Today, my friend Brian Swope (@PoppaSwope on Twitter, give him a follow) over at Gateway City Sports took to his platform to suggest that John Mozeliak should have been the one that was fired over Mike Shildt and, at the very least, Mo needs to find some sort of ice pack because his seat should be blazing hot. Brian and I had some of these discussions over Twitter yesterday and while I somewhat disagree with his premise, I understand where he’s coming from. There’s no doubt that the unceremonious dismissal of the manager has been a great recruiting tool for Team Shildt, a bandwagon that was looking quite sparse in June and July.
However, as I said, I disagree with Brian’s argument quite fundamentally. While I have had my criticisms of Mo over the length of his tenure, something that can easily be found searching the blog or listening to numerous podcasts, I have no real inclination to see him fired nor do I believe his job is in any danger. Let’s lay out a few of the reasons.
John Mozeliak is an extension of Bill DeWitt. You’ll find this throughout the media and it’s clear from watching the organization over the past decade and a half. The firing of Shildt is probably the first thing that I can think of that Mozeliak seemed to take the lead on more than a mutual partnership, but DeWitt was right there backing him up. If he wanted Shildt to stay, Shildt would still be here. When you are President of Baseball Operations, to keep your job you only have to make one person happy. Time and again DeWitt has given ringing endorsements of Mozeliak in word and deed. You can argue that the club then needs new ownership–which is not an argument I’d make either–but until that comes or until there’s a schism between him and the ownership group, Mozeliak can sleep well at night.
The Cardinals are still successful. No, they haven’t gone to the World Series since 2013, though that’s still a smaller drought than many teams in the big leagues. (The Cardinals have been to the Series twice since the Yankees have graced the big stage, for instance.) What they have done is regularly make the playoffs save for that unfortunate spell at the end of Mike Matheny‘s managerial tenure. There’s a case to be made that the Cardinals could put together stronger teams but they have put together good teams and that’s not the easiest thing to do in baseball, especially when you don’t have a $300 million budget or multiple top 10 draft picks.
John Mozeliak is still effective. From Brian’s article:
That’s what ultimately led to Shildt’s frustration. He was getting no help from the front office. Sure, they signed Wade LeBlanc and acquired JA Happ, John Lester, Luis Garcia, and TJ McFarland. But they waited way too long. By the time those moves were made and finalized, the Cardinals were already out of real contention for the division. Blame Shildt all you want, but a better roster earlier on would have closed the gap that saw this team finish only five games behind the division-winning Brewers.
That’s a lot of names for “no help”. We know that J.A. Happ and Jon Lester were acquired at the last minute and I agree, grabbing those guys in June should have been not only helpful but plausible. However, the idea that Mozeliak fiddled while Rome (or the team) burned is a little overstated. They weren’t splash moves, but Wade LeBlanc was signed June 17, right in the middle of the tailspin. T.J. McFarland was acquired June 30. Luis Garcia was added July 9. Those three pitchers played a large role in stabilizing things and they were acquired when there was a need. The Cardinals were always going to try their internal options first–that’s what they are for and that’s the team’s philosophy–and it’s hard to imagine there were any better options truly available without a significant overpay at that time.
Let’s also not forget that two of the largest parts of this team, Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, were not only acquired by Mozeliak in the last few years but also at a cost that nobody thought was possible. There were perhaps some outside influences, but it’s still a testament to the relationships and the savvy that Mo has.
We still don’t know why Mike Shildt was fired. “Philosophical differences” really doesn’t tell us much. Given some of the comments about Mo finding out information recently and getting it confirmed, there’s a strong chance that it wasn’t just that they thought different ways but that Shildt had deliberately done some things that he thought was right but went against the directives of the front office. If that’s the case, even if you believe that the line of thinking Shildt followed was correct, it’s not always better to get forgiveness than permission. If you aren’t doing what your boss tells you, there’s a real good chance you are going to be out on the street. As Bernie Mikalsz noted of Tony La Russa, “you push, tell them what you need, what you want, and make your case. You have an open, candid discussion. And once a decision is made you move on if it didn’t go your way.” Sabotaging the direction of the club, even if you think it is for the greater good, means you are going to have to suffer the consequences.
Maybe it’s not something like that and maybe Mozeliak was unreasonable when he fired Shildt. However, given that Mo hired Shildt both into the organization forever ago and as manager, it seems unlikely that some little thing made Mo so upset that not only did he fire Shildt but didn’t give him any of the general press release courtesies that you see in a firing situation. I don’t think that Mo would have had such a hair trigger for anything that wasn’t a huge breach of trust–and even if he did, I don’t think Bill DeWitt would have let him go through with it.
