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John Mozeliak Shakes Things Up, and That Should Get Mike Matheny’s Attention

After Friday’s shakeup by Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, the team responded by sweeping a three-game set against the hideous Philadelphia Phillies.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

The Phillies have the worst record in baseball.

But the Cardinals were playing like the worst team in baseball as they came home from an 0-7 road trip, reeking of smoke from Scooter Gennett, and overloaded with 17 losses in their previous 22 games.

The Cardinals couldn’t have asked for a softer mark than the Phillies, who had lost 28 of 38 games coming into Busch Stadium. Make that 31 out of the last 41. The Cardinals just had to slap the Phillies around. And except for the 7-0 complete-game shutout by Carlos Martinez, it wasn’t convincing, with the Cardinals dodging more trouble with a pair of one-run wins on Friday (3-2) and Sunday (6-5.)

Given their terrible play in recent weeks, the Cardinals were desperate to get some win — even if the triumphs came over their Class A minor-league team in Peoria.

I don’t discredit a team’s wins. MLB clubs don’t get to make their own schedules, or cherry-pick their own opponents. The Phillies were in town. Three games. You either defeat them, or sink deeper into the cesspit. The Cardinals made it through, winning only their second series at home since the end of April.

Was this the response Mozeliak was looking for?

Put it this way: Mo came into the weekend looking for his team’s pulse.

So I’m thinking the GM is feeling just a little better today.

Now, a few comments about Friday’s agitation …

1. By rearranging part of Mike Matheny’s coaching staff, Mozeliak aimed a warning shot at his manager. 

“I want him to feel confident we trust him to do his job, but we need to do better,” Mozeliak said during Friday’s press conference. He added: “I think everyone, including myself, is not in the most secure position right now,” Mozeliak said.

2. OK, but is Matheny really in trouble? 

In my opinion — no, not yet. A few reasons: a three-year contract extension that’s guaranteed through 2020 … there’s chairman Bill DeWitt Jr’s strong support of Matheny, and I don’t think BDJ is close to turning on his manager … there’s the dormant division; despite playing awful baseball, the Cardinals go into Monday’s day off only 2.5 games out of first in the weak-tea NL Central. This doesn’t mean the Cards deserve to be only 2.5 games out; but the division has been very forgiving. So there’s at least a chance to win. The Cardinals haven’t been ejected from contention … there’s Matheny’s overall winning percentage of .563,  which puts the Cardinals third in the majors since Matheny took over in 2012. And his record also includes making the playoffs in his first four seasons and winning the 2013 NL pennant.

My point here isn’t to defend Matheny and to try and make the case that he warrants generous job security.  I’m just reading DeWitt the best that I can. Matheny is only 62 games into his long-term contract extension; do you really expect DeWitt to cash out this soon and and pay Matheny off through 2020? Please.

And there’s this: up to this point DeWitt and Mozeliak have been willing to tolerate a lot of stuff with Matheny: his bumbling bullpen management; his preferential treatment of veterans at the expense of younger players’ development; his odd lineup construction; the soiled team fundamentals; Matheny pushing his players to be aggressive on the bases even as they run off the cliff time and time again; the skipper’s love of outdated, foolish, old-timey baseball tactics such as wasting outs by having a good hitter try to sac bunt when there’s already a runner in scoring position.

(Matheny did it again Sunday … taking Dexter Fowler’s home-run bat out of his hands, calling for a sac bunt with Matt Carpenter on second base. Why? It was just another ridiculous decision, and Fowler popped the bunt into the air, with the Phillies turning it into a double play. This moment loomed large when the Phillies rallied in the ninth … but the Cardinals held on for a 6-5 win.)

If DeWitt and Mozeliak were so willing to accept this (with enthusiasm) during Matheny’s first five-plus years on the job, then I find it difficult to believe that the bosses are just now turning impatient. Good grief, they gave Matheny his new contract the day after the Cubs won the World Series — in sort of a defiant “Make No Mistake, He’s Still Our Guy” statement. The bosses had to know that, left unattended, Matheny’s hard-to-break flaws would eventually drive the club into a losing rut. And that’s happening. This could have been prevented by holding Matheny to higher standards. Now that management has sent the message, we may see a more humble and open-minded Matheny.

