Setting the Offseason Stage

Usually John Mozeliak and crew have a season-ending press conference a couple of days after the season, well, ends.  They talk about the season and the focus for the winter, what moves they feel they need to make and things they feel are a priority.  When the first few days of October this year came and went without any sort of gathering, it seemed like they were going to forgo that tradition.

Instead, they modified it.

Yesterday, two-plus weeks after the last time we saw the Cardinals on the field, Mozeliak had a closed-door media session.  There was no video, no way for fans to keep track as it happened.  Instead, silence reigned until the clubhouse doors opened and a flood of tweets from the various media members were unleashed.  Why the change?  It’s something Allen and I discussed last night on Meet Me at Musial and while there’s probably no real reason for it, it’s still a bit odd.  Especially since no video content makes accountability a little harder (though only a little, given the number of reports from that meeting) and accountability was one of the watchwords of the day.

The biggest real news from the session came from the coaching staff.  Jose Oquendo, as many expected, has decided to return home to Jupiter and help the organization by coaching and molding some of the youngest Cardinals, training them up in the Cardinal Way.  Oquendo has come to terms with the fact that managing has passed him by–he notably refused interest when the club came to him before taking the interim tag off of Mike Shildt–and at his age (actually, he’s only 55–I thought he was closer to Ozzie Smith, who is 63) and with the knee problems, the daily grind of traveling, working out, and dealing with games seems to be more than he wants to deal with.  Which I think is completely fair.  If you can do a lot of what you love (and I think coaching and teaching is one of his strong suits) and do it in comfort, why wouldn’t you?

With Oquendo returning to the minors, that set a few dominoes in action.  Ron Warner, who had been bench coach, takes over the third base coaching duties.  He’s managed before in the minors and as such as experience manning that important position.  Hopefully it’ll work better than the last time Oquendo left third base.

With Warner going to third, that meant the bench coach role was open and Shildt–the club announced it, but I imagine Shildt had a lot of say in his staff–moved Oliver Marmol from first base into the open spot.  I feel like Marmol would be the Cardinals’ Shildt if they didn’t have Shildt.  They’ve moved him along pretty well since his retirement as a player in 2010 and all the reports from his time at Johnson City and Palm Beach were glowing.  As we said on the show last night, the Cardinals have started developing young managerial depth as well as outfielders and pitchers.  However, it seems unlikely Shildt is going anywhere for awhile (and, even if he did, you wonder if the Cards would go back to the same well) so Marmol may just have to burnish his reputation as a bench coach and see what sort of options are out there in the future.

We’ll get back to this managerial depth in a minute, but that wasn’t all that the Cardinals did to the staff.  George Greer, who came up from Palm Beach, returns to the minors to, like Oquendo, mold the upcoming players before they become major leaguers.  That makes a lot of sense as well, because you’d like the players not to have terrible habits before they make it to St. Louis.  What was more interesting is that Mark Budeska isn’t joining him in the minors but isn’t staying the head hitting coach either.  He’ll slide into an assistant role and support the new hitting coach, whomever that may be.

Our friends at the Bird Law podcast (I’m guessing it was Rusty) suggested yesterday on Twitter that the Cards might go with an analytical coach, letting Budeska’s connection with the players and mental approach supplement that.  That seems highly reasonable especially after last year’s acquisition of Mike Maddux on the pitching side which was designed for that analytical touch.  I don’t know who the Cardinals might be looking at for the role–though I can pretty much guess that it’s not John Mabry–but having someone that’s comfortable with the data side of things wouldn’t be a surprise at all.  One of the plusses to Shildt was supposed to be his openness to the data and you would figure he’d want coaches that were of the same mind.

(While it was not mentioned at the press conference, I have heard that Jamie Pogue is supposed to return as bullpen catcher, which should mean our eighth annual conversation in December or January.  Looking forward to that!)

