Mike Matheny on Willie McGee, Jose Oquendo, Bud Norris and Miles Mikolas
An active St. Louis Cardinals offseason began even before the Houston Astros had clinched their first World Series championship.
The focus at that point was less on the lineup and more on club culture.
President of baseball operations John Mozeliak rolled over the Cardinals coaching staff, starting with new pitching coach Mike Maddux, then bringing in former stars to mentor the young players in the organization's championship ways.
"It's just what he can teach — he can coach infielders and outfielders, base running," said second baseman Kolten Wong. "He brings all that to the table. Having him back is crucial."
The "Secret Weapon" — so named for his ability to play multiple positions for Whitey Herzog's Redbirds of the 1980s — had been on the Cardinals bench since 1999. But in the spring of 2016, Oquendo was forced to take a medical leave of absence to rehabilitate his surgically-repaired knees.
Without him, the Cardinals lost their way on the base paths and on the field.
While he convalesced at his Florida home, St. Louis finished last in the majors in stolen bases, despite having the fifth-most opportunities. They also ranked in the top third in the number of runners they lost on base and in the bottom third of runners advanced.
Defensively, the team committed the sixth-most errors.
The team was better in both areas in 2017, but both players and management believe they'll continue to improve under Oquendo's watch.
"As players, it's up to us to put on the gloves and execute. Coaches can't play the game for you," said Wong. "Jose wants to you to do well, and he will do whatever he has to do to make sure that you're living up to your potential."
Oquendo was back at the Cardinals' spring training complex, conducting "speed-feed" drills with infielders. Apart from instruction, Oquendo brings accountability to the back fields in Jupiter.
"The guys who slack or lay off a little bit, he doesn't let them get away with it," said Wong. "That's big, especially in this game. But, we play so much and there are so many games, it's sometimes hard not to want to relax.
"To have him there, keeping you on your toes, it just keeps the whole team a little sharper."
A few lockers down from Wong, first baseman and outfielder Jose Martinez chimed in.
"I for sure do not want to miss a ground ball in front of him, 100 percent," said Martinez, a 28-year-old rookie in 2017. You don't want to miss a play that you have to make when you're in a game."
They're there to impart some of the winning culture they experienced as players, especially as the Cardinals turn to several of their prospects to anchor key positions. Manager Mike Matheny has already seen some of that from McGee.
"He has regular conversation and doesn't even know he's teaching," he said. "He'll call a guy out on the bench — 'Here's what you're doing when you're over here sitting by yourself. Here's what your telling your teammates.' It's quiet, and he's not making a big deal about it, but that's a huge lesson for these guys breaking in."
Maddux also is tasked with mentoring young arms on the pitching staff. Carpenter spends much of his time in Jupiter outside Roger Dean Stadium, working with prospects on the training field mounds.
"When you talk about pitching, you have to recognize the hiring of Maddux, the promotion of Gerdy (Eversgerd), and also the addition of Chris Carpenter," Mozeliak said. "All these gentlemen are going to have their finger prints on a lot of what we're trying to accomplish."