Now that John Mozeliak has broken the St. Louis media’s heart by dismissing kindly manager Mike Shildt — evidently a heinous act that left many stewing with anger and grief — the president of baseball operations has a more serious matter to take on.
Shildt was a good manager, and we’ve reviewed his impressive record many times. And even with the “philosophical differences” that led to the rift that preceded the firing, Shildt departs with a three-plus season run of successful, winning, fundamentally sound baseball. He also cultivated approval and loyalty in the clubhouse. And in a direct contrast to Mozeliak’s perceived aloofness, Shildt won over our town’s media over with his friendliness.
Mozeliak is in a tougher spot now, and I’ll explain why in a bit. But first let’s state the obvious: the pressure will be applied externally, especially by the paying customers, the suite holders, the TV viewers, the marketing partners, and those who spend time and money on the Cardinals.
But Mozeliak has security through his close working relationship and friendship with Bill DeWitt Jr. The team chairman likes and respects Mozeliak, and they’ve both established winning legacies. Upper management believes its baseball model is working. And the facts support that — unless, of course, the critics want to finagle the accounting by introducing bizarre evidence of failure … or something like that.
(Oh, the Cardinals have played 10 seasons since last winning the World Series? Gosh, what a nightmare. The horror. What a collapse. It’s a crime. Must be easy to forget that the Cardinals didn’t win the World Series until Tony La Russa’s 11th season as manager. Or that 23 seasons elapsed between the 1982 World Series championship and the 2006 World Series title. This does not include the 1994 season cut short by the players-owners labor battle.)
That said, here’s where I stand:
One, I respect and appreciate the impressive DeWitt-Mozeliak track record. I see no reason to posture to appease the haters. Their model works, and it is sustainable. Just look at Baseball Reference if you need a reminder. Their overall record isn’t something that should be tossed aside just because (A) media people are mad that their buddy Shildt got sacked, or (B) some noisy fans hate on DeWitt for not spending more on payroll, even though he consistently ranks in the Top 10 in player salaries; or (C) that the front office is guilty of making numerous blockhead moves. You know, just like every front office does.
Two, even with their undeniable success, the Cardinals can do better. And should do better. Given the resources, the Cardinals shouldn’t be lagging behind the Milwaukee Brewers or otherwise settling for the wild-card entry. They need to push and reach higher. And they don’t have to wreck their model to do so. And I don’t need them to spend as much money as the Dodgers or Yankees or any other team you’d like to mention. I want to see them be smarter and more aggressive.
My goodness, the relatively simple act of reinforcing your team depth isn’t some mission-impossible endeavor. I don’t need the Cardinals to sign the most expensive players; I just want to see them add more good players. And you can find good players at reasonable — even bargain — rates. I applaud the Cardinals for making the playoffs so often. But they need to start winning more postseason games. And though there are no guarantees in the postseason — something that every baseball fan should know — better rosters can put you in a better position to win and advance.
Here’s why the next managerial hire is so crucial:
1) If the next guy doesn’t win as many games as Shildt did, the outcry will be heard: what was the point of changing managers?
2) Shildt excelled at giving the Cardinals a reliable, sturdy foundation of elite defense, smart and opportunistic base running, and a generally good skill for situational hitting. If those areas slip, the next manager will be scrutinized and criticized and compared (unfavorably) to Shildt. You can fire a manager — but it better not lead to a weakened foundation.
3) The players liked Shildt. Loyalty strengthened during his three-plus seasons. Will the players automatically fall in line with the next manager? It’s tricky. If the Cardinals promote from within — Oliver Marmol, Stubby Clapp, etc. — the familiarity is a plus. But that doesn’t mean loyalty is automatic. Shildt had an advantage in replacing Mike Matheny — because Matheny had become increasingly unpopular in the clubhouse. But the new manager will be replacing a popular manager. If the selection comes from inside the Cardinals baseball family, the new manager will have a head start. But that won’t lead to anything if the players don’t like or respect him. A plug-in approach doesn’t ensure a smooth and successful transition.