So you’ll note that there are two different openings on the major league staff.  One of them will be filled by Stubby Clapp, assuming that he does not get a managerial job somewhere else.  It feels like the Cardinals are actually expecting him to get said job, though, because they didn’t pencil him in to either role.  It feels right now they are using Clapp as their backup.  If they can find a hitting coach, they’ll put Clapp at first.  If, for some reason, they can find a first base coach easier, they’ll use Clapp as the hitting coach.  (Though, as a manager, I don’t know that I’d have expected him to be in the running for a job like that.  First base seems to be more likely.)  Whatever the case, no matter how things shake out, Clapp will be in the big leagues next year and after his run at Memphis there’s no doubt he deserves it.

Those were the only real moves in Mozeliak’s press availability.  That doesn’t mean it was all he talked about.  Mark Saxon has a good rundown of questions and answers in The Athletic, if you are a subscriber over there.  There were some quotes that came out on Twitter yesterday that got people worked up, but when you read the whole context, it’s a little more understandable.

When asked about winning without a marquee player, the sound bite quote was this:

Well, we’ve won consistently since Albert left. Now, have we won the big prize? No. Have we come close? Yes. So I don’t understand your argument.

The next couple of sentences, though, show that Mo recognized that such a player could be helpful:

Do I agree that we need some level of elite talent to compete at the highest level? Yeah, I’d accept that. Ideally, in the perfect world, you’re developing that. But we have not been able to. Part of that is where we pick. We just haven’t had that opportunity up at the top.

I think this is an interesting quote from Mozeliak as well, which sort of fits in with a theory of mine:

One is when you talk about key names, these aren’t one-year solutions. These are sort of long-term bets. And when you think about it in those terms, I feel like a lot of times when you have these types of roundtables where we’re talking, everybody is solely focused on next season and how that’s going to impact the organization. But a lot of these types of opportunities are seven, eight, nine, 10 years down the road. That’s something that, when you sit in my seat, you have to be pragmatic and understand what that might look like.

Now, you can look at that and say that it’s part of that caution that the Cardinals have had over the last few years.  Indeed, Mozeliak went on to say that he didn’t necessarily want to mortgage 2021 for some push to win in 2019 and 2020, even with the expiring careers of Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina.  And that’s a smart tack to take, because for all the success the Cubs and Astros are having now, there were a number of lean years in there that were needed to get the talent they have now.  I don’t know that St. Louis wants to go through with this.

However, my personal theory (or maybe it’s more of a hope) is that they’ve been working toward this winter for a long time.  They saw this opportunity years ago and have started to position for it.  With all the young pitching, a large contract doesn’t hamstring them as much as it would have before the organization shifted from Walt Jocketty’s approach to Mozeliak’s.  They’ve been focused on specific opportunities, whether it was Giancarlo Stanton last year or the free agent class of this year.  When you look at Bryce Harper (which, from all indications, would be their preference) or Manny Machado, there’s not too many times when you can get a player that’s heading into his 26 season that is as talented as they are.  Nolan Arenado will be on the market next season, but he’ll be 29 right after the 2020 season starts.  Mike Trout will be 29 and a half when the 2021 season starts after he hits the market.  If you are going to give out a 10-year deal that transforms the franchise, this is probably the winter to do it.  If you’ve done the long-term planning as indicated here, you probably know that.

When talking about a big free agent splash, especially if it didn’t work out like some of the moves that have been made over the last couple of years, Mo said this:

You could simply argue, “Should that even be my concern? Ten years from now, who knows if I’m even here?” But, the unique part of my relationship with the Cardinals and [owner Bill] DeWitt is I have been here a long time. So one of the things that I have always taken a lot of pride in is having the responsibility to manage the finances in a smart way, or responsible way.

Now you could read that as them not wanting to tie up money in one player or not spending large amounts but “managing the finances” is different than “maximizing the profit”.  As I said on Twitter, being smart with finances can mean making a wise investment that will pay off over time.  An investment in a large contract could pay off in increased merchandise sales, marketing, and–you’d hope–deeper postseason runs which would also bring in extra revenue.  Now, that doesn’t mean it has to be Harper or Machado, it could be a lot of different things, but that statement alone wouldn’t seem to disqualify them from the big fish this winter.