I don’t think DeWitt and Mozeliak have altered their assessment of the manager in a drastic way. Is Matheny is at risk of losing his job this season? No, I don’t think so. Matheny’s cover has always been his record … a good overall record, even though he repeats the mistakes, and hasn’t evolved as a manager.  As long as Matheny can get the Cardinals winning again, he’ll be fine. How much winning? Only DeWitt knows what his personal standard is.

I’ll make this point too: Matheny has had the masses scratching their heads over his quirks and work since 2012, which means that Matheny was rewarded and thus enabled by the GM and owner. If I’m a manager that constantly does all of this silly things and gets praised and handed contract security … I’m probably going to think that I’m the second coming of Billy Southworth, and there’s no reason for me to change a thing.

Yes, I realize that DeWitt fired GM Walt Jocketty a year after the Cardinals won the 2006 World Series. But that was different. DeWitt made the bold move to put an end to the corrosive infighting and front-office political war between Jocketty and director player development Jeff Luhnow.

3. Mozeliak turned up the pressure with coaching changes that will have the manager squirming a little as he feels some heat for the first time as Cards’ manager. 

When Mozeliak promoted the highly regarded Memphis hitting coach Mike Budaska to the big club to assist batting coach John Mabry, the GM’s message couldn’t have been more obvious. Mabry is Matheny’s BFF. Matheny is 100 percent committed in his loyalty to his BFF.  And by elevating a minor-league coach that’s admired by so many of the Cards’ younger veterans, it sets up a potential line of succession. There’s a part two: Mozeliak also promoted acclaimed hitting coach George Greer, who is a favorite of management, from Class to Triple A Memphis to take Budaska’s spot. Mozeliak made it clear: Matheny’s BFF should realize that he does not have a job for life, especially with the Cards lagging at 26th in the bigs in runs per game (4.07.)

4. Now that’s Shildt’s duties have expanded and changed and can have more influence, I think he can make a positive difference in sharpening this team’s gross fundamentals. 

My theory:  Shildt, a George Kissell baseball descendant, has one of the best and brightest minds in the organization, and he could make a difference … as long as he was ALLOWED to make a difference. I doubted that Matheny would give Shildt authority and the freedom to smartly use advance metrics as a tool for maximizing defensive positioning. (As well as other areas of the team where the information, culled from advance metrics, can enhance your team’s chances of winning.

My concerns were basically reaffirmed when Mozeliak gave Shildt a more meaningful role as part of the reordering of the coaching staff. Shildt will coach third base; he is a clear upgrade over the reassigned Maloney. And Shildt has been put in charge of the outfield defense — an area that’s embarrassingly inept this season, and for no justifiable reason. The Cardinals are minus in Defensive Runs Saved at every outfield position this season. At minus 13 DRS, the Cards rank 27th in the majors in outfield defense.

It’s my opinion — and we’ll see — is Shildt will utilize the reams of available information to properly align his outfield defense. It happened in Friday night’s win over the Phillies. Remember the game-saving catch by Tommy Pham in left field? According to the Statscast data, Pham had a 29 percent chance to record an out there. But he made a terrific grab on a ball hit down the LF line for the game’s final out. ham made the catch moments after Shildt adjusted Pham’s positioning and moved Pham closer to the line.

That’s an example of what Shildt can do. (And another promoted coach Ron “Pop” Warner, may be able to assist in improving the infield defense.)

Shildt  needed to have the freedom to make those adjustments.

With this move, Mozeliak took care of that.

5. The GM is trying to fix coaching-staff flaws that were an obvious factor in the erosion of the Cardinals’ historical dedication to fundamentals.

If Mike Matheny and his coaches couldn’t or wouldn’t clean things up, Mozeliak intervened to do it for them.

Mozeliak will also be under increased scrutiny for the team’s talent level, but that’s another topic to be vetted (again) later.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Mike Matheny Looks Overwhelmed, and I Can’t Say I Blame Him