"These decisions are never easy, but we felt that a change in leadership was necessary as the team prepares to enter into the second half of the season," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said in a statement. "I would like to thank Mike for his exceptional commitment and devotion to the Cardinals organization, including many fond memories of our years working together."
Saturday's loss was the 10th in their last 15 games for the Cardinals, and it dropped them to 47-46 on the season. They are only four games back of the second wild card spot at the moment, so they are not completely out of the postseason race yet, though clearly things are not trending in the right direction. Add in some clubhouse issues, and a managerial change was made.
Truth be told, it felt like Matheny's days as Cardinals manager were numbered. The team is not playing well, they haven't gone to the postseason since 2015, and recent issues with Dexter Fowler and Jordan Hicks created questions about Matheny's leadership ability.
Where do the Cardinals go from here? These are the big questions Mozeliak has to answer now.
How quickly can Girardi get to St. Louis?
It seems like a natural fit, does it not? The Yankees cut ties with longtime manager Joe Girardi following last season, and since then Girardi has spent his time at home with his family and as an analyst on MLB Network. He's made it no secret he wants to manage again, and the Cardinals seem like a natural fit for a few reasons.
- He has a history with the Cardinals and Mozeliak, having played for the club in 2003.
- He's an experienced manager who's won a World Series and dealt with the pressures of a big market.
- He's essentially the opposite of the old school Matheny in terms of the way he thinks about the game.
Matheny was more or less hand-picked to succeed Hall of Famer Tony La Russa in November 2011. The Cardinals figure to conduct a more formal managerial search this time around, and Girardi will undoubtedly be on their list of candidates. And it might not be a matter of whether the Cardinals want Girardi. It may be a question of whether Girardi wants the Cardinals. Chances are he'll have multiple offers to consider after the season.
Either way, Girardi or no Girardi, the Cardinals need a modern manager, not someone the game is passing by. They need a good communicator, someone in tune with state-of-the-art analytics, and someone with experience. Another rookie skipper may not be the way to go with a veteran roster.
How do you repair the clubhouse?
This will be up to the next manager, for sure, but this is also something the front office can begin working on now. Is Bud Norris harassing rookie Hicks, as detailed by Mark Saxon of The Athletic, something that can be put to an end? Or does Norris need to be moved? I know he's been very good this year, but he's a veteran on a one-year deal. He has no future with the Cardinals. Hicks does, and he should be the priority.
As for Fowler ... based on his reputation within the game, if you have a problem with Dexter Fowler, chances are it's you and not him. He is very well-respected among his peers. Matheny and Fowler were reportedly not even on speaking terms in recent weeks. With Matheny gone, will Fowler be more comfortable and productive? If not, what can be done to facilitate a trade that benefits both parties?
It is impossible for us, as outsiders, to know the inner workings of a big-league clubhouse. What we see on the field and in the dugout and during interviews is nothing. A manager's most important work takes place behind the scenes at the ballpark, on the team plane, and at the hotel. The Fowler and Hicks issues indicate something is wrong in that clubhouse. How does the front office fix that? They can't simply leave it up to the next manager. It'll take a team effort.
Is it time to rebuild?
The Cardinals have not qualified for the postseason since 2015 and their winning percentage has declined each year since, from .617 in 2015 to .531 in 2016 to .512 in 2017 to .505 thus far in 2018. Furthermore, their expecting winning percentage based on run differential has dropped as well, from .594 to .541 to .535 to .505 thus far this year. That is not a good trend. The Cardinals haven't slipped under .500 yet, but they're heading in that direction.
Does this team have a postseason-caliber roster? There is some age on the position player side with Fowler, Yadier Molina, Jedd Gyorko, and Matt Carpenter, plus some underachievers like Marcell Ozuna and Kolten Wong. Guys like Hicks, Jack Flaherty, and Luke Weaver offer hope on the mound.
Is this team good enough to make a run at the second wild card spot in the second half? I don't think that's crazy. It won't be easy, but it is doable.
Realistically though, with the Cubs as strong as ever and the Brewers on the rise, is it best for the Cardinals to take a step back and rebuild? Perhaps it doesn't have to be a full tear down and rebuild. Perhaps they can swing a Yankees-style retool and get back to contention within a year or two without bottoming out in the standings. Cash in guys like Ozuna, Carpenter, and Michael Wacha as trade chips, then see where you're at.
The Cardinals are a proud organization that has finished under .500 only once this century (78-84 in 2007). They don't seem like the type of team that would throw in the towel and rebuild, especially when they're only four games back of a postseason spot. That said, things are bad enough that the manager (and two hitting coaches) have been fired. Clearly, this is a time to look in the mirror. A brutally honestly self-evaluation is necessary. And it's possible a rebuild is the best course of action.
Dysfunction is a strong word, though the Cardinals do seem to be a team in disarray. There are problems on the field and apparently problems in the clubhouse. Problems severe enough that the decision to fire a fairly success manager had to be made.
Firing Matheny alone won't solve the team's problems, however. There are still things that need to be addressed, and how Mozeliak & Co. address them will determine how quickly the Cardinals can return to being a baseball power.