Plan A for the Cardinals offseason was to raise the ceiling with some superstar players. Once Plan A signed with the Red Sox and Cubs, respectively, it became clear that Plan B was to raise the floor.
As a result, the Cardinals Opening Day bench was a significant upgrade over recent years. Couple that with the positional flexibility from corner guys like Brandon Moss and now Matt Holliday, and what you have is the makings of a more dynamic lineup, which can be shuffled and arranged on a daily basis to maximize it's productivity.
...and that hasn't exactly been Mike Matheny's strong suit.
During his four years at the helm, Matheny has made it clear he likes his guys to have specific roles. He likes each position to have a "starter." He likes defined roles in the bullpen. When circumstances upset those roles, for instance - and I'm just picking an example at random here - in the 2014 NLCS, the shit tends to hit the fan.
Flexibility is hard to quantify, and MLB rosters can take a variety of shapes. One season, you might have eight healthy guys that are clearly the best at their position. Another year, injuries could force the manager to make moves. But comparing the four years of the Matheny Administration to the final four seasons of the La Russa reign, the numbers bear out the assumption that Matheny prefers a more static lineup.
During that span, on average, Matheny has used just 83 different lineups per season. La Russa averaged 100. And if you replace 2010 - a real outlier year for La Russa - with 2007, he averaged 108 lineups per season.
In 2013, Matheny used only 64 different lineups, and relied on his most-preferred lineup 31 times. If you omit the outlier season for La Russa, he never used fewer than 98 lineups, as many as 125, and sent the same lineup out onto the field just nine times.
Whether or not the Matheny Way or the La Russa Way is somehow better, this year's roster seems designed to be more dynamic.
In acquiring Jedd Gyorko, the team clearly sought a right-handed bat who could complement (and maybe even platoon) with Kolten Wong, not to mention a Major League Quality hitter who could give Johnny Peralta the occasional day off. The flexibility of Moss and now Holliday to play corner outfield or first base gives them a number of ways to juggle those spots.
The Red Baron wrote a great piece a couple weeks back about how the Cardinals could take advantage of platoon splits this season. And on Opening Day, they pretty much executed the plan, with Holliday moving to first to get an extra righty in the lineup in the form of Pham.
Of course, an inning-and-a-half later, Tommy pulled his Pham and Holliday was back in left field. So that may be the last we see of Holliday-to-first platoon against lefties. But then with Jon Niese on the mound last night, Wong hit the bench and Gyorko lived up to his hype as a lefty masher by gyrking one into the seats in left.
So even in this tiny, two-game sample, we're seeing some hints of creativity from Matheny and a willingness to use that deep bench to exploit platoon advantages. That's encouraging, although we've seen him dabble with players and lineups in the past only to soon revert back to starting Mike's Guys™ every day.
It will take some time to get a sense whether Matheny's tendencies as a manager are shifting to best suit the makeup of the 2016 Cardinals. Are guys getting enough rest? Are players being rotated in a way to better exploit platoon advantages, optimize defense, etc.? These aren't conclusions we can make after a game or two, but patterns that emerge over the long season.
Let's meet back here in a couple months and see how it's going.