I’m still not sure that interim St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt is the right person for the permanent job leading the most-storied team in the history of the National League.
But, after watching Shildt’s first two weeks at the helm, it’s pretty obvious that former skipper Mike Matheny was the wrong guy.
While I’m not convinced that this club is going to go on a wild winning streak to elbow its way into the playoff picture, it’s amazing how much more capable this flawed roster seems when the players are put in a position where they have a chance to succeed. Matheny was nothing if not predictable. All the other team had to do was wait for the Matheny Era Redbirds, who did little but play station-to-station baseball, to hit into a double play or strikeout trying every single at-bat to hit a home run and the rally was over.
Shildt’s teams play a more familiar brand of baseball for long-time St. Louis baseball fans. Hit and run plays, straight steals, moving runners up and putting the ball in play more often.
On the other side of the ball, Shildt puts players in positions they have half a chance to defend. While Redbirds rooters like to watch Jose Martinez hit, the sad truth is that when he played first base he was allowing the other team so many extra changes through his poor glovework that it was difficult — if not impossible — for him to produce more runs than he gave up. Martinez really needs to be a designated hitter in the American League if he wants to play regularly. As long as he is with the Cardinals, it looks like a bench role as a late innings pinch hitter suits him best. That’s not a bad thing. The Cardinals have talked for years about wanting to have a bench bat that could do some damage. But the candidates have either washed out or else they were pressed into service as regulars leaving no one to turn to in a key spot with the game on the line.
Matheny apologists point to the bullpen overhaul and the arrival of help from the minor leagues as the reason this team is suddenly showing at least some signs of life. But that’s not fair because, for one thing, Matheny was responsible for the biggest problem in the relief corps, Greg Holland. It was the former manager who lobbied the front office to bring in Holland. It was Matheny who allowed the situation to snowball by throwing Holland into games as if he was still the dominant closer he was a couple of years ago instead of the diminished player he was this season. With the suspect way he handled the bullpen, there is little doubt that the front office was afraid to bring some of the most-prized hurlers in the farm system up so the former manager could run him into the ground. There was even talk before Matheny was fired about the team sending one of its few late inning options — fireballer Jordan Hicks — back to the minors to keep him from being overused by the former skipper.
One of the reasons Shildt was handed the reigns was because he is familiar with the young Cardinals players and helped to develop them. One of the biggest problems with the organization was that players rocketed through the system to the big leagues — and then fell on their face when they got there. Someone needs to help them make that last step from star prospect to established MLB contributor.
While I like what I am seeing on the field from the new manager, one of the big things that concerns me is his credibility as a guy with no history of coaching in the big leagues — just like his predecessor, Matheny. Unless the Birds are planning to tank the next three or four seasons to do a total teardown and rebuild, they’re going to need to lure some free agents into the picture to fill holes — they still don’t have a legit starting third baseman and they need a middle of the order bat, they have tons of number three starters but no ace and they may need a couple pieces in the bullpen. The Cardinals might trade some of their surplus pitching to fill one or two spots. But they don’t have enough pieces of interest to other teams to fill the voids from within.
If the Cardinals decide to go the complete overhaul route, Shildt is likely going to be around for a while. But, if St. Louis decides it wants to win now, it might want to go with a manager who gives free agent players the impression that the club is in a position to do so. And the events of Sunday make that possibility a little bit more interesting.
Longtime Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia is expected to resign at the end of the season. (Some reports indicate he’d retire and that he doesn’t want another managing job, but he called those rumors “poppycock”). But the talk has been that his relationship with the front office in Anaheim soured years ago. Plus, 19 years is an awfully long time to spend in one place, so, I could see a scenario where he’s looking for a change of scenery. Scioscia isn’t the sort of manager who has been the popular hire in recent years — a young guy who is close to the age of the players — but he is a guy with a World Series pedigree who is popular with his team. Scioscia, 59, is basically the guy Tony La Russa was when the Cardinals hired him to manage their club. He’s a respected veteran who ran out of steam with his current club after a long tenure who would be interested in going to a place where he would have another chance to win a ring in short order.
The Cardinals could be that team. But they’ll have to be aggressive in their reconstruction.