Home Makeover: Coaching Edition

It’s been a while since we’ve got together, though that doesn’t mean that I’ve not been writing.  (I’ve been trying to get ahead of the Exit Interviews, coming soon, and so far so good.)  With the finalization of the coaching staff this week, though, I’d thought I’d drop my two cents in, even though they probably aren’t much different than everyone else’s.  (Also, Allen and I will be talking about this and the next set of Favorite Cardinal Players on Meet Me at Musial tonight, if you want to get primed for that.)

Earlier in the week, with David Bell taking off for San Francisco to head up their farm system, the Cardinals filled the bench coach role by sliding Mike Shildt, formerly of the quality control coach spot until the big June shakeup, over from third base coach.  This move kinda flew under the radar given the other names that were in the press release, but I think it’s kind of a big deal as well.

We all know that Shildt is thought of highly in the organization.  There was a reason they created that “quality control coach” spot for him, even if you couldn’t tell by the results what that job entailed.  They wanted him in the big leagues because, honestly, he’s shown that he’s managerial material and the organization wanted to give him some experience at the highest level.  He then took over third base and did a fine job there (with seemingly much fewer runners being thrown out) and now is the bench coach.  There’s a progression there if you look for it.

The bench coach is supposed to be the sounding board, the guy that can help the manager make decisions.  When the job first came into being, you had the old veteran types like Don Zimmer or Yogi Berra.  Nowadays, it’s usually former players like Mark McGwire or Joe McEwing (who we talked about on the last Musial as a former Cardinal player, if you are interested) that are filling the spot.  They are people the team believes have experience and knowledge and could make a good manager one day.  It’s shifted from the bench guy being the guy that’d done it before to the guy that might do it someday.

It’s still not a position that is assigned lightly though and the fact that Shildt has it means that they see potential in him being a manager, either for them or for another organization.  That’s nothing new, of course, but the fact that it was formalized in such a way could be telling.

In the same press conference, two ’80s veterans were added to the staff–well, one was re-added.  Bringing back Jose Oquendo was something that stunned but excited the fan base.  After all, the last time the Cardinals played “Cardinal baseball” would be 2015, which coincides with the last time Oquendo was on the staff.  While I think at times we overemphasized Oquendo’s absence, especially with the fielding issues that the 2016 team had, it seems more and more likely that he can bring them back up to a more consistent, solid level than we’ve seen.

Oquendo, who had been working in Jupiter with some of the young players doing instructional work, would seem to be one that is going to work the players a bit more than they have been working on things like defense and positioning.  From all accounts, Oquendo was fairly happy in the role that he had, so you have to wonder what the Cardinals promised him–besides a considerable amount of money–to get him to return to the grind in St. Louis.  There’s going to be some autonomy, some authority.  When he wants to do drills, he gets to do drills, no matter what the players say.  Last time around, the players could go to Mike Matheny and sometimes get out of those repetitions.  I don’t think that’ll be the case this time around.

Also putting on the uniform again in 2018 will be Willie McGee.  While a fan favorite, I think everyone was a bit surprised that McGee was a selection, just because that seemed to come out of the blue.  McGee had never been a full time coach–though he’d worked in the organization as a roving instructor at times–but now he comes onto this staff to help improve the baserunning and the outfield defense.  There’s no doubt McGee knows plenty about both topics and it will be interesting to see if his efforts bear fruit.  After all, coaching will take you far, but there are still the same players (right now) that have caused the problems over the last couple of years.  Making straw into gold is a pretty tough chore.

While everyone raved over these moves, and for good reason, I do wonder a little bit if nostalgia was a little too strong here.  I think these coaches will do well and obviously Oquendo has a strong track record, but everyone loves these guys as players and they won’t be playing.  I guess my thinking is I don’t know how much a coaching staff can impact a team.  Obviously there is some and I think these are good additions, but if you take this staff and apply it to the players that are there, how many more wins are you going to get out of them?  Three?  Four?

It definitely will impact the clubhouse, because the players were very excited especially about the return of Oquendo.  That’s a guy that players seem to trust and respect.  Given that the last two years have been non-playoff teams and cracks show when winning doesn’t paper them over, it’s hard to know if some of the clubhouse strife we’ve heard about over the last couple of years is because of that or because Oquendo’s presence wasn’t around.  Would Yadier Molina have shot off on Instagram if the Secret Weapon were still in the clubhouse, for instance?  And if there is much truth to that, what does that mean for Matheny’s reputation of managing a clubhouse?

