It was Friday, June 9, 2017 when the Cardinals held an impromptu press conference to announce a series of shakeups to the team and coaching staff. Third Base Coach Chris Maloney and Assistant Hitting Coach Bill Mueller were removed from their roles. Jhonny Peralta was DFA’d.
As we approach the same time this season, with the team again at the fringe of the playoff picture, will we see another makeover? Perhaps something even more drastic?
To set the lay of the land, last season’s team was admittedly in worse shape. They sat at 26-32, in 4th place in the division, 4.5 games out of first place. This year’s club sits (as I write this on Monday) at 32-25. However, even with that improved record, that still leaves them in 3rd place in the division and 3.5 games out.
Fangraphs has their odds of winning the division at just 16%. Heading into the weekend, a Zips-only forecast had their odds of the division at 8%. Fangraphs gives them a 61% shot of making the playoffs, but only 49% of making it to the Divisional Series.
So as far as where the team is now, their record is definitely better, while their playoff outlook is roughly about the same. Narrative-wise, they are coming off a weekend series-win which saw two walkoff HRs and a near no-hitter. Last year, they had just endured an 0-7 road trip.
Given where things sit right now as opposed to last season, and given this organization’s preference to stay the course, I don’t expect a big move this week. But personally, I still think they ought to make one.
The reason to make a move now
It may seem like there is still plenty of time in the season, but early June is about as late as you can hope for a major shakeup to have a transformative effect on THIS SEASON. Trade deadline deals can add icing to the cake, or push a team just over the top, and certainly better prepare a team for the playoffs, but they come far too late to fully reverse course from the direction your season is headed.
I believe this is the most raw talent we’ve seen on a Cardinals team in several years. The Cubs still probably have more, but it’s getting very close, and the Redbirds ought to be pushing on every front to squeak ahead of them and steal the division.
The case for a roster move
Last year, the Cardinals cut-bait on the last year of Jhonny Peralta’s deal, eating the remainder of the $10 million he was owed. This season, they have two players signed to multi-million dollar free agent contracts who are cratering: Dexter Fowler and Greg Holland.
Fowler’s numbers have been alarming across-the-board. He is currently below replacement level in terms of hitting, base running and defense. His quality of contact is certainly diminished, with his xWOBA at .308, down from .359 last season.
That said, two factors argue strongly against releasing Fowler. His .197 BABIP, while perhaps somewhat influenced by the shift, also clearly indicates a good deal of bad luck. So when you consider his likelihood to bounce back at least somewhat, coupled with the $43.5 million he is owed BEYOND this season... releasing Fowler would be a bad idea.
Greg Holland, on the other hand, is a pretty good comp for where Jhonny Peralta was at this time last season. Both were in the final year of their contract and both were unplayable. Perhaps there has been an injury holding Holland back, or perhaps while he has this time off he can regain some kind of form... even just to pitch garbage time out of the bullpen.
If the Cardinals can’t find anything to salvage in Greg Holland in the next week or so, it’s time to cut bait on the $14 million they guaranteed him.
The case for a coaching move
Between last June’s shakeup and the offseason departures, hitting coach is the only significant role on Mike Matheny’s staff that hasn’t been flipped in the last 12 months. That position is held by noted Matheny Buddy John Mabry.
It’s very hard for we on the outside to understand or evaluate the work of these coaches. That said, hitting coach is a position teams often change regularly when they are struggling, so it’s a little odd that Mabry has stayed through six years and quite a few low points.
Mabry joined the staff ahead of the recent explosion in data, which has in turned fueled the fly-ball revolution. Even if he was well-qualified for the position when he was hired, is he still THE BEST OPTION in this Brave New World of Launch Angle?
I have never heard a player credit John Mabry with helping them correct or improve their swing. I’ve heard several credit Mark Budaska. And while “Buddha” got a brief run filling in as assistant hitting coach last season, the team still sends players down to Memphis when they need to fix their approach.
Tommy Pham injured himself on a hitting contraption he made himself. Marcell Ozuna seemingly watched video on his own to find out what was wrong with his swing. These sound like the actions of players who are not getting adequate hitting coaching.
John Mabry should be fired. Even if he’s adding value we can’t see behind the scenes, it’s hard to imagine the team can’t find someone BETTER.
And that, dear readers, brings us to the reason that the Cardinals should still, as ever, fire Mike Matheny. But I’ll return to that in a moment.
Craig Edwards nearly two-year-old post is still the definitive argument why the Cardinals should fire Mike Matheny. All of his criticisms - the bullpen usage and small sample size decisions and senseless double switches and on and on - they all still remain.
But I don’t want to wander too far into the reasons to fire Matheny, because as with Mabry, I think the more pertinent question is, what are the reasons to retain him?
Yes, Matheny’s contract runs through 2020(!) But compared to free agent player contracts, the cost to eat that would be negligible. In fact, if what has been widely reported is true, and the acquisition of Holland was largely done to appease Matheny, he’s already cost ownership quite a bit more than the value of his contract.
Even among the most casual of fans, support for Matheny seems to have dropped to near zero. Removing him would actually be a PR boost.
The Cardinals should not have to construct reasons to fire Matheny. He should provide reasons to retain him. There are only 30 managerial jobs in Major League Baseball. Anytime you don’t believe you are employing one of the 30 best candidates in the world, it is time make a move. The Cardinals are well past that point.
So who would they hire? It seems clear to me they have been grooming Mike Shildt for some time. But as an organizational guy, without a big public profile or track record, they would risk some backlash by hiring him. Unless, that is... they brought him on as a midseason replacement.
Moving Mike Shildt from the role of bench coach into the role of manager for the remainder of the season would have many advantages. The disruption within the club would be as minimal as possible for an in-season move. The team would get a chance to see how this guy they’ve been grooming for the role performs, and Shildt would have a chance to show he is up to the task. If he is, the club could name him to the position for next season and beyond. If not, they would have the offseason to search for a replacement.
Whatever moves the organization makes the rest of the way, I hope they are aggressive in trying to capitalize on the talent they have this season.