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Cardinals clubhouse narrative is back

And it is completely different from the one in spring

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

When teams are winning a lot, we don’t hear a lot about team chemistry or the clubhouse. After a winning season, we hear how much the guys all love each other and would do anything to win. During the season, we might hear a little here or there, but most of the talk is going to be about the game. For teams that don’t win, the clubhouse seems to take on a prominent role in discussing the team. The Cardinals did not win this season. They did not win last season. Mike Matheny gets it:

“When a team is not playing well, you’re just going to see a whole group of guys that aren’t necessarily going to be happy with that result. That can come across a number of different ways.”

That quote comes from Jose de Jesus Ortiz’s recent column in the Post-Dispatch and there’s a lot in there. Players blaming mistakes on players who didn’t come up through the Cardinals organization. Players noticing when Dexter Fowler enters and leaves the dugout. The column also noted that the culture was better at the end of the season than the middle after a team meeting in August. If the Cardinals had made the playoffs, we’d likely be talking about that meeting as a turning point.

In sum, when the Cardinals were well under .500 early in the season, chemistry was bad. When they started winning in August, chemistry was good. When they didn’t make the playoffs, it became time to air the dirty laundry regarding poor team chemistry.

Ortiz opines:

Mozeliak owes it to Matheny and Cardinals fans to find players who understand and embrace the Cardinal Way or at least bring in guys who don’t mind being among the first at the stadium on a nightly basis. In other words, Mozeliak must find guys who will live up to the standards that have been set and upheld by the team’s true leaders, Molina and Wainwright.

I disagree. Mozeliak owes fans the best possible team he can put forward, and when players arrive at the stadium should not be of great concern. The play on the field is what matters. As for what Mozeliak owes Matheny, it is the manager who owes Mozeliak for gifting him a job he didn’t earn and keeping him in that position despite multiple failures and apparently, failing to keep a clubhouse together despite contending seasons.

Dexter Fowler, for his part, was one of the best players on the field this season for the Cardinals, putting up a 121 wRC+ and 2.7 WAR in just 491 plate appearances. Fowler was above-average overall on the basepaths despite making an out on the bases eight times, and while his range was bad in center field which brings down his value to the 2.7 WAR figure, he made one fielding error all year long.

As for the rest of the Cardinals, Matt Carpenter made nine outs on the bases, sixth-worst in the NL. He was tied for the Cardinals lead with Stephen Piscotty. Coming in behind them was Paul DeJong with eight. All three have come up through the Cardinals organization. Jedd Gyorko was a negative on the bases, but that’s mostly from being slow, just like Yadier Molina doesn’t rate well. From an objective standpoint, there wasn’t a different on the field in terms of actual mistakes between players who came up with the Cardinals and those who did not. The same was true for defense.

The Cardinals clubhouse isn’t one big happy family. It never was. It never will be. There are always going to be cliques and groups of players who get along better than others. Tommy Pham put it pretty well after Jhonny Peralta was let go:

Ortiz referenced some of those clubs in his column, mentioning how those attributes are deemed as positive when the team is winning and negatives when the team is losing. The references to Fowler are doubly curious when you consider the mood after his signing. Bill Dewitt, Jr. called Fowler, “a perfect signing for us”, and Randal Grichuk said:

I like Dexter. So far, so good. He keeps things light, stirs the pot, creates a fun environment.

Mike Matheny said:

“Guys are flocking to him, asking questions — they’re drawn to him,” Matheny said. “It’s a great thing to have. We know the type of player he is, the type of teammate he is.

“You don’t see many people walk in and immediately have that kind of impact.”

...and John Mozeliak

This guy is an ideal fit. What an unbelievable personality.’ He couldn’t have been more enlightening. He’s charming. He’s welcoming. He’s smart.

...and Kolten Wong

He’s made a difference in here already, just from the standpoint of being a breath of fresh air,’’ says Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong, who requested that his locker be next to Fowler’s in spring training. “He gives you that feeling like we’re going to play as hard as we can in here, and we’re going to have fun. You watch how he plays, and this guy is having fun the whole time, but he knows how to be serious.

“We’ve always been an old-school team, but I think adding Dexter, we’re trying to change the outlook on how the Cardinals play the game. Times are changing. You can have fun but still take care of business at the same time.’’

...and Adam Wainwright

“He’s just what we needed,’’ Cardinals veteran starter Adam Wainwright says. “He walked in here the first day, and it seemed like he’s been here 10 years already. Everybody accepted him, and he accepted everybody else.

“We learned a lot about ourselves last year, on a lot of different things. I think we all realized that things needed to be better from everybody’s standpoint. We needed to do things differently. Now we are.’’

This came after a season of “chemistry” issues, which followed a Spring Training of troubles and climate concerns. Matheny had this to say in the Spring of 2016:

“We’re very committed to making things better, not content with what we’ve done,” Matheny told the newspaper. “How can we make this a better atmosphere?”

The clubhouse didn’t get better during the season and the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time in nearly a decade. They added Dexter Fowler in the offseason to help fix the clubhouse, but the team still had clubhouse issues and the Cardinals missed the playoffs again.

The Cardinals do not have a clubhouse problem. They have a winning problem. The latter fixes the former, not vice versa. Dan Moore once wrote about Tony LaRussa’s top-five Cardinals feuds, and he’s arguably the most successful manager in history. As Rick Hummel said in a recent chat,

The Cardinal Way, to me, is making the playoffs. Whatever it takes to do that is the Way to go. Otherwise, it's just a phrase.

If getting back to the Cardinal Way means getting better players who will produce more wins, then go for it. If it means ignoring players associated with domestic violence, that seems admirable as well. If the Cardinal Way only means getting players who show up early to the ballpark or who have come up through the Cardinals system, then the Cardinals need to figure out a new way to define that term.

I don’t think the Cardinals have a real clubhouse problem. If the Cardinals truly have a clubhouse problem that hasn’t been addressed after multiple years, then it is time to get rid of the person in charge of the clubhouse. What the Cardinals really need is improvement at a few key positions on the field by getting better players. The clubhouse will take care of itself.