Monday, July 16, 2018

St. Louis Cardinals in Crisis; Matheny Fired

Posted By on Mon, Jul 16, 2018 at 9:23 AM

As the Memphis Redbirds roll toward a second straight appearance in the Pacific Coast League playoffs, their parent club in St. Louis is undergoing a transition the proud franchise hasn't experienced since the internet was a public curiosity. After a dispiriting loss to the Cincinnati Reds Saturday night at Busch Stadium, the club announced the dismissal of manager Mike Matheny, the first Cardinal skipper fired since Hall of Fame-bound Joe Torre in 1995.

St. Louis is facing a third straight season outside the postseason party, a drought last witnessed in what is best remembered as the McGwire Era (1997-99). Matheny became the first big-league manager to reach the postseason his first four seasons at the helm (2012-15) and won the National League pennant in 2013. But the recent decline in both wins and competent play — they go together — was too much for the Cardinal brass to wait even one more game and dismiss Matheny during the All-Star break. The three-day respite is a good time for self-evaluation — on a team scale — so here are three thoughts on the current mirror-gazing at Busch Stadium.
click to enlarge Mike Shildt
  • Mike Shildt

• The Cardinals are still looking for The Guy.

The Man played his last game in 1963, and there will not be a “next Stan Musial.” But the ongoing lack of a slugger in the middle of the St. Louis lineup is becoming somewhat historic. Not since 2012 has a Cardinal driven in 100 runs (Matt Holliday was The Guy that season) and this year’s leader, through Sunday, is Jose Martinez with 56 (68 games remain on the Cardinal schedule). The big acquisition last winter was outfielder Marcell Ozuna, who slashed .312/.376/.548 for Miami last season but has disappointed as a Cardinal to this point with a line of .268/.309/.385.

The Cardinals’ only selection for Tuesday’s All-Star Game — and every franchise is granted at least one — was playing in Japan a year ago. This says as much about the milquetoast Cardinal batting order as it does about Miles Mikolas and his 2.79 ERA. (Catcher Yadier Molina was added to the National League roster to replace the injured Buster Posey.) Matt Carpenter has been a franchise linchpin, for good or ill, and recovered nicely from a dreadful start by hitting .313 and drilling eight home runs in June. But he’s not The Guy. His finest season (2013) came in a complementary role when he set the table for Holliday, Molina, Carlos Beltran, and Allen Craig in helping St. Louis win the National League pennant.

Tommy Pham’s breakout 2017 season now looks like a spike in performance and not the launch of a career trend. A 20-steals/20-homer star a year ago, Pham is hitting .243 and strikes one out of every four plate appearances. Not The Guy.

• An abundance of pitching is always good.

If St. Louis is to find The Guy, it will likely require departing with one of the best young arms in the National League (or, for now, the Pacific Coast League). Jack Flaherty stepped into the injured Adam Wainwright’s rotation slot and has two 13-strikeout games to his credit as a rookie. Reliever Jordan Hicks — 21 years old and having skipped Triple-A seasoning — has tested the limit of radar technology with his 105-mph fastball. Here on the farm, Dakota Hudson has dominated the PCL with 12 wins and a 2.42 ERA, good enough to earn the 23-year-old Tennessean a start in last week’s Triple-A All-Star Game.

With Michael Wacha ailing (again) and Luke Weaver struggling for consistency, the Cardinals can ill afford dealing a young arm whimsically. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak — as he stares deeply into that mirror — must do some smart math in the weeks and months ahead. How much value does a pitching surplus bring if a hitting deficit leaves St. Louis on the wrong side of 3-2 and 2-1 scores?

• The NL Central is a two-team race . . . and neither team wears red.
Among all the self-evaluation, this has to be the hardest for Cardinal management to accept. For the better part of two decades, discussion of World Series contenders in the National League Central began with a scouting report of the Cardinals. The club's answer, at least through the end of this season, is interim manager Mike Shildt. "Shilty" is a baseball professor who won three championships (two at Class A, one at Double A) before managing the Memphis Redbirds for two seasons (2015-16). There's some irony to the title Shildt was given upon his promotion to St. Louis for the 2017 season: quality control coach. The Cardinals' quality standards need some controlling, to say the very least.

In covering Shildt for his two seasons in Memphis, I found two distinct character traits not found in every professional baseball clubhouse. Shildt has virtually no ego, at least not the kind that impacts decision-making in a dugout. He won't be surprised by in-game scenarios, which means he won't panic. And Shildt is grateful. A protege of the great George Kissell (father of "The Cardinal Way"), Shildt did not play professionally, so has found his way to the major leagues along a distinctive path, one where credentials had to be earned without the benefit of any past achievement on the field. He appreciates making a living in baseball, and particularly with the St. Louis Cardinals.

In this unusual time of crisis at Busch Stadium, gratitude and appreciation may prove to be guiding principles. There are teams to chase in the National League Central.

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