The Cardinals are committed. This has been gone over often but we’ll do it again for the heck of it. When Jeff Luhnow was hired, the Cardinals made a commitment to growing the farm system and getting in-house talent to be able to compete at the highest levels while keeping the payroll manageable. Walt Jocketty, who was known for his ability to get proven veterans (who did cost more), didn’t really get on that train and so, a year after winning the World Series, he was out and on his way to Cincinnati. The Cardinals weren’t going to reverse course, even for the first general manager hired under DeWitt’s ownership. That strategy also paid off, allowing the team to still be successful after Albert Pujols left after 2011. The 2011 and the 2013 Series teams were full of home-grown talent.Now, the Cardinals are involved in another commitment. The club looked around at the league and realized they were falling behind not only in analytics but in biometrics and the like. They hired Jeff Albert to not only be the major league hitting coach but to revamp the hitting philosophy throughout the organization. They committed to what he was doing and it would take something significant for them to walk away from this organizational sea change, especially now that it is starting to show results (it appears) in the majors as well as the minor leagues. If this was Shildt vs. Albert–and I don’t think that was all of it at all–it’s much easier to get a manager who will go along with the direction the ship is pointed in than to undo the work you did to get the ship in that direction.
When Michael Girsch was hired as GM, moving Mo to President of Baseball Operations, one of the tasks Mo was given was to start looking at the bigger picture. I don’t know how much he’s been able to do that, given that he still seems to have his hands on a lot of the day-to-day stuff and we rarely hear from Girsch, but this feels like something that came out of what Mo’s look at the future of the club and where it needs to go. We’ll see if he’s right, of course, but it’s going to get a lot longer run than just three years, especially when one of those was turned upside down by a pandemic.
Beyond the Mozeliak part of things, there’s this idea that the Cardinals are straying from their roots, that the Cardinal Way is going by the wayside. While it is interesting to see some of the reporting on that and hear that might have been some of Shildt’s concern (plus the news that Chris Carpenter will work for the Angels instead of the Cardinals next year), I also think some of that is overblown. Mike Shildt is not the only one that had any dealings with George Kissell and his teachings. Ollie Marmol, who likely will be the next manager, was mentored and trained by Shildt in those same ways. Stubby Clapp, who could be the next manager, also spent a lot of time learning how the Cardinals do things. Skip Schumaker, who might be the next manager, was formed by coaches that taught the Kissell way of doing things. To think that all of the sudden that all that organizational knowledge is just gone because Mike Shildt walked out the door is ridiculous.
To go along with that, though, what is The Cardinal Way? If you asked someone 35 years ago, they’d say it was stealing bases and hardly ever hitting homers. That’s not a winning recipe these days, but should we stick with it just because that’s what somebody thought The Cardinal Way was?
Is it developing young talent? That goes all the way back to Branch Rickey buying up minor league teams and developing a farm system. I don’t think anyone is saying that the Cardinals are getting away from that. In fact, it’s possible that they are doubling down on that to everyone’s chagrin this winter when they don’t go out and get a free agent. The minors are still a huge part of the philosophy of the Cards.
Is it good baserunning and excellent defense? I think we saw that on hand quite a bit in 2021, so that hasn’t gone anywhere and it’s hard to believe there will be a significant regression among the players especially if most of the coaching staff stays around. The Cardinals wanted that so much that they fired Mike Matheny and hired Shildt, so it’s not something that this front office is unaware of or doesn’t care about.
Is it being one of the top teams in the league? No seasons under .500 since 2009. Playoffs the last three years and 15 times since the turn of the century. Even as some fans try to make the claim that ownership is more concerned with their pockets than the product, they still keep winning baseball games.
Is it doing what a vocal group of fans want? I don’t think that’s EVER been the Cardinal Way, nor should it be. Listening to the unwashed masses is a real good way to have a team run into the ground. Bill Veeck might have done that for a stunt in a game but he never turned over the front office chair to a random fan. There were a lot of uproars when Whitey Herzog remade this team, a lot of complaints about Tony La Russa never winning before 2006, and a bunch of grumbling when Pujols went west. You can’t satisfy everyone all the time unless you win the World Series and even that probably only gives you a couple of weeks of harmony.
So maybe more will come out and this post will look as foolish as, well, all my other posts. However, until then, my recommendation is realize that Mo’s not going anywhere. Folks are going to have to learn to live with that.