There are all kinds of storylines for this season. The retirement tour of two (three?) of the greatest St. Louis Cardinals in recent memory is an obvious one. The defense which won five Gold Gloves will be back to see if it can repeat its success, or even, somehow, get better. The pitching depth will be a question all season. One storyline that shouldn’t get buried, though, is how well Oli Marmol will handle his first ever managerial position.
Managing is tough. Every decision is put under a spotlight. Even if you have a good season, you can still get fired for “philsophical differences”. Maybe this is why most managers are traditional, at least in part.
I’m sure a lot of managers truly believe that defined bullpen roles and lineup positions and nailed down starting roles help players perform to the best of their abilities. It’s also an easy talking point when a manager gets criticized in the media. Watching a middle reliever lose the game in 7th inning may be something a manger has to answer for, but saying that you trusted your guy in the 7th and wanted your closer to lock down the final three outs is such a standard answer, that it serves as a perfectly valid excuse. It might not be right, but people at least understand it and it can be played off as a perfectly respectable decision even when it didn’t work. Moral of the story - it’s safe. It may not win all the time, but it’s defensible and it’s common.
The same goes for platooning players or changing lineup spots based on an opposing pitcher. A manger can easy pass off an unchanging lineup as something that gives a player confidence or let’s him settle in. It may not work, but it’s often seen as acceptable and it’s not as obvious of a thing to criticize as a bullpen move that didn’t work.
These are the ‘safe’ strategies. We saw Mike Matheny stick by his veterans in his final days and basically refuse to put any promising prospects on the field. Mike Shildt also stayed traditional at the very end, making decisions that frustrated plenty of people here at VEB. When there is pressure (there always is) or a team is losing, it’s not hard for a manager to sink back into the traditional strategies of the game.
This is where Oli Marmol might be different. He doesn’t want a closer. Bases loaded in the sixth? Enter Giovanny Gallegos. Worry about the ninth later. Many fans have been calling for this for a long time. Putting your best reliever in the game in the biggest situation just makes sense.
Marmol has also stated his openness to a non-traditional starting rotation. He was reluctant at first, saying that he wanted to open the season with a standard 5-man rotation, but he came around a few days later and said that wasn’t set in stone. He may be willing to experiment. Is Jake Woodford the fifth starter? It’s probably good to pull him early. Steven Matz and Miles Mikolas may also see this treatment, albeit to a lesser degree.
Don’t be shocked if Marmol changes the lineup around based on the opposing arm. Lefty? Enter Pujols. Righty? Corey Dickerson takes the DH role. Perhaps Edmundo Sosa gets some time at second against righties. Brendan Donovan won’t make the roster to have a permanent seat on the bench. If he is on the team, he will need to play more than John Nogowski or Jose Rondon did last year. Tommy Edman may hit leadoff, but so may Harrison Bader or Dylan Carlson at times.
Moral of the story - Marmol has a lot to manage. Starting with the lineup, he will have a DH decision to make everyday. A straight split of Dickerson and Pujols along platoon lines seems like the best options, but that wouldn’t give much time to Pujols. With him chasing 700 career home runs and retiring after the season, is he really going to only see the field against lefties? That seems unlikely. Figuring out the optimal split at DH is already tough enough. Adding in a farewell tour for one of the greatest Cardinals ever, who is also chasing a career milestone, makes it that much harder.
There’s a similar situation behind the plate as Marmol will need to figure out how much Yadier Molina plays this season. Reports state that he has already had a discussion with Molina about playing less this year. But, how much less?
In 2021, Molina had a 164 wRC+ in the first month of the season. He was below average the rest of the way, and he finished the second half of the year with a 69 wRC+. It’s clear that he needs more rest than he wants, but Molina has never been one to take days off. Managers seem to trust him and listen to him, but will Marmol be able to keep him on the bench more often this year? Even if Andrew Knizner didn’t play well last year, giving him more playing time will allow Molina to rest more and hopefully be better when he does play.
Again, this is already a tough situation to manage. Add in the farewell tour for Molina and it’s definitely not any easier.
On the bench, Marmol may need to manage the playing time of a well-regarded prospect. If Brendan Donovan makes the team, he will need to get action on the field, otherwise he should be in Memphis. His versatility should give plenty of opportunities for days off and he may even steal some starts from Edman. Also, at short, DeJong has been touted as the starter, but how long of a leash does he get? If he is struggling, Marmol will need to decide if it’s worth giving Edmundo Sosa or Donovan more time. DeJong had a great spring, but the position is still not locked down.
On the pitching side of things, Marmol’s handling of the bullpen will be scrutinized by every fan and media member in St. Louis. Matheny and Shildt weren’t great at this part of the job and they took some heat for it. Marmol appears to have a different, and better, strategy, but we’ll see if he sticks to it for a full season. The Cardinals certainly didn’t do him any favors by giving him a fragile rotation and a rotation without high-end options. The Flaherty injury makes things harder.
The first question is how much will Marmol ride Wainwright, the presumptive ‘ace’ of the staff with Flaherty? The veteran often pitched three times through the order and he did it effectively last season. Marmol will need to choose between sticking with the 40-year-old or going to his bullpen more quickly.
The rest of the rotation may require a quick hook, which requires expert bullpen management. Pulling pitchers at the right time and putting the right relievers in the game is a delicate art. It sounds like Marmol is more willing to base his decisions in stats, but every managerial decision is going to have some gut feel to it. A more dependable starting rotation would certainly have made Marmol’s job easier, but now his handling of the staff is even more important.
Most of the rotation isn’t great at pitching deep into games which means that Marmol must decide how he will get length. Piggybacking and openers appears to be on the table. That’s an extra decision for Marmol to make this year. Traditional strategies aren’t likely to maximize the production of this rotation, so new strategies are certainly worth trying. Personally, I think the use of piggybacking or opening is a smart idea, but it’s yet another extra aspect of the game for Marmol to manage. A dependable rotation would likely have lead to a standard five man rotation, which would require less handling on the manager’s part.
Between platooning, farewell tours, an insecure rotation, and injuries to Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes, Oli Marmol will have a lot of decisions to make when the season starts. Besides that, he is a rookie manager, and the youngest one in the game at that. That’s a lot to put on the plate of a new manager.
I’m not saying that he can’t handle it. In fact, I like a lot of what he has said this spring, and I feel fairly confident that Marmol will be able to handle every situation better than past managers in St. Louis. I like that he is willing to do things differently. But, as we have seen before, things change during the season. If the team is laboring, will Marmol become more traditional like the managers of the past? And how well can he manage the farewell tours of aging veterans, past their best, as the team chases a championship?
That’s another thing too. There has been a lot of public talk about chasing a championship. As a fan, that’s the kind of thing you love to hear. But again, Marmol is a rookie manager on a team that isn’t even an obvious favorite to win its division. He hasn’t been shy about raising the expectations. That’s a bold, but respectable, move. It’s nice hearing that your team wants to win — that’s not exactly as standard as it should be in the world of sports nowadays. Still, it brings pressure and a spotlight. Those things always exist in St. Louis, where the playoffs are the standard, but adding championship talk and the final seasons of two, maybe three, franchise legends just adds to those things.
Managing is already hard enough. Being a new manager under these circumstances certainly isn’t easier. The Cardinals certainly didn’t do Marmol any favors this offseason. Any manager would have his hands full dealing with Pujols, Molina, and this pitching staff on top of the normal decisions that a manager needs to make, but for someone with no experience at the helm, Marmol is getting thrown right into the fire.
For better or for worse, Marmol has a lot to manage. There are plenty of storylines to watch this year, but how Oli Marmol handles the team should be a major one.