Untested Matheny is right choice for Cardinals
Mike Matheny is not A.J. Hinch. Let’s get that out of the way. Matheny is the new manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, which won a World Series a few weeks ago, and before the official news conference Monday morning that will announce his hiring, the bellyaching has started: This is just like Hinch, who the Arizona Diamondbacks hired with no previous managing experience only to fire him less than a year and a half later.
Matheny is not Hinch for any number of reasons, the most important of which has nothing to do with either as a person. What matters for a manager who has never managed is the situation he inherits. The Cardinals are good. The Diamondbacks weren’t. Matheny commands great respect among a number of Cardinals veterans. Hinch came from a front office, whose relationship with players often is adversarial. Matheny will work with perhaps the greatest pitching coach ever, Dave Duncan, and St. Louis expects to retain the majority of its coaching staff. Hinch came aboard with new hitting and pitching coaches.
The hiring of a manager with zero experience is in and of itself not organizational seppuku, not with the sort of buffers the Cardinals have in place with Matheny. A defending champion isn’t necessarily the ideal place to learn on the job, but the Cardinals are not thinking about 2012. They are dreaming on ’12 and ’13 and ’14 and beyond, and the idea that instilling someone young (41, the ripest manager in baseball), familiar with the organization (through working as a roving instructor for two seasons) and cut from the same mold as retired manager Tony La Russa (played under him for five seasons) puts enough checkmarks on the positive side to offset the supposed negative.
And, really, is inexperience that much of a negative for a job that’s as much about personality as it is any sort of strategic bent? Every manager who says that he’s only as good or bad as his players is underselling his necessity; at the same time, those who believe their influence over a game is paramount to its outcome also enjoy partaking of a cocktail called self-importance.
Matheny hasn’t paid his dues. And? What of it? The duties of manager more or less consist of the following:
• Maintain order in the clubhouse: Matheny spent 13 years in them as a major league catcher, many as an emotional and spiritual leader, and he would’ve hung around longer had a concussion in 2006 not ended his career. Hell, he might be playing now. Between his four Gold Gloves and the respect of Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina(notes) (his replacement at catcher), Adam Wainwright(notes) (whom Matheny caught in spring training) and perhaps Albert Pujols(notes) (who speaks very highly of Matheny), he is in good position to do so. Matheny could fail at this, but he is in plenty good position, and his lack of experience should not matter.
• Keep a good relationship with the front office: This isn’t imperative – the Chicago White Sox won a World Series with Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams at odds – but Matheny is general manager John Mozeliak’s guy. And after years of La Russa asserting himself on every aspect of the Cardinals, Matheny gives St. Louis “organizational advocacy” – the term then-Arizona GM Josh Byrnes got flayed for using when he hired Hinch but one that actually makes sense. The front office drafts, signs and develops players for the manager. In an ideal world, they think alike.
• Make the lineup: Matheny will need to find at-bats for Allen Craig(notes), which will be more difficult if the Cardinals re-sign Pujols and first base is taken. It’s decisions like this, and figuring out how to solve their middle-infield vacuum, that bring everyday struggles – though they’re ones that Matheny can overcome with hard work, scouting savvy and consultations with his coaching staff and front office.
• Ace in-game strategy: This one is more difficult, though the games won and lost with bullpen maneuvers is far fewer than one might think. One top manager this year told me: “I have a direct impact on 20 games a year. Max.” That’s a little more than 12 percent. And while that 12 percent might make the difference between a playoff team and one that just misses, most managers aren’t going to lose a vast majority of them.
• Delegate authority: Duncan will manage the pitching staff – just as he did under La Russa – and one Cardinals source believes Mark McGwire, who served as co-hitting coach last season, will return. The biggest question is Jose Oquendo, long considered La Russa’s heir apparent, over whom Matheny got the job. If Oquendo does return, ensuring his happiness is one of Matheny’s most difficult tasks.
• Handle the media: Like it or not, answering questions is a daily part of a manager’s duties. It is time- and energy-consuming, something at which La Russa often chafed. Surely it will annoy Matheny, too, but during his time as a player he tolerated and even accommodated the media. Because reporters are his conduit to the public, Matheny will need to understand the necessity, especially in a city like St. Louis that so prizes its baseball team.
Because the Cardinals are something of a public trust, intense scrutiny surrounded Mozeliak’s choice. He could’ve gone with Oquendo, the safe choice. He could’ve gone with Ryne Sandberg, the Hall of Famer who enhanced his reputation by managing in the minor leagues. He could’ve gone with Terry Francona, the two-time World Series winner who held a job ripe with the same stressors as St. Louis’ and might have made the most sense accordingly.
Mozeliak is taking a risk, and what better time to do so than when getting fitted for a diamond-studded ring? It’s not a staggering risk, either, not when considering who Matheny is and where he fits into the organization. Some teams, especially rebuilding ones, aren’t equipped to handle first-time managers, which is why Hinch’s hiring didn’t work, and why Robin Ventura’s with the Chicago White Sox this offseason registered so curious.
No team ever truly can know how a manager is going to react to a group of players, a city, a job. Joe Torre went to the New York Yankees a loser and left a four-time champion. Jim Leyland spent a year in Colorado before burning out. Hinch failed as a manager only to return to the front office, where he is hailed as one of the top young minds in the game. Matheny is about to take over the World Series champions, and …
And even if this doesn’t work, if he doesn’t win the Cardinals’ 12th title, that doesn’t make it a bad hire. The logic is sound, the duties well-filled, the risk manageable. Would experience help? Maybe for the first month.
If indeed Mike Matheny is the right guy for this job, it won’t matter beyond that. He’ll learn. He’ll adapt. He’ll succeed. And next time a team brings on a first-time manager, the question won’t be how someone could consider that the right move. It’ll be why so few did it before.
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