For our latest Q&A series we have reached out once again to good friend Daniel Shoptaw of the St. Louis Cardinal’s site called C70. His site is now part of the Cards conclave consortium of United cardinal’s bloggers. This is a fish pond of multiple Cardinal’s sites. If you are familiar with Daniel by now you know that he runs his annual playing pepper series every spring that LADR always contributes to. Today Daniel and I virtually sat down to discuss the upcoming Dodgers/Cardinals series and the answers were truly eye-opening for us.
Daniel explains about how the Cardinals almost inexplicably turned around their season vaulting themselves back into contention and relevance. Take a look at the standings and you’ll see that the Cardinals have now leapfrogged over the Milwaukee Brewers into second place in the NL Central. They could be in line to snare one of the two wild card spots, or even overtake the Chicago Cubs. In my opinion it could happen, especially with the Cubs weaker pitching staff this season. Daniel gives us a look at how the Cardinals did something the Dodgers refused to do. They rebuilt their terrible bullpen on the fly and jettisoned some of the bum relievers that were holding them back. Fresh arms and the hiring of a more strategically sound, positive manager has made a huge difference for them. Read on and I hope you enjoy our conversation.
1. The Cardinals have climbed back into the NL playoff race. What would you say is the main reason for the turnaround? Do you think the Cardinals can overtake the Cubs and Brewers in the NL Central?
There are two major events that we can point to as why this team is significantly different. One is the July 14 firing of Mike Matheny, a topic I’ll hold off on until your last question. The second is the July 27 remodel of the bullpen. Greg Holland never worked in St. Louis and the Cards finally cut their losses (though he seems to have done a fine job in limited innings with the Nationals so far, so shrug) and Tyler Lyons, who has been a favorite of mine given his uniform number of 70, never recaptured his dominance from last year, whether because of injury or overwork it was hard to know. Both of those guys were jettisoned (though Lyons cleared waivers and is now in the Memphis starting rotation) and Brett Cecil was put on the disabled list.
Up from the minors came a lot of starting arms being put into the bullpen, most notably Daniel Poncedeleon and Dakota Hudson. A day later, the Cardinals traded Luke Voit to the Yankees for two relievers, one of which (Chasen Shreve) went directly to the major league roster. A week later, they claimed Tyson Ross off of waivers. Now there are a ton of fresh arms that can go multiple innings in the ‘pen, allowing new manager Mike Shildt to go get a starter that is struggling early or pinch-hit for one in a key spot and not worry about how he’s going to finish up this game or if he’ll have enough arms for the next one.
Both of those moves, plus a salsa-fueled run by Matt Carpenter and some inspiring work both offensively and defensively from Harrison Bader, have made this team look less like the lethargic team that let games get away and much more like an modern take on the excitement of Whiteyball. It’s been a lot of fun to watch this team that hasn’t lost a game by more than one run all month long.
- Is this the end for Adam Wainwright?
I love Adam Wainwright. I also know he’s an intense competitor that will leave no stone unturned or no opportunity unused to pitch in the big leagues. That said, his contract is up at the end of the year and he’s really not been all that effective since early 2015. He had that Achilles injury in the early part of that season and while he can back as a viable bullpen piece at the end of the season, in 2016 he put up a 4.62 ERA and it was even worse last year. He’s had elbow issues and is currently rehabbing after being on the DL since May with elbow inflammation. The thought seems to be now that he’ll be in the bullpen for the rest of the season when he is ready to go.
I really don’t believe Wainwright would pitch anywhere but St. Louis. He loves the area, he loves the organization, and the feeling is mutual. I believe he’ll get a spot start late in September, especially if the Cardinals are out of it (but with Shildt’s quick hook, even if they aren’t) so Cardinal fans can say so long to a legendary Redbird.
- Yadier Molina is having another productive season. The guy is like father time, but how long can he continue to defy age? Is this his last year too?
This is definitely not Yadier Molina’s last year. If nothing else, he’s under contract at $20 million per for the next two seasons and while he’s said he’ll retire at the end of this contract, that seems unlikely if he’s playing at anything close to the level he’s at right now. Sunday Molina played in his 27th straight game. The previous record for a catcher over 35? Eight. Molina is remarkable and works extremely hard in the offseason to play as many games as possible. I don’t see any reason to believe he’s going to fall off a cliff or anything. You may get an idea the end is coming for Molina if he starts to have nagging injuries (not like this year, where he sat a month after taking a fouled 102 mph pitch from Jordan Hicks in an area that–you know what, we’re not going to talk about this) but right now, it seems pretty likely that he’ll be the starter and play the bulk of the games through 2020.
- Who do you think is the Cardinal’s breakout star this year? Mikolas? Martinez? Flaherty?
That’s a very good question. They’ve had a number of guys that have started to make their mark. As mentioned above, Bader has put himself in the Rookie of the Year conversation by being perhaps the best fielding outfielder in the game while adding some offense to go with it. Miles Mikolas has come over from Japan and done what the Cardinal front office thought he could do, even if nobody else really saw it coming. I think the real breakout, though, is Jack Flaherty. A young guy with double-digit strikeout potential and the bulldog mentality to match. The Cardinals have a lot of great young pitchers and you could see a completely home-grown rotation in 2019 of Flaherty, Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes, Michael Wacha, and Austin Gomber and still have Luke Weaver, Hudson, and Poncedeleon in reserve. Until Reyes shows that he can be healthy, though, Flaherty is the rising star that everyone should keep an eye on.
- What would you say is the Cardinal’s biggest strength and weakness this season?
