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The Crossroads

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The Cardinals just made the most dramatic move they have in years. So what comes next?

Cincinnati Reds v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The All-Star break is here, the manager is gone. The hitting coaches, as well, but that’s somewhat less dramatic in terms of what it says about the direction of the organisation. Actually, maybe that’s not quite right; I almost just said, “After all, hitting coaches get fired all the time,” but then stopped myself. Because hitting coaches in the St. Louis Cardinals organisation do not, in fact, get fired all the time. At least not those who have served under Mike Matheny, anyway.

What we have here is a team at a crossroads, to a degree that they really haven’t been in recent memory. Sure, the club was staring down a transition when Albert Pujols left and Tony LaRussa retired, but they also had built one of the best farm systems in baseball and still had most of the core of a great team in place. By contrast, the club we see in front of us now, as Mike Matheny rides off into the sunset to, presumably, purchase some real estate out West, is in a much weaker position.

The club has seen much of its core age out, and has had a difficult time replacing those foundational talents. Part of that has been a creeping conservatism that approaches paralysis at times, but a lot of it has also just been bad luck. The loss of Oscar Taveras. Alex Reyes’s injury troubles. Jason Heyward leaving after one season. Marcell Ozuna dropping 150 points of slugging percentage and 75 points of on-base percentage at age 27 while moving to a slightly more hitter-friendly environment. In each case, it looked like a new core talent was being added, and in each case the Cardinals ended up with basically nothing. There have certainly been missteps along the way — the lack of real interest in Max Scherzer still stands out to me as perhaps the most inexplicable decision of the Mozeliak era, to the point I just want so badly to ask someone off the record, why not? — but so much of what has happened to the organisation, beginning in October of 2014, seems to have been mostly, or entirely, out of their hands.

Then again, why the organisation is in a weaker position now than it was in 2012 is not really that important; assigning blame is certainly cathartic at times, and there’s definitely a portion of the fanbase that seems obsessed with the idea they’ve been betrayed by the front office, and John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have to be replaced, posthaste, but in the grand scheme of things it’s less important to tease out the why of what happened, and more important to understand the reality of the present, and how you proceed from here.

To that end, there was a very, very interesting tweet recently from Mark Saxon, the man who wrote the Athletic piece about Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks that seemed to get so many people’s dander up, both over perceived bullying and, um, whatever it is when you demand that things be exactly like they’ve always been in the past because that’s the way it’s supposed to be, for vague reasons that don’t actually make any sense if you really think about it. From my point of view, the clubhouse tension was probably overblown, and it was probably less hazing than normal big brothery pain in the ass kind of stuff that looked worse than usual because the reputation of one of the players is less than sterling, but I also come back to something John Mozeliak said to Jennifer Langosch when she asked him about the culture of the Cardinal clubhouse.

“The fact that I’m having to sit here talking about culture means it has become a topic and one we have to address.”

That quote came in the middle of a longer bit, in which Mozeliak was defending his club, and stating he still believe the Cardinals are an attractive destination, a place where players want to be. However, that quote right in the middle, to me, is the telling part. I think we all understand that, if there’s absolutely nothing wrong, you very rarely have to go out and publicly tell people there’s absolutely nothing wrong. I won’t say never, I’ll just say rarely.

If stuff like the Norris-Hicks situation is in the public sphere, it means there’s a problem. The problem might not actually be what was reported, but the fact it was reported at all means something is rotten in the state of Denmark, er, Clark Avenue. It wasn’t the first issue we’ve heard the last couple years in regards to Matheny’s clubhouse, either. If you have a manager whose game management shortcomings were supposed to be covered by his ability to lead a diverse group of individuals to something like a harmonious relationship, what does it say when there’s no longer any harmony? What purpose is that person serving at that point?

Anyhow, I’ve gotten off track here, and I apologise. This isn’t meant to relitigate the Matheny era; I’ve been on team FireMike for a long time, but at the moment I’m really much more interested in the present and future than the past.

The tweet from Saxon:

Now that, ladies and gentlemen, is interesting. What we have here is an indication that the front office of the St. Louis Cardinals has, for at least a certain period of time, been interested in a selloff, in order to try and stockpile future value, but were constrained by the situation of the organisation.

So what does that mean? Well, I’ll tell you what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that Mike Matheny was essentially preventing the Cardinals from selling the past couple years. Managers do not have that sort of power, as I’m sure most of you are aware. However, I think what it does tell us is that the front office types, the most analytical and long-term thinking people in the organisation, were probably sitting on one side of the scales, trying to make moves that would put them in better position for the future, while the owner and his hand-picked manager sat on the other side, refusing to even consider something so unseemly as a reset.

Lest you think I’m firing shots at Bill DeWitt, let me say I don’t necessarily blame him for not wanting to sell or reset. The Cardinals, as a brand, have staked a large portion of their identity on the idea of the ever-contending Cardinals. While the game has gone one way, the Redbirds have been one of the great bastions of consistent quality in the league, never falling below .500, never reducing themselves to scrabbling in the mud, just trying to survive, or even worse, capitulating and telling their paying customers, “Sorry, folks, nothing to root for this year.” It may or may not be a large consideration for the franchise that they seem to rely more heavily on ticket sales at the gate than some other teams, perhaps due to their media market being smaller than their attendance footprint, I really don’t know. But I 100% respect and admire the fact that Cardinal ownership has tried so hard to avoid both the perception and the reality of waving the white flag at any point during a season.

