Reactions varied from pleasure to understanding to downright outrage.
That is the kind of emotion Mike Matheny can create amongst the St. Louis Cardinals’ fanbase in only two seasons as skipper, one of them resulting in a National League pennant. When a three-year extension was announced for him last November, running his tenure through at least 2017, the lovers could be heard but so could the critics, and they screeched at a much higher volume.
A season after Matheny managed the Cardinals to a World Series appearance—it should be noted he inherited a World Series champion—his club’s health and natural regression to the mean has put a microscope on his tactics. He is not a tactician or strategic genius, evident by the Cardinals’ failure to meet their Pythagorean record for two consecutive seasons under Matheny and his highly questionable late-game matchup theories.
When Matheny was brought on, the organization’s front office highlighted his leadership qualities. Now, faced with key injuries and a group of struggling youngsters, even those attributes are being questioned by his adversaries and could be the foundation of Matheny’s run in St. Louis being cut short.
Don’t believe it, especially coming off such a deep playoff run in 2013? Try a quick Twitter search for “Mike Matheny” and let yourself be stunned at even the mild posts.
Sometimes I think a monkey could come up with a better lineup and hitting order than Mike Matheny....— Brent Beall (@BrenticusIsHere) August 27, 2014
The Cardinals are highly unlikely to fire Matheny a summer after extending him, but a team minus guys like Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha with unproven former prospects like Oscar Tavares and Carlos Martinez could miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010. If that happens, Matheny’s presence on the bench will be under scrutiny from more than the Twitterverse and detailed fan blogs.
The front office will have to take notice.
The excuses are legitimate in the event the Cardinals actually miss the postseason, which seems unlikely at the moment considering they have a 2.5-game lead in the wild-card race.
Molina, one of the best all-around players in the league and winner of six consecutive Gold Glove Awards and six consecutive All-Star selections, hasn’t played since July 9 but might return to the lineup this weekend. He had a .341 on-base percentage and was, of course, playing solid defense when he went down with a torn thumb ligament.
Wacha owns a 2.79 ERA in 155 career innings pitched and an identical mark in 15 starts this season. He hit the disabled list after his June 17 start with a stress reaction in his right shoulder, but he is scheduled to make his first rehab start Sunday.
Audio to come but Wacha will start Sunday for Springfield, Molna will also play tomorrow night here #Cardinals— Brian Stull (@StullySTL) August 27, 2014
According to Derrick Goold of the St Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals may be fighting off another ailment after Adam Wainwright announced Wednesday that he has a “dead arm." Losing him would leave only Lance Lynn as the rotation's lone reliable starter.
None of that is Matheny’s fault. Injuries happen to every team, every year. The Cardinals are not immune.
What can be put on the manager is the handling of young players like Taveras—consensus No. 3 prospect by Baseball America, MLB.com and BaseballProspectus.com—and Martinez, another top prospect entering the season. Then again, Matheny, hailed as a standout player-development type when he was hired, has stated he has no desire to assist in the developing of young players as a major league manager. It has been noted that sentiment is only true with certain players, not all.
Matheny talking Taveras/Craig pregame: "We've got to do what we can to win today, we're not here in the development business."— Chris Hrabe (@chrabe) July 22, 2014
Matheny has benched Taveras numerous times for reasons ranging from a lack of production to a lack of hustle, or at least as Matheny perceives it. The inconsistent playing time became enough of an issue that general manager John Mozeliak got involved, stating, “I told Matheny if [Taveras] is here, he needs to play. He can’t gain service time sitting on the bench.”
It even got to a point that Mozeliak included Allen Craig in a trade to Boston at the non-waiver deadline, and it was Craig’s struggling bat and spotty defense that Matheny saw fit to use in right field rather than Taveras.
Taveras has played better of late, hitting .333 (13-for-39) over his last 11 games.
Martinez has been something of a different case because his staff role is in question, but critics say misused nonetheless. Matheny used Martinez out of the bullpen in 26 of the team’s first 54 games, but once Martinez entered the rotation in June, Matheny was curiously careful with his usage even when Martinez pitched well. Had Matheny given Martinez more rope, his numbers might look better. Even still, a good strikeout rate and inflated BABIP showed Martinez can get big league hitters out if he could avoid some bad luck.
After being sent back to the minors Aug. 7 only to be recalled 10 days later, Martinez is back in the bullpen where he has recorded three scoreless outings in his four appearances. But even with 73 innings pitched this season, everyone is still in the dark as to if the 22-year old right-hander can effectively start in the majors, and part of that is because of Matheny’s quick hook.
For all of his managerial shortcomings, Matheny, who had zero experience with this role at any level before this job, could escape major criticism from within the organization if the Cardinals make the playoffs. Not only that, he will probably be praised for doing so without Molina and Wacha for significant time.
But make no mistake, he is being watched closely, extension or not. Oh, and we didn’t even mention the fact that the National League won’t have home-field advantage in the World Series.
Anthony Witrado covers Major League Baseball for Bleacher Report. He spent the previous 3 seasons as the national baseball columnist at Sporting News, and four years before that as the Brewers beat writer for The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Follow Anthony on Twitter @awitrado and talk baseball here.