decision? Was Matheny’s tendency to leave starters in during Aldrete’s time as bench coach in spite of the bench coach’s counsel? It’s impossible to say, from where we as fans sit.

After 2012, McGwire departed for a job closer to home and his family with the Dodgers. The Cardinals continued their practice of promoting from within the organization in replacing Big Mac. Assistant hitting coach John Mabry was promoted to hitting coach. (St. Louis had previously promoted Derek Lilliquist from bullpen coach to pitching coach after Dave Duncan retired and promoted Chris Malone from Triple-A manager to first base coach for the departed McKay. The Cardinals also promoted Dyar Miller to bullpen coach as Lilliquist’s replacement. Though they declined to offer Miller a contract for the 2013 season, the Cardinals replaced him from within the organization with Triple-A pitching coach Blaise Illsley.) The Cardinals looked outside the organization when filling the assistant hitting coach position vacated upon Mabry’s promotion: St. Louis hired Bengie Molina as assistant hitting coach for 2013. After the Cards’ World Series run, Molina left St. Louis for Texas and the higher paying first base coach (and catching instructor) position and the Cards replaced him with David Bell, who was then the Cubs’ third base coach, as the club’s assistant hitting coach.

Any fanciful notion that the Cardinals might cut bait on Matheny after the club’s third straight October appearance and the organization inking the manager to a three-year extension that spans from 2014 through 2016 was proven all the more off-base by the joint press conference the manager and general manager John Mozeliak had on the Monday after the Giants’ NLCS victory over St. Louis. The duo sat side-by-side, a visual reminder of their united partnership, as they assessed 2014 and looked ahead to 2015. The plans for Carlos Martinez (eighth-inning setup) and Randy Choate (trade because he’s difficult to use), among others, showed that Matheny’s idea of player utilization will be a driving force even if it is not the driving force behind the Cardinals’ Hot Stove moves.

The promotion of David Bell is another indication of Matheny’s increased influence.

Bell was not an incumbent coach like McGwire or a good organizational soldier like Lilliquist, Maloney, or Miller. He was the third assistant hitting coach on Matheny’s staff and presumably hired with input from the manager and probably Mabry, the hitting coach. We’ll never know why, as Bernie Miklasz pondered in his St. Louis Post-Dispatch column, Matheny felt compelled to use his postseason press conference bully pulpit to endorse Mabry as hitting coach, but we know that the Cards announced their intention to bring Mabry back for 2015 and then promoted Mabry's lieutenant to the bench coach job. Bell is a Mike Guy. And I have no idea what that means regarding the performance of his bench-coach duties.