Now, though, it seems like things have finally come to a head. The offense has failed to meet expectations multiple times in recent years, and now the hitting coaches are gone. The bullpen and strategic management has been questionable at best, and the clubhouse has seemed less and less harmonious as time has gone on. The manager, so long defended by ownership from consequences of team struggles, is now gone. The fact we have the front office apparently trying to sell and reset for awhile now would seem to me to point very strongly to a divide in philosophy between ownership and the manager on one side, and the front office on the other, which many of us have suspected for a long time. Or perhaps not a divide in philosophy; perhaps a divide in willingness to be humble and admit when a different approach is needed.

So the question really becomes: now what? It would seem hard to imagine a club simultaneously firing the manager and wading into the trade market as a buyer, even if the team is still technically above .500 and at least somewhat in contention. And yet, if the Cardinals believe that any potential reset will be of the short-term variety, as in they’ll be back in 2019, then perhaps additions to cover this season and next could still make sense. Then again, if the front office has wanted to reset and rebuild for awhile now, this may be the best — maybe even the only good — chance they’re going to get to reshape the future of the franchise, and they may not want to miss out on that chance.

Perhaps the most pressing question of the medium-term future will revolve around the coaching staff, though, and who is going to occupy that manager’s seat beyond this season. If you pressed me right now for my opinion, I would say I think at least two of the three coaching spots recently vacated have been filled. The organisation values Mike Shildt extremely highly, and it’s a fairly rare thing for a club to hire a new manager and the interim to remain in the organisation. The Cards managed that feat with Red Schoendist back in 1995 when Joe Torre was let go, but Schoendist was less a part of the organisation than he was a package deal with Busch Stadium. He had no official title and could step in as interim manager, then go back to being the most indispensable non-employee in the place once a new manager was found. Mike Shildt, if he doesn’t get the permanent managing job, will most likely leave. If Mozeliak and the organisation think as highly of Shildt as it appears they do, it would seem they would consider losing him entirely to be unacceptable, and thus would not have made him the interim manager if they were fairly certain to go in an outside direction.

A similar sort of line of reasoning applies to Mark Budaska, I believe, who has emerged as one of the organisation’s top hitting gurus over the past handful of years. There’s an argument to be made your best teachers should be teaching in the minors, rather than making tweaks in the majors, but it still seemed somewhat curious to me the last few years that the most respected hitting coach in the system, who so many players seemed to rely on to get themselves on track, was not at the big league level. Moving Buddha to the big leagues is an interesting decision, and I do wonder if he would be willing to go back to the teaching guru gig in the minors after having been promoted to the top spot. George Greer is also very respected as a hitting instructor, but I honestly don’t know as much about him specifically, and he’s older than either Shildt or Budaska (Greer is 71), to the point I wonder if the daily grind of big league travel and coaching would be as appealing to him as a more stationary spot teaching in the minors.

I could absolutely be wrong, but I think there’s a pretty good chance Mike Shildt is the guy the front office, John Mozeliak in particular, wants in that spot. I know Joe Girardi’s name has come up a lot, and he’s certainly better at deploying a bullpen than Matheny was, but Girardi brings a lot of the same kind of thinking and approach that Mike did. I really believe that this hire will be approached with a different set of requirements than Matheny’s was. It would be an awful lot of fun to see Carlos Beltran back with the organisation, but I wonder if the Cards would be looking to hire a former player with virtually zero coaching experience again. Also, I don’t have a ton of knowledge on how analytically minded Beltran is, so that might be a stumbling block. Personally, I would love to see Beltran on staff as a hitting coach next year, probably along with Budaska. You have a biomechanics guy in his mid-60s and a younger, recently retired player to relate his own approach and learn from the more experienced coach, hopefully to become a long-term organisational fixture himself. That, to me, would seem pretty much ideal.

Mark McGwire would be fun, but I think Big Mac is settled in pretty solidly in SoCal, waiting for another something to come along nearby. Maybe you could coax him away, but do you really believe he would be so much better in some way that Shildt or someone else as to make the ramifications worth it? Mark DeRosa I’m not really into; he says dumb things on MLB Network, and I’d rather get someone who at least says smart things, even if he might turn out to be dumb anyway.

Jose Oquendo is one of the other big names that the fanbase seems set on, and I love the Secret Weapon as much as the next guy. But I think Oquendo’s calling is coaching, and teaching, and training, rather than standing over the staff and supervising. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think Jose is closer to coach for life than honest managerial candidate. And I get the feeling that Oquendo now is at peace with that, whereas Oquendo ten years ago might still have wanted that top spot.

Here’s the bottom line for me: when an organisation hires in a manager from outside, that guy usually brings his own staff on board, culled from people he’s worked with in the past, people he’s admired, people he just believes are the best. The Cardinals value their internal structure of coaches and teachers so highly that I have a hard time believing they would bring in a new manager and allow him to replace the whole staff. And if you’re going to require an individual taking the job to keep the staff that’s already in place, you’re probably not going to be dealing with the top named candidates, Instead, you’re looking at either candidates with little cache and thus little leverage, i.e. 2012 Mike Matheny, or you’re looking at an internal candidate who’s already part of that structure, i.e. Mike Shildt.

There are roughly two weeks left until the trade deadline, and there will be no baseball for a few days. Well, no real baseball; there’s the All-Star Game if you like that sort of thing, but I mean games that count for the franchise about which I am writing. The Cardinals will have to decide, within a week or so, what direction they wish to go in terms of player personnel, and then decide who to entrust the group of talent they amass with.

It’s good to feel like there are multiple possibilities for the franchise right now, multiple directions in which they could go. Now we just have to wait and see which path they choose.