The Cardinals’ New Coaches Can Help Manager Mike Matheny. But Only If He Wants Their Help

In a move that surprised no living, conscious and reasonably alert person who follows Cardinals baseball, the team on Thursday announced a three-year contract extension for manager Mike Matheny. The deal covers Matheny through 2020. The Cards also made some potentially significant changes to Matheny’s staff, and I’ll get into that in a few minutes.

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Matheny has a 461-349 record in his five years managing the Cardinals.

Listeners/readers know where I stand on Matheny: I believe he regressed in 2016. After doing an exceptional job in 2015 — when he deserved more NL Manager of the Year consideration — Matheny had his worst season as the team’s manager in ’16.

The problems with sloppy fundamentals and erratic player relations began in spring training and dogged the Cardinals all season.

But over Matheny’s five seasons in the job the Cardinals lead the majors in regular-season wins (averaging 92) and have made the postseason four times. He’s already won 21 post season games, which is tied for fifth among active MLB managers. The Cardinals’ 86-76 record as a game short of claiming a 2016 wild-card spot, but that disappointment doesn’t warrant sacking a manager that’s won as much as Matheny.

That’s a fair overview of Matheny.

Here’s another overview: the Cardinals are trending in the wrong direction.

The Cardinals won the NL pennant in 2013.

They were eliminated in the NLCS in 2o14  — a step back from ’13.

They were ejected in the first-round NLDS in 2015 — a step back from ’14.

The 2016 Cardinals failed to qualify for the postseason — a step back from ’15.

The Cardinals have to find ways to improve, and that all-encompassing challenge applies to everyone: from chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., GM John Mozeliak, Matheny, the coaching staff, the players.

To his credit, Matheny has identified areas where he can do better — communication with players, and bullpen management — so that’s encouraging. You can’t improve unless you want to. And you can’t improve unless you’re willing to take a hard look at yourself in a genuine effort to address weaknesses. That isn’t easy to do. And if Matheny is up for this, he can put his self-evaluation to good use.

Meanwhile …

Mozeliak is trying to give things a nudge by promoting two admired coaches from the Cards’ system.

Minor-league managers Mike Shildt and Oliver Marmol have been added to Matheny’s staff.

I wrote this about Shildt earlier this week, a few days before the team announced his promotion:

“One of the smartest baseball men in the Cardinals organization is Mike Shildt, 48, who manages the Class AAA Memphis Redbirds. Shildt has more than paid his dues as a Cardinals’ scout, instructor, minor-league coach, minor-league manager. He won back-to-back league titles in the rookie-level Appalachian League (and was named the league’s Manager of the Year), was promoted to Class AA Springfield, then managed that team to the league title in 2012. The Cardinals have honored Shildt with the prestigious George Kissell Award for his ‘excellence in player development.’ Cardinals field-instructor supervisor Mark DeJohn went as far to compare Shildt to Kissell.” 

To expand on that a little …

Shildt is an excellent teacher. Players respect him and covet his instruction.  Shildt is an extension of the Kissell lineage. It’s smart to promote him. Given the Cardinals’ incessant fundamental gaffes in 2016, Shildt can be a valuable contributor to Matheny’s staff.

The question: will Matheny fully embrace Shildt’s new role?

Hopefully Matheny will understand that Shildt is an ally — uninterested in going after Matheny’s job.

Shildt will be a big-league manager at some point, but in 2017 he’ll be moving up to the big-level for the first time, is excited by the opportunity, and is committed to doing everything he can to help Matheny and the Cardinals.

Shildt isn’t political. He isn’t devious. He isn’t a climber. He’s just a really astute baseball man who works well with others.

The same applies to Marmol, an organizational rising star at age 30. He’ll be the Cards’ first-base coach in 2017 after managing Class A Palm Beach last season. Marmol earned immediate respect within the organization for his excellent work in teaching prospects. He is said to have outstanding communication skills. He is also viewed, internally, as a future major-league manager.

Shildt and Mamol will bring another fresh element to the dugout level: an aptitude for advanced analysis. And an appreciation for advance analysts that challenge old-school convention. And the way this game is heading, you need forward-thinking minds in the dugout.

“We looked at the strengths of both Ollie and Mike Shildt and thought they would both be good complements to what we already had,” Mozeliak told Jen Langosch of MLB.com. “Ollie’s case, he obviously brings experience on the infield instruction, but also as a young manager, he has a full complement of skills to add to our club. Mike Shildt from just a pure teaching standpoint felt like he would address some of the areas that we needed to. Plus both Shildt and Ollie do have an analytical and modern approach to some of their techniques, and we thought that could also work well for us moving forward.”

Mozeliak’s staff remix can make a positive impact in 2017. I am certain of that. But there’s a caveat: the new additions will make a difference only if Matheny is willing to stretch his baseball intellect by implementing new ideas.

Thanks for reading and have a great weekend …

–Bernie 

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