5 Early Concerns for St. Louis Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny
Mike Matheny and the St. Louis Cardinals have no doubt enjoyed proving the early-season pundits wrong so far in 2012.
In a fairly dramatic offseason for Cardinals fans, the team lost two future Hall-of-Famers in Albert Pujols and Tony La Russa—three if you count the incomparable Dave Duncan (of course current eligibility guidelines don't allow coaches to be considered for enshrinement...yet).
It's not too early to say the Cardinals appear to have all the makings of a division winner, which flies in the face of roughly 80 percent of "experts" preseason predictions who appeared to favor the Reds and Brewers instead.
In addition, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak must have visited Superman's Bizarro World in the offseason as he decided to peg La Russa's polar opposite as his club's new manager—Mike Matheny—going from a skipper who ranked third in wins all-time (2,728) to one who had zero.
Not just zero experience managing in the majors. Zero managerial experience of any kind: Triple-A, college, McDonald's—none.
The Cardinals are nothing if not the embodiment of an organization that represents professionalism and success, and despite the changing of the managerial guard, the 2012 squad is displaying plenty of both.
Despite leading the majors in run differential, however, the Cards are presenting some challenges for their rookie manager. Here are five issues he'll need to address sooner rather than later.
1. Managerial Approach: Underdog or Reigning Champ?
One of the age-old axioms about baseball teams is that they tend to take on the personality of their manager. For 16 years the Cardinals played the wounded underdog perfectly for the ever intense, ever slighted, always hated Tony La Russa.
The Cardinals could be winning 100 games, and Tony would still find bulletin-board material for his first-place club. The tactic also worked perfectly when the Cards actually were underdogs as they were in 2006 and 2011, fighting for their playoff lives, both of which ended with World Series Championships.
In 2001, La Russa was gifted the perfect apprentice, a Darth Vader to do the bidding of St. Louis' Sith Lord (at least I'm sure folks in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh would agree with that comparison)—the prickly All-Star Albert Pujols.
Pujols was every bit the on-field persona of La Russa—he always played best when he had a chip on his shoulder. That's a 13-year grudge against the baseball scouting world that Pujols is carrying since being drafted in the 13th round of the 1999 draft.
He told 60 Minutes last year he would "never" recover from that slight.
While La Russa's Cardinals played the scrapper, Bizarro manager Mike Matheny has taken the high road. Of course the Cardinals are winning. Baseball is about a team, not just one player, not just one manager.
The Cardinals are in first place—business as usual.
Matheny's approach seems less likely to burn a team out, as La Russa was accused of doing on more than one occasion, but it will be interesting to see how he reacts to real adversity, which is something this year's squad has not dealt with yet.
2. Bullpen Still Searching for Consistency
The excellent work of Jason Motte in the 2011 playoffs (five-for-five in save opportunities) was a big piece of the Cardinals miracle puzzle. Compared to Ryan Franklin (and his 85-mph fastball), Motte was the second coming of Eric Gagne—game over.
With Motte bringin' the sauce from day one this year, it is easy to forget that this is his first full season as the closer and he is still maturing in the role.
Getting to Motte has been more problematic for the Cards as Lance Lynn was pegged for the eighth inning setup role that was vacated when he stepped into the rotation for Chris Carpenter.
Mitchell Boggs is off to his best start ever, which is good for him as 2012 appeared to be his (and second baseman Tyler Green's) last chance to prove he belongs in the bigs. That said, Boggs' control always seems a flying shoulder away from a couple walks.
Lefty Marc Rzepczynski was the "prize" in the Colby Rasmus trade as he was a young talented reliever who could get both righties and lefties out and even spot start if needed. He would remain under the club's control in 2012.
In actuality, he was less successful in the "weaker" National League (ERA 3.97) after the trade than he was with Toronto (2.97), by a full run per game.
"Scrabble" has been more effective in 2012 but is far from automatic.
Kyle McClellan has all the earmarks of a long reliever since his use as a starter ended on a bad note last season and his sharpness as a reliever has yet to return.
Royals castoff Victor Marte had a very good season for the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds as their closer, but at the big-league level, he is eerily reminiscent of another straight-ball flamethrower who was torched regularly last season, Maikel Cleto.
