Mike Matheny is gone as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, and the franchise is trying to turn over a new leaf as it heads into the second half of the 2018 season.
It remains to be seen if firing the skipper and the club’s two hitting coaches, John Mabry and Bill Mueller, will be enough to change the fortunes of a team pegged at having only a 20 percent chance of winning a wild-card berth to the playoffs. New manager Mike Shildt has his work cut out for him. Here are some things the Redbirds will have to clean up if they’re going to have a chance to play meaningful fall baseball:
First, this team needs to straighten out the defense. You can’t give the other team 32 outs a night when you only get 27. Errors lead to big innings and the St. Louis offense hasn’t been consistent enough to overcome those kinds of setbacks. Are they all the sort of errors that show up on the scoreboard? No, there are mental errors that allow teams to take another base, have another life at the plate and cause St. Louis pitchers to get strung out throwing lots of pitches in an inning. Bottom line, the team needs to play cleaner and stop shooting itself in the foot every night. Tony La Russa used to say that he wanted to see his team play a hard nine innings every night. These days, we’re lucky to get a hard six. The disengaged other three innings are the killers time and time again.
Next, the offense needs a boost. Cardinals fans were excited when the team went out and traded for former Miami Marlins outfielder Marcell Ozuna. But that was supposed to be the appetizer move, not the main course. Ozuna is a good player. But in Florida he was the second banana to Giancarlo Stanton and that’s a much easier role to fill. In St. Louis, he has been unable to become the main man. Frankly, he shouldn’t have to be that guy. Or, at least, he shouldn’t be expected to do well in that job. Why? The Cardinals have lacked a true cleanup hitter for years — and then they let Matt Holliday, their number three hitter, walk away as a free agent. Was Ozuna supposed to be both the third and fourth hitter in the St. Louis lineup? It sure seems that way since the Redbirds only filled one of the two holes. The guys on hand have been completely unable to present a threat to opposing pitchers that would encourage them to avoid pitching around Ozuna. First choice as a third hitter was Matt Carpenter who can’t hit anywhere but first. It’s a 10-way tie for second choice. Who can handle the role? The only guy who comes close is Jose Martinez. But he’s so brutal in the field that he gives back as many runs as he produces. While it’s easy to say that the new hitting coaches need to teach the players already on the roster to be more productive, I really don’t think this is a dangerous offense until it adds at least one more power bat.
Addition by subtraction. I am convinced that there are some guys on the Cardinals’ roster who aren’t complete major-league players and there are others who seem happy just to be here and not able to compete on a championship level. Martinez needs to go to the American League where he can be a designated hitter. Carpenter needs to play first base exclusively because, with his weak throwing arm and lousy range, it’s the only spot he can play average quality defense. Dexter Fowler probably could use a change of scenery — but I don’t see many ways to get rid of the three years left on his pricey contract. I would say Kolten Wong was out of lives if not for the fact that he responds well to the former Class-AAA coaching staff that is now running the show in St. Louis. So, it would seem, one more chance is in order. The fact that Carlos Martinez is being mentioned in trade rumors seems to be indicative of the fact that the team has decided his performance is no longer worthy of accepting his antics. Martinez is a top notch dugout clown with his water throwing and his hair color fashion statements. And I wouldn’t mind that stuff at all if he was competing for the Cy Young Award every year. But he’s not. Martinez has not been able to establish himself as a legitimate ace pitcher here. Maybe he’s worth more in trade than he is on the roster. The Redbirds have plenty of guys with potential in Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, Luke Weaver, Michael Wacha and Miles Mikolas. If they could flip Martinez for a guy like Nolan Arenado from the Colorado Rockies and then deal a couple of prospects for a guy like Jacob deGrom, they might fill two huge needs.
I’d like to think that these moves could be made now to give this team a chance to compete for the postseason in 2018. But, while some believe (somehow) that St. Louis had a quick hook for Matheny, the fact of the matter is that the Cardinals are a .500 team with the majority of the season already in the books. They would have to win about two-thirds of their remaining games to even have a chance for October glory — and I haven’t seen many reasons so far this year to make me believe that’s likely to happen. It looks more like our best bet is to hope to retool for 2019. But I am afraid that the front office might be looking at a deeper tear down than that, and it might be several years before this club is back to the level we’ve become accustomed to since 2004.