Mozeliak seemed somewhat optimistic about Dexter Fowler, saying right up to the game that he got injured in, it seemed like he had started to figure things out.  I don’t necessarily disagree with Mo on this and I do think Fowler can be much better next season, but I also wonder if he’s a little blinded by this OBP monster lineup he thought he was getting a couple of years ago that he still desperately wants.  I also don’t know exactly how things will work next season with Fowler.  I believe we’ve talked about this before, but Fowler is going to need a very strong spring to get folks believing that he is worth running out there every day.  If the club signs Harper (again, let us have this dream right now), there’s no real spot for Fowler to play regularly, something that he seems to need to get the most out of his skills.  You don’t stay away from Harper just because of that, though, and there’s no guarantee that Fowler can actually get back to the levels that he was at before he made it to St. Louis (or 2017 for that matter, which was good but different than expected).  Fowler seems to be a dicey situation.

Another outfielder got a little more critique.  The comments about Marcell Ozuna were a little less than flattering, indicating that the club was going to do everything it could this offseason to provide him what he needed to improve the shoulder but it was on him to accept those opportunities.  The vibe was that things aren’t completely rosy between the two sides and that’s not necessarily because of performance.  We know that the club was aware of his shoulder issues before they traded for him, but you wonder if they expected them to clear up and they didn’t because Ozuna didn’t follow the advice of doctors or didn’t put in some work.  That’s all speculation but something seems to have gotten Ozuna on the naughty list and it can’t be production, given the optimism still around Fowler.

It is interesting that Ozuna was the face of the discussion, but he’s not the only one that’s going to get a little more accountability this winter.  Goals, checklists, and procedures are going to be in play for basically everyone and there will be regular check-ins to see how the player is coming along.  I wonder if this is something that’s coming from Shildt and being implemented by the front office.  It can’t be a coincidence that a man who lives by George Kissell’s “do you have your checklist” gets the job and now there’s checklists for the players in a way that there has never been before.  Hopefully that will have the team ready to go when February rolls around, but then you have to wonder (depending on what the goals and offseason work is) how you manage the fatigue in the late season.  Does the offseason work build stamina or take energy?  That’s something about which we’ll have to wait and see.

Plenty of other things in that conference but I think those are the highlights.  Mozeliak said that Jose Martinez can fit in St. Louis, but whether it is his best fit remains to be seen.  The Adam Wainwright deal came together quickly and Waino was wanting to “bet on himself” and take the low base salary, lots of incentives deal.  Hopefully that works out for St. Louis better than Tommy Pham‘s similar bet before last season.  Jordan Hicks right now is positioned for the closer role, though Mo didn’t name him that or anything (and I still hope they bring in some sort of other options, if only for backup).  However, let’s close this by looking at Mo’s message to the fans:

I would hope our fan base knows we’re trying, and we’re going to continue to try to get this right. When you look at the past couple years, they’re not just complete failures. If we had a few breaks go the other way, if we had made a decision a little earlier at the end of the line, I think we could get there. So I hope that our fan base understands we continue to invest heavily below, and that investment will hopefully pay dividends here. In terms of the anxiousness of the free-agent market, I feel like we have that discussion every year and I hope the organization as a whole can find those solutions that improve us.

While many on Twitter and elsewhere really do seem to think the focus for the club is being profitable, I do think this team has a desire to win.  Perhaps they aren’t as anxious to risk it all because they’d rather win consistently at a lower level and maybe get lucky for the top prize than be favorites for one year and crash for two after, but they aren’t completely ruling things out because of dollars and cents.  A dollars and cents focus doesn’t sign Brett Cecil to the contract he got.  They might have passed up on Fowler when he wanted an extra year.  You can argue with their methods, argue with how they go about it, but when you look at teams like Miami who have for so long pinched pennies, when you look at those teams that are not worrying about today because they want the picks for tomorrow, I don’t think you can say this club doesn’t want to win and isn’t doing things to try to win.  We’ll see what they do this winter to try to win for 2019!

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