Is this a Make or Break Year for Cardinals manager Mike Matheny in St. Louis?
Tony La Russa had just won the 2011 World Series in one of the most thrilling Fall Classics of all time and rode off into the sunset a champion. The best player in baseball and future Hall of Famer, Albert Pujols, jumped ship and bolted to sunny Los Angeles in a monstrous overpay.
An era had come to an end in St. Louis with the departure of these two legends. To usher in a new era of Cardinal baseball, the team took a risk to sign rookie manager and former Cardinal catcher, Mike Matheny, in hopes he could carry this team to World Series glory like his Hall of Fame predecessor.
Five years into the experiment, it’s looking more and more like Matheny isn’t the guy to meet the sky high expectations in St. Louis despite a solid record of 461-349. Fans in St. Louis are losing their patience due to Matheny’s poor in-game managing and his tendency to play favorites with players on the roster.
The question here is how do you fire a manager who only has five years of managerial experience while making the post season four out of those five while finishing only one game back in the lone down year? Ask the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Like Matheny, Don Mattingly had a roster in Los Angeles loaded with talent that year in, year out posted winning records and went to the playoffs. The problem was that the Dodgers would never get over the hump with Mattingly at the helm, and the front office knew it.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Dodgers cut bait with Mattingly citing his poor in-game decision making that ultimately lost the club playoff games and knocked them out of the playoffs. They had the roster to consistently win, but not the manager to bring home a championship. Sound familiar? That’s because Mike Matheny is the Cardinals’ Don Mattingly.
After leading the Cardinals to the World Series but coming up short in 2013, the Cardinals looked poised to make a run in 2014 and Matheny looked like a budding managerial superstar. He made some mistakes but after all, he had won the pennant in just his second year managing professionally so he could be cut some slack provided he improved and learned. The problem is that he didn’t improve or learn.
He lost seven more games in 2014 despite possessing a roster similar, if not better, than the one the previous year. Still, Matheny could be forgiven for his poor regular season since he still led the team to the NLCS in 2014.
It was in that series however, that patience ran out amongst the Redbird faithful. In game three, Matheny left Randy Choate, a lefty specialist, in the game during the bottom of the 10th after walking a guy and giving up a base hit to open the inning which led to the Giants walking it off on an error.
In game 4, the bullpen lost the game again after Marco Gonzales and Seth Maness blew a one run lead in the 6th. Then the nail in the coffin for Matheny amongst Cardinals fans came in Game 5 when Matheny trotted out Michael Wacha in the bottom of the 9th after not pitching at all in the playoffs due to injury.
The Giants walked it off on a Travis Ishikawa pennant-winning home run leaving everybody wondering why Wacha with Trevor Rosenthal and Carlos Martinez available? The move baffled many across the game and in Cardinal nation alike, putting Matheny under the microscope and leaving many questioning whether or not he can actually lead this team to the promised land.
Fast forward to 2016 and the flaws are still there with new reasons to question Matheny: his tendency to play favorites. Kolten Wong and Randal Grichuk were two of the more intriguing young Cardinals and both of them struggled to the point of midseason demotions. They both started slow out of the gate and lost everyday jobs by May while never regaining a true everyday role.
Young players are notorious for experiencing ups and downs throughout a season but it’s normally the faith of the Manager keeping them in the lineup everyday that brings them out of the slump. It means a lot to young players knowing that they’re the guy and they don’t need to constantly be looking over their shoulder.
Grichuk and Wong both faced the pressure last year of needing to have a good game or else be benched the next one. With a new lineup pretty much everyday, young players like Wong and Grichuk found themselves pressing to try and earn playing time.
This added pressure stems from Matheny’s lack of faith in these young players. When given everyday playing time in the last six weeks of the season, Grichuk tore it up and basically carried the Cardinal offense with a slash line of .270/.308/.486 and a wrc+ of 110.
Wong never saw consistent playing time again but is opening the 2017 season as the full-time starter thanks to the front office overriding Matheny and sticking with Wong and his All-star potential. Cardinals fans and more importantly, the front office, notice this roster instability which leads many to believe Matheny may be on the hot seat.
The microscope is undeniably growing larger over Mike Matheny and sooner or later the Cardinals may have to cut the young manager loose if they want to compete with the Cubs in the Central for years to come as well as the rebuilding clubs in the Reds and Brewers in the not so distant future.
He has not progressed and each year the team has played less and less games getting knocked out of the playoff picture earlier each year since 2013.
The front office has a tough decision to make but with an urgency to keep up with their rivals, the Cardinals will be forced to realize Matheny will never hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy and fire the manager while the roster is still built to compete.
*All Stats Courtesy of Baseball Reference
Photo Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports