The Cardinals were 10 1/2 games back on August 25. They weren’t supposed to make it to October.
The Cardinals drew an NLDS matchup with the 102-win Phillies. They were supposed to get out-pitched.
The Cardinals faced the high-powered Brewers in the NLCS, then the higher-powered Rangers in the Fall Classic. They weren’t supposed to win either series.
But all of those odds and predictions were defied.
Now, to add a surprise cherry to the astonishment sundae, the Cardinals — kings of the old school — have hired the youngest manager in MLB. A 41-year-old former catcher with zero managing experience and barely any official coaching gigs on his résumé.
Mike Matheny, revered for his defense during a 13-year playing career, was named replacement to Tony La Russa, the third-winningest skipper in baseball history, in a press release delivered to the media late Sunday night. He will be officially introduced at a formal press conference Monday morning at Busch Stadium.
While recent speculation presented subtle hints, the hiring was a surprise. Terry Francona, with his big name and decorated resume, seemed a better fit for the Cards’ veteran core. Jose Oquendo, some suggested, would help carve an easier path to the re-signing of Albert Pujols. Even Ryne Sandberg drew buzz.
The Cardinals had their man almost as soon as the search began, and maybe even before.
Guessing a front office’s strategy can be an exercise in frivolity, and it often is in the case of the close-lipped Redbirds. But this sure feels calculated, and the steps ahead would appear to be shaking clear.
La Russa was earning salaries of nearly $5 million per year by the end of his tenure in St. Louis, more than any other manager in the sport today. Matheny is sure to cost less, by perhaps as much as $3 million annually. Then there’s the decision to name Daniel Descalso as the club’s 2012 starting second baseman just weeks after the end of the World Series and the suggestion that Tyler Greene might fit at as a regular shortstop, all of which leaves Skip Schumaker and his $2.7 million 2011 salary as a non-tender candidate.
Make no mistake: the Cardinals like Matheny. They consider him a born leader, and someone well-versed in what is affectionately called “The Cardinal Way.” But they’re also freeing up every bit of payroll they can.
If Pujols is going to command a yearly rate of $23 million or more over the next seven, eight, or nine seasons, the Cardinals need to be more well-oiled. They need to run more efficiently, with better structure from top to bottom and more cost control in the big leagues. It’s something that GM John Mozeliak has known since taking over the job in October of 2007, and his decisions are now clearly being led by the idea.
Matheny is efficient. Descalso is efficient. So is almost the entire bullpen. And the talent budding in the farm system — as seen in top-grade prospects like Shelby Miller, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez and Oscar Taveras — should keep the organization humming at econo-grade even if Pujols scores an SUV-sized deal.
Mozeliak has truly built something great, and the Cardinals are suddenly as streamlined as it gets in the capricious world of professional baseball. It would take multiple catastrophes for Matheny to screw it all up.