St. Louis Cardinals

Go ahead and blame Matheny. But the fault rests with Mozeliak, too.

John Mozeliak fired Mike Matheny after the Cardinals had a dismal first half, but that doesn’t absolve Mozeliak of the blame he deserves for putting this team together.
John Mozeliak fired Mike Matheny after the Cardinals had a dismal first half, but that doesn’t absolve Mozeliak of the blame he deserves for putting this team together. AP

This is not to excuse Mike Matheny, for he deserves a share of the blame.

But it would be wrong to pin all the Cardinals problems on their now-dismissed manager, even as the team enters the All-Star Break 7 ½ games behind in the National League Central race and four games out in the wild card standings.

The issues facing this team — underachieving, uninspired, undermanned — can’t be solely traced to the manager’s office. There are rooms upstairs at Busch Stadium, and cubicles in the clubhouse, occupied by men whose decisions and actions led to Matheny’s dismissal.

Catcher Yadier Molina conceded as much on Sunday, less than 18 hours Matheny was axed late Saturday night.

“When you see that happen, it’s because us, as players, we’re not doing our job,” Molina told reporters after the Cardinals beat Cincinnati 6-4 in the first win for interim manager Mike Shildt. “I hate saying that, but we’re not doing our job and the blame is on us.”

Oddly, Molina is one of the few Cardinals who has played up to — indeed, beyond — expectations this year, hitting .274 with 13 home runs and 41 RBIs, and earning his ninth All-Star Game berth.

Joe Ostermeier
Joe Ostermeier

No midseason honors for a handful of Redbirds who staggered from the starting gate this season:

Prized offseason acquisition Marcel Ozuna — the not-quite-sufficient centerpiece of John Mozeliak’s offseason bid to restore the Cardinals to contention — hasn’t homered since June 16, a stretch of 26 games. In that span, the Cards’ most important hitter has nine RBIs, and is on pace for his lowest home run and RBI totals in five full seasons in the majors.

The major offseason acquisition last year, Dexter Fowler — in the second year of a five-year, $82.5-million, no-trade contract — has played himself to the bench (and team doghouse) with only six RBIs since May 31, 28 games and counting. He’s had eight multi-hit games in 74 games, and is mired at a career-low .176.

Kolten Wong is finally hitting above .200 — he spent 74 days below that mark until climbing back above on July 26 — but at least has played well defensively. Not something that can be said, mind you, of Fowler or even Ozuna, who came to town with Gold Glove credentials that have rarely been on display here.

Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez, maybe the most talented mostly .500 pitcher you’ll ever see, has hardly pitched up to his responsibilities at the top of the Cardinals rotation. He is one game above .500 in each of the last two years, after inheriting the No. 1 starter’s job from Adam Wainwright.

Is any of this Matheny’s fault? To an extent, absolutely — especially amid reports he and Fowler barely spoke as the season wore on. That’s just wrong: Managers are paid to — how should I put this? — manage. Not just games, not just lineup cards, not just bullpen moves, but issues that trouble individual players and cloud the clubhouse climate.

Managers don’t get to walk away from challenges that are too difficult to address. If Matheny chose to ignore the Fowler problem or others, then he deserved his walking papers.

And make no mistake: There are serious performance issues for this club, problems that Matheny failed to correct:

The Cardinals are last in the National League in fielding, with a league-high 77 errors, 41 more than the best-fielding NL club, Arizona.

They are 10th in the 15-team league with 413 runs scored, an average of 4.4 runs a game. Tops in the league: The Chicago Cubs, scoring 5.1 runs a game.

They have used 24 pitchers, including two position players forced to mop up in losing causes, have put eight hurlers on the disabled list and a handful of others shuttling back and forth from Class AAA Memphis.

They have nobody on the roster hitting .300, with eight prominent position players hitting in the low .260s or less.

The blame for a listless team will always land at the feet of the manager, rightly or wrongly. That said, Matheny is not the only member of Cardinals management who warrants a frank appraisal of his work.

That brings us squarely to Mozeliak, who in the final analysis has made the player moves that produced this team’s unassuming posture in the NL playoff picture.

He signed Fowler a year-and-a-half ago, hoping he’d become the centerpiece of the Cardinals’ redo after the 2016 season. Instead, he’s become a fringe player, not worthy of the millions coming his way.

He dealt for Ozuna last winter, hoping that he would become the big bat the Redbirds clearly need. We wait. And wait.

Two years ago, he offered a four-year free agent deal to left-handed reliever Brett Cecil, an undistinguished 2-5 with a 4.69 ERA in 98 relief appearances with the Cardinals.

In sum, he built an imperfect roster too reliant on suspect health for key members of the pitching staff (Wainwright, Alex Reyes, and Michael Wacha), and too dependent on suspect production from key members of the lineup (Fowler, Wong and even, at this point, Tommy Pham).

My point? Firing Matheny isn’t the end-all, be-all for Cardinals fans hoping they will return to the glory years of not so long ago. (Anyone remember the Cards won 100 games under Matheny in 2015, or won the NL pennant under him in 2013?)

All that seems a long time ago, but the Cardinals’ recent descent into irrelevance is a sign of how widespread the issues are for this club.

And it reveals problems that extend from the field to a carpeted office five floors upstairs.

This is not to condemn Mozeliak, but he deserves a share of the blame.

The St. Louis Cardinals opened the 2018 baseball season at Busch Stadium on Thursday, April 5, 2018.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985.