October 18, 2014

#Cardinals 2014 postmortem — Mike Matheny leads the dead

Now, with the St. Louis Cardinals losing the NLCS to the San Francisco Giants, and for the second time in three years, we can do an overview of the year.

First, with the injuries to Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha (more on that later), it's arguable that the Cardinals shouldn't have gotten as far as they did. Maybe not even into the playoffs.

Ditto with the "return to earth" of Matt Carpenter in particular, and the team's batters in general, on batting average on balls in play.

On the other hand, as Bruce Bochy outmanaging Mike Matheny shows, it's also arguable that the Cards shouldn't necessarily have been worried so much about those two injuries. Matheny's "my guys" approach lead to way too much playing time for Allen Craig before GM John Mozeliak fixed that issue by trading him for John Lackey. It lad to way not enough time for Kolten Wong until after midseason, when Matheny finally stopped playing Mark Ellis so much. And it may have led to not enough time for Oscar Taveras in the playoffs.

That mismanagement was on display in the last two innings of Game 4 of the NLCS.

First, I would have stayed with Adam Wainwright on the mound in the bottom of the eighth, rather than bringing in Pat Neshek to start the inning. Waino had settled down for several straight innings. If Neshak was needed mid-inning, bring him in then; the double switch for the ninth, on batting, was still in play, so you could have brought in Peter Bourjos for Matt Holliday at the same time.

Next, the top of the ninth?

I can see having Daniel Descalso pinch-run for Matt Adams. It almost worked. The Cards avoided a force at third, or a double play overall, on Wong's at bat. But, pinch-hitting Taveras for Bourjos? No. If it fails, you've depleted too much of your bench at once for what is now, in essence, an extra-inning situation. Save Taveras for a key pinch-hit at bat for a pitcher.

Now, the bottom of the ninth.

Wacha should not have been in there in general, "mystifying" Jayson Stark, hordes of Cards fans, and local scribes, many of us using words much worse than "mystifying."

Here’s Stark:
Matheny, unlike the Giants' Bruce Bochy, seemed to manage as if it were the second game of a three-game series in mid-May. He offered several explanations for his decision to use -- and keep using -- Wacha in the ninth: He wanted to avoid lefty MarcoGonzales, whose arm had showed signs of wear over the past week; he thought bringing in (Randy) Choate would cause the Giants to pinch hit for Ishikawa; he was preparing for the possibility of a lengthy extra-inning game and had kept Wacha in reserve for just that. …
 Everyone watching was trying to think along with Matheny. He was clearly playing by the proscribed rules — don't use your closer on the road in a tie game, for one — but those are conventional, regular-season rules.
"You've got to think about how long you're going to have to go if you're tied," Choate said. "Obviously, I want to be in the game, but if they pinch hit for Ishikawa ... it was do or die, obviously." 
His voice trailed off as he worked the last two buttons of his shirt. "I don't know," he said, almost to himself. "I don't know."
And of course, even if he started the inning, Wacha definitely should not have been allowed to stay in to give up a three-jack to Travis Ishikawa after getting in trouble earlier in the inning. Trevor Rosenthal, if not starting the inning, should have been in to bail out Wacha at that point, at least.

Now, because of his Cards' past, etc., there will be no groundswell to fire Matheny, unlike at the Los Angeles Dollars, where the naming of Andrew Friedman as new man in charge has many Dollars fans salivating at the possible dismissal of Don Mattingly.

But, it should generate more discussion.

Matheny not only seemingly has not grown this year, I think he's regressed.

And, John Mozeliak, if he's not going to change managers, then has the onus on himself of how to get Matheny to be a better manager.

Mo also has a few player decisions for next year.

No. 1 is Lance Lynn. I say that Mo should look beyond just Lynn's first arbitration year. I suggest buying out all three, plus his first year of free agency, at a suggested price of 4 years, $50 million. Lynn found his late-season endurance this year and has been injury-free.

No. 2 is looking at the possibility of a relatively inexpensive upgrade at backup catcher behind Yadi. If he gets hurt again, Tony Cruz has already shown he's not the answer.

No. 3 is seeing if Lackey wants to sign an extension beyond his MLB minimum for 2015. I'd offer 2 years, $25 million. It's a reasonable payout for his age 37 and 38 years. That gives the Cards a solid top 3 through 2017 while looking at the longer term of Wacha, Shelby Miller and others.

I'll talk more about offseason roster issues in weeks and months ahead.

Some additional preliminary thoughts here at the Post-Dispatch. More here on what Mo might shell out in salary next year, hinting that he's OK with going beyond this year's $115M.

Update, Nov. 17: The post-mortem changes with the big Miller-Heyward trade. My analysis here.

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