4) In the planning for 2022 the Cardinals have many positives. More open payroll space. A highly respected core of highly experienced and proven veterans that include Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. An emerging group of potential young stars such as Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader, Dakota Hudson, Alex Reyes and possibly Edmundo Sosa. They have exciting prospects on the way, especially Nolan Gorman and Matthew Liberatore — with Jordan Walker, Masyn Winn, Joshua Baez, Ivan Herrera and others to follow. More winning pieces should be in place at the start — and at the middle — of the 2022 season. The 90-win 2021 season was a staging area in the run-up to 2022. Expectations are higher for 2022. That’s how I feel, and I’m sure many of you do too.
5) Already the unhappiest segment of fans and pro-Shildt media are casting this search as Mozeliak-DeWitt hunt for an easier and more malleable marionette. Much of this comes out of ignorance; for some perplexing reason there are too many folks who refuse to recognize that the job of the manager is changing dramatically across the landscape.
When La Russa retired from the Cardinals after the 2011 World Series, I wrote a column with this headline: “The Last Of The Lions.” That was 10 years ago, and a part of it was my riff on the diluted strength of the MLB manager.
There would never be another La Russa. Not even La Russa v 2.0, when he returned to manage the White Sox this season. MLB front offices — EVERYWHERE — are in control now. Managers are just part of the apparatus. You don’t have to like it, but it ain’t gonna change. There’s no turning back.
In 2021 and beyond all managers — at least to some degree — are “puppets.” The Cardinals are just part of the new way of running a team, with several areas of the baseball operation working together to form a consistent approach. The manager is one voice of many voices, at least until the game starts. And I’m not sure why a manager would decline help from the analytics people and their valuable, next-level information. But that doesn’t register with the “Mo Wants A Weaker Marionette” crowd.
Mozeliak and DeWitt welcome the manager’s opinions and suggestions and feedback — and will adopt some recommendations. But if there’s disagreement, management has the final decision. As Shildt learned the hard way, the high command doesn’t stand down to a manager that tries to power up and resist their plans. And this happens with the 29 other franchises. But local caterwauling is silly — those doing the mewling believe the manager’s clout has been weakened ONLY in St. Louis, and in no other MLB jurisdiction. Good grief, try to get up to speed, please.
But how do the Cardinals hire a younger, less experienced manager and give him weight in a way that players and fans will respect? That’s an awfully tough assignment in a wonderful old-school baseball town that’s also behind-the-times. The Cardinals can run the franchise as they choose to do so, but the public perception is a factor here. There are two problems with a potential baseball dictatorship: (A) the manager will be viewed as a weakening, and (B) Mozeliak and DeWitt will be targeted for sharper, more relentless criticism. Welcome to a public-relations mess.
6) Unlike Matheny, Shildt wasn’t opposed to advanced metrics. He liked to utilize some of it, especially the use of shifts that enhanced the team’s defense. But his enthusiasm had limits, and that became a problem for management. If the management plans to go deeper into analytics as a competitive edge, the new manager must accept the reality before he accepts the job. The Cardinals must make it very clear — in no uncertain terms — that their plan with analytics is baked into the manager’s daily plan. There can be no confusion. On top of that, Mozeliak and the new manager must strive to educate fans and media on the value of analytics, with real-time examples of how it helps the Cardinals win. People are unlikely to embrace something that they can’t understand.
7) Speaking of communication: a manager that lacks the gift of gab — and who is lousy on television — can be a liability unless the team is having a terrific season on the field. Matheny was hopelessly uptight. Shildt didn’t read the mood; he thought that just because the media liked him, he had nothing to worry about. He never learned that the people watching at home had little tolerance for absurdly out-of-touch Happy Talk when the Cardinals were playing terrible baseball. This, too is part of the challenge for the front office: if your choice for manager is awkward with the media and can’t play to the TV cameras, his job instantly becomes more difficult. So you better work with him and prepare him. Start by putting together a video log of pregame and postgame sessions conducted by Boston manager Alex Cora. No manager does it better.
Thanks for reading …
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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.