Finally, the normally reliable setup man Fernando Salas has looked lost, allowing 12 baserunners in four innings of work.
The common thread is a lack of a veteran stopper to help anchor the young hurlers. Scott Linebrink was slated for that role before landing on the DL on March 30.
As far as the bullpen is concerned, Matheny will be popping more than a couple late-inning antacids.
3. Finding That Killer Instinct
The Cardinals are off to a solid start, riding an highly effective combination of a league-best offense getting early leads against opponents and then handing the festivities over to a second-ranked pitching staff for safe keeping.
That's the good news. The bad news is that the Cards should probably be a lot closer to 20-5 than 16-9. The club is "wearing the collar" on the year in chances to sweep an opponent. They are 0 for four.
In these four games, the club is batting .237 and have scored just 11 runs. In Thursday afternoon's frustrating loss to Erik Bedard and the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cardinals struck out 17 times, the highest game total for the franchise in 23 years.
It is a remarkable total considering the Cardinals were the toughest team to strike out in 2011.
The optimist will say the Cardinals have won all but one series so far on the year, but the BCS Bowl fan will say, "Look at the strength of schedule!"
Indeed, the Cardinals are ranked ninth in RPI in facing the sixth easiest schedule in the league. They are playing the teams they need to sweep.
Mike Matheny is also going to be learning about his own pitching staff as the season progresses and what each pitcher's limits and comfort zones are.
On April 23 in Chicago, Matheny pulled lefty Jaime Garcia in the eighth inning after just 85 pitches. Jason Motte pitched the bottom of the ninth, blew the save and took the loss. One wonders what the outcome could have been if Garcia had been allowed to at least start the ninth.
Cardinal fans hope he learns his hurlers quickly, but as Matheny is an ex-catcher, he's probably way ahead of us already.
4. The Injury Bug (or Moth)
Preseason critics who picked the Cardinals to finish second or third (or worse) in the NL Central pointed to health as risk factor No. 1 when assessing the club's prospects.
Unfortunately, Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman proved them somewhat prescient and led the charge to the DL more quickly than John Mozeliak would have liked.
One can argue that the Cardinals don't have a regular who doesn't have injury questions.
David Freese is coming off recent ankle and hand injuries. Matt Holliday was banged up nearly all of 2011 and then felled by a rabid moth late in the year. Rafael Furcal hasn't survived as a regular since 2009. Carlos Beltran, remarkably, appeared in 142 games last season, but many would bet against him appearing in that many again.
Coming off the disabled list are Allen Craig (kneecap) and Skip Schumacher (oblique). They immediately paid dividends at the plate, but you can bet that Mike Matheny will try not to over-use them. Adam Wainwright, after looking great in the preseason, has been anything but when the games started counting.
To their teammates chagrin, Lance Berkman decided he just had to leg out a triple early in the season, while Jon Jay, who is much braver running toward a wall than Colby Rasmus was before him, probably wishes he had tried not to run through the wall, injuring his shoulder last month.
Yadier Molina is probably healthiest of the bunch, but he is a catcher going on 30. The Cards will want to protect their five-year investment in him by giving him regular rest.
All in all, the health report will be of great interest to Matheny throughout the year.
5. Clubhouse Chemistry
Earlier, we mentioned the intensity of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols. Let's conjure up some other names from Cardinal history.
Rex Hudler. Joe McEwing. Brendan Ryan. Bo Hart. David Eckstein.
If they are the answer, the question must be, "Name five players most unlike Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran."
Throughout Cardinal history, St. Louis fans have had countless opportunities to fall in love with high-motor, exciting, overachieving players. These guys are spark plugs, and it is impossible not to root for them.
Holliday and Beltran, now the heart of the Cardinals attack, in contrast, never look like they are trying too hard. Ask most Cardinal fans what they think about Holliday and in many cases, it will be less than glowing, which is unfortunate.
Similarly, Carlos Beltran looks like he's on cruise control 24/7. Some nights he strikes out four times or, like this week, produces two home runs and seven RBI in one night.
With those two players paired with the affable Lance Berkman and David Freese, one has to wonder where the intensity and drive within the clubhouse will come from.
Hopefully, Yadier Molina will take the mantle leadership and run with it.
La Russa had Pujols.
Matheny has his protege as well.