Overall, the biggest strength of the team has been the starting rotation. It’s young, but it’s been solid pretty much all year long. It’s a rare time where the starter leaves the game and it feels out of hand. Before the last month, you could point to the bullpen as the weakness but as we’ve talked about, it has been vastly improved. I guess the biggest weakness is not having that huge thump in the middle of the lineup. That’s mitigated somewhat by having an MVP candidate lead off and Paul DeJong has been hitting for more power as of late, but for as much as Marcell Ozuna has contributed, he’s not been that power in the four spot that we all thought. Most of us didn’t expect 37 homers again, but 25-30 seemed reasonable. Unless he has a strong September, he’ll probably fall short of 20. That’s not to say his season hasn’t been a success, because he’s contributed in other ways, but that fear factor the Cardinals have missed since probably Albert Pujols and definitely Matt Holliday still isn’t there.
- Where do you think the Cardinals end up in 2018?
It’s so hard to tell where this team is going to finish. They are 21-11 under Shildt–if they can keep that up, they’ll play in October. However, there are a lot of roadblocks between here and the end of the season, starting this series with the Dodgers on the West Coast. Having to go through LA and Colorado in the middle of the pennant race isn’t ideal and the Cardinals only have a couple of series left this year that are against teams that aren’t in the wild card or a division race. I’m still looking at the division, since they are four behind the Cubs and finish the season with three in Wrigley Field. I’d like to see them rally enough to take that divisional crown, but more realistically I think they squeak into the playoffs as a wild-card team. This WC race is wild, though, and it could come down to the final day or even beyond.
- Why did the Cardinals fire Mike Matheny? And was there something else behind the termination?
Ah, the manager change. I know that people around the league probably looked at Mike Matheny and said, “What are Cardinal fans complaining about? The guy’s never had a losing record, they’ve been in the playoffs his first four years and were just a game short his fifth. Why are they so worked up about him?” Yet, as with many things, you have to watch every day to understand the issues. You have to see that Matheny hasn’t grown much from when they hired him in the winter of 2011. You have to see that he still had trouble using a bullpen, overworking some guys and letting other guys gather dust. You have to see that the offense was sputtering under John Mabry. You have to see that, for the fact that he was hired for his leadership qualities, various issues kept coming to light over the past few years with certain players.
John Mozeliak had spent much of the time that Matheny was manager trying to find the right roster fit for him. One year he’d have a lot of flexibility, but Matheny wouldn’t really use it, so the next year he’d have players with more defined roles, only to see them run into the ground. Mo told the bloggers one year at our annual Q&A event with him that he preferred 13 hitters, 12 pitchers but the coaching staff continued to say they needed the reverse. Of course, then we’d see a pitcher go two weeks without being used, being held in reserve just in case a long man was needed. Every offseason, Mozeliak would search for the right tools to help Matheny and this past year it was the coaching staff. He got Jose Oquendo, who is well-respected in the organization, to return after being a minor league instructor for a couple of years. They signed Mike Maddux, who everyone knows has a great reputation as a coach. They moved Mike Shildt, who had three minor league championships under his belt, to bench coach. Even the holdover first base coach, Oliver Marmol, had had success as a minor league manager. I read that, honestly, as Mo saying that this was the thing he could do to improve Matheny–and to give the organization plenty of options should they need to make a change.
It sounds like this game against Milwaukee was what moved ownership and the front office off the fence on the manager. It was a miserable game where the Cardinals failed in every facet, forcing a position player to pitch for the second time this year (I think Matheny had used that tactic once in his entire career) and yet there were no public displays about that being unacceptable. While we don’t know what happened in the clubhouse and, indeed, the team bounced back to win that series, I think the club realized that the team was not going to rebound under Matheny. The stories that came out in the next couple of weeks, about his icy relationship with Dexter Fowler and then the Bud Norris/Jordan Hicks relationship, may have been somewhat refuted by the players but it continued to lend an air that the clubhouse was out of Matheny’s control and it gave a black eye to the organization on a national level.
The final straw was in the story written by Mark Saxon that laid out the fact that Norris was being tough on Hicks. There weren’t a lot of details on what Norris was doing and, indeed, Hicks came out after and said that he was cool with Norris, but there was a quote that Matheny had in that article that apparently raised a lot of questions with ownership. The story is here at The Athletic, but the quote was: “I think the game has gotten progressively softer. Man, it had some teeth not long ago.” For an organization that prides itself on developing talent and using that talent to succeed to stretch the budget, hearing the man in charge of these young players endorse and encourage an atmosphere that baseball was leaving behind, this idea that rookies were somewhat lesser and could be treated roughly, was alarming. That story was released on July 11. The final decision to fire Matheny was made two days later, with the actual firing happening the next day.
I know you didn’t ask about Mike Shildt, but it’s hard to talk about how this team looks different without talking about the man running it. Shildt, well, I have heard “a breath of fresh air” so many times over the last month from so many spots. He’s a guy that brings the game to the opponent instead of waiting for it to come to him. He’s put more runners in motion over the last month than we’ve probably seen in a couple of years. As mentioned above, he’s completely willing to go get a guy in the fifth instead of letting him try to work out of a jam so he can get the win. He tends to use all his pitchers while not overusing any of them. The players have responded to him, in part because a lot of them came up in the organization with Shildt at one stop or another. He’s more comfortable with the press than Matheny ever was, encouraging discussion and talking about what he was thinking and why he made certain moves while acknowledging if he could have done something different. The organization has been grooming Shildt for this opportunity or one like it, in my mind, and I think he’s got a 75% chance or more of being the manager next year and beyond, even though I think they’ll interview some other folks after the season.