Finally, yesterday the Cardinals completed the staff by adding Mike Maddux as pitching coach and promoting Bryan Eversgerd from Memphis to be the bullpen coach.  There’s not much to say about Eversgerd, who did a fine job for the Redbirds and likely will get some good experience as the bullpen coach.  However, it’s the type of move the Cardinals have been making for a long time, promoting from within.  In some ways, it’s similar to the path Shildt took.  I’m sure he’ll do fine out there–hopefully there won’t be video of him watching unconcerned as a reliever warms up while obviously in distress–but most likely he’ll be fairly anonymous.

Maddux is the interesting one.  There aren’t a ton of pitching coaches that are well known, I don’t think.  Dave Duncan set the mold along with Leo Mazzone for the “rock star” pitching coach.  These days, there are a few in that vein (in part because we follow coaches and stuff more), but there still aren’t many.  I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Jim Hickey before the recent talk about the Cardinals hiring him, though that was probably more due to my ignorance.  Maddux is one that has that sort of name recognition.

He’s been at this for a while and the Cardinals have seen his work.  He was never the pitcher his Hall of Fame brother was (though he held his own) but as we all know, those that have to work hard for results and get the most out of their talent can be the best kind to teach.  There’s no doubt that he’s got quite a reputation and has been on teams (such as Milwaukee and Texas, where the Cards have seen him up close) that have had significant success.

Adding someone like Maddux from outside the organization is a big deal.  As Derrick Goold said, this is the biggest coaching hire outside the organization since Mark McGwire and, when you take out Big Mac’s obvious St. Louis ties, you might have to go all the way back to Tony La Russa and Duncan to get a similar impact.  I know the club has taken some steps to try to ward off being insular, but it’s difficult to completely get out of groupthink if you don’t have someone with a completely different background and perspective in that mix.  I imagine that Maddux will do some new things, things that this staff hasn’t been used to, though I believe that they’ll embrace them.  I don’t see Adam Wainwright pulling the grumpy veteran card by any means.

I will say, given how long that Maddux has done this, that I was a bit surprised that the club felt that he was the best choice for this new approach that they are taking toward the position, going from a more traditional pitching coach to this all-seeing, more-input-having pitching coordinator type.  I would have thought Maddux, while not necessarily the old crusty stereotype, would be more in line with what we are used to.  It seems, however, that Maddux is quite well thought of for his smarts and his overall approach, so much so that there was consideration given to him being a manager recently.

And therein lies the undercurrent with all these moves.  We might be overstating it from the outside, but I don’t think it’s a complete coincidence that you have three potential managers now on the staff.  Obviously Shildt is in line to be one someday.  Oquendo has interviewed before and has managed in the World Baseball Classic, so he’s an option.  Maddux would be someone they could turn to if they wanted that break with familiarity.

As Luke Skywalker said to Jabba the Hutt, “You can either profit by this or be destroyed.”  Mike Matheny can accept what these guys are giving him, he can let them do what they need to do, he can modify his approach and he can be successful.  After all, no matter who does the work, the manager typically gets the credit or the blame.  (Not always–there’s going to be a segment that’s going to believe any improvement comes in spite of the manager.)  If he can use what these guys tell him and how they do their work to get back to the playoffs, he’s in good shape.  While playoff-making managers are falling like crazy this year (Dusty Baker, John Farrell, and now Joe Girardi), if they are willing to keep Matheny after two lackadaisical years that had no October at the end, they aren’t likely to get rid of him if they get to the playoffs, even if they don’t win the whole thing.

However, if he resists this change, if he frustrates his staff or continues to “go with his gut” instead of the information they provide him, it’s going to be a lot easier for the front office to make that change knowing that they have plenty of options on site, that they don’t have to worry about hunting up a replacement.  The Cardinals may be the most stable organization in baseball but that doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually reach the end of their rope.  Profit by this or be destroyed.

It says something about the passion of this fanbase that these coaching staff moves have already revitalized a lot of folks even before the offseason really gets going.  If the Cardinals are this active and aggressive remaking the roster, 2018 could be a really exciting year.

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