This season may prove to be Mike Matheny’s greatest challenge as St. Louis Cardinals manager.
Matheny, in his fifth year in the corner of the Cardinals dugout, faces a season-long series of playing decisions regarding a team that is a unique mix of promising but inconsistent kids and usually dependable but aging veterans.
“The challenge with young players is the consistency part,” Matheny said this week. “They’ve never been in this particular atmosphere before, and even though they’ve played this game at high levels, doing it at the big-league level, there are different unique challenges coming with it.”
Such are the everyday lineup card decisions facing any manager, but particularly Matheny as 2016 begins to unfold.
How much playing time does he give a Jeremy Hazelbaker, say, at the expense of a Matt Holliday? How does he split time among his many first basemen and outfielders? How often will he rest Yadier Molina while Brayan Pena is on the DL? What’s he to do when Ruben Tejada and Jhonny Peralta return, giving the team five guys who can play shortstop?
“It comes down to (who is) doing the job,” Matheny said. “This is the big leagues, and everybody here understands we’re in the baseball-winning business. We’re going to need every guy on this roster. I think it’s going to be a very used roster. We’ve got to keep plugging pieces in, trying to see which ones look right, right now.”
In 2012, Matheny took the Cardinals helm – his first managing job at any level – and developed a reputation for a straitlaced approach to in-game moves. The closer, whoever it was, was locked into that ninth-inning role; the best hitter (Holliday) always hit third, and other players were slotted into a batting order that rarely varied. Certain pitchers worked the seventh and others pitched the eighth, and backups or youngsters (in my view) got less playing time than they might have deserved.
No more, not for a team that is oddly balanced and strangely built.
For the time being, there are at least three first baseman on the 25-man roster – Matt Adams, Brandon Moss and Holliday – with another couple of guys who could play there if needed: Stephen Piscotty and Matt Carpenter.
For the time being, there are at least three shortstops – Aledmys Diaz, Greg Garcia and Jedd Gyorko – with two others on the disabled list and expected back at some point: Peralta and Tejada.
For the time being, there’s a handful of outfielders, all deserving of playing time – Randal Grichuk and the aforementioned Piscotty, Holliday, Hazelbaker and Moss – and one more on the disabled list: Tommy Pham.
Oh, and there’s one proven major-league catcher on the roster – Molina, a perennial Gold Glover and future Hall of Famer – while the player the Cardinals signed to give him more rest this year, Pena, is on the DL following knee surgery. In Pena’s place: journeyman Eric Fryar, with 67 games as a catching caddy in the major leagues.
Molina’s status may be particularly vexing for Matheny, a former Gold Glove catcher himself, prone at times to acceding to his veterans’ reluctance to relinquish playing time. (A 2015 case-in-point: Peralta, who played 155 games even as fatigue caused a second-half fade. With Pete Kozma and Garcia as little-used alternatives, Peralta hit .298 with 13 homers and 46 RBIs before the All-Star Break, just .243 with four homers and 25 RBIs after the break.)
Indeed, Matheny may regularly encounter difficult conversations with everyday players who don’t want to sit, not even for a little bit. And every day, he’ll have to mix and match his lineup depending on past history, hitter-pitcher matchups, and who has the hot hand.
Will Matheny find it hard to deliver that message to a clubhouse stalwart like Holliday, 36, in his eighth season with the club but on a six-year stretch in which his power production has fallen every season? And what if Molina’s offensive production continues its decline for a third consecutive season, even as the 33-year-old catcher’s defense and team leadership remain paramount?
“More than anything, it’s just keeping conversations open,” said Matheny, describing the kinds of messages a manager has to deliver all too frequently. “‘No, you’re not in the doghouse, I don’t believe we have a doghouse in here. Don’t want one. We’re just trying to (help) you.”
Matheny took that approach this week with Randal Grichuk, who started his second full major-league season in a 1-for-15 skid, had a sitdown with Matheny and then had five hits in 10 at-bats, with a home run, five RBIs, five runs scored, two doubles and three walks in the three games with Milwaukee this week.
“How can we make somebody better?” said Matheny, who left Grichuk him out of the starting lineup three times in a four-game stretch before the homestand, letting him get extra work in the batting cage. “(I’m) just continuing to talk with Randal, and getting him to understand that some days you’re just going to take a break, and it’s going to happen all season long. We want to balance with him the idea of pushing through some things, because there are things I think he can learn there, and there’s also a trust that has to happen that we’re trying to do what’s best for him, and sometimes the best thing is to back off a little bit. ...
“If you asked Randal, he’d say, ‘Put me in today and I’ll get it fixed, put me in tomorrow and I’ll get it fixed.’ And sometimes taking a step backwards might help. But meanwhile, do we have another option to get us a good shot?”
Options aplenty, and lots of choices for Matheny to make: Will they be the right ones as he balances the promise of youth with the dependability of veterans?
And has there ever been a season in which the outcome depended so heavily on decisions made in the manager’s office?