In Culture Change, Who will be the Cardinals’ Next Leaders?

photo: Dexter Fowler/USA TODAY Sports Images

In his Sunday column at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch entitled “Getting back to the Cardinal Way,” Jose de Jesus Ortiz highlighted the perceived need of a culture change in the St. Louis Cardinals clubhouse following a second straight disappointing season.

The thought-provoking article made several key points of which I felt are worthy of highlighting.

Despite at least two players-only meetings in-season, Ortiz noted, “Some veterans continued to anger their teammates with what was perceived as either laziness, selfishness or both.”

A comment made by an anonymous player suggests a divide between home-grown Cardinals and those sourced from the outside. “Look around, a Cardinal told me, and see how many of the guys making these mistakes came up through other organizations,” Ortiz wrote.

Specific externally-sourced players mentioned by name in the column are Dexter Fowler, Brett Cecil and Jedd Gyorko. In the case of Fowler, the columnist said the outfielder “is usually the last guy in the clubhouse and one of the first to leave.” Cecil’s love of video games was cited along with Gyorko’s ping-pong prowess.

On July 21, the club’s own president of baseball operations acknowledged the need for change to “the culture and the dynamic of the clubhouse.“ John Mozeliak later credited improvement in that area following a second team meeting led by Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Matt Carpenter on August 3.

Ortiz closed by urging the front office to bring in players “who will live up to the standards that have been set and upheld by the team’s true leaders, Molina and Wainwright.”

My take

The first step of making player changes makes sense for a number of reasons, including performance as well as culture. However, for me, the biggest question is from where will the next generation of team leaders come?

Though not stated directly, it appears the current leaders were unable to fully drive the necessary changes alone in 2017. As the careers of Wainwright and Molina near their respective conclusions, from where will the next generation of Cardinals leaders emerge? Internal options have not panned out to date, nor have external additions, apparently.

Not mentioned in Ortiz’ column, but others have highlighted the void left by the departure of Matt Holliday last winter as a possible contributor to the clubhouse culture issues.

Though some fans wanted to see Holliday stay for 2017, a look back at the season would appear to reaffirm that change was the right move for the Cardinals. This was his worst season ever, with a slash line of .231/.316/.432/.748. Those are comparable to Randal Grichuk’s numbers this year as both had a slightly-below average OPS+ of 95. Holliday played designated hitter and first base exclusively – no time in left field – and made $13 million. If he plays next year, it will be at 38 years of age.

If one believes Holliday is still missed in the clubhouse, the problem would seem to be that the existing leaders and new signings did not fill the gap.

Even if all the right pieces were in place going forward, I question whether a seamless leadership and culture transformation is possible any time soon. Instead, I see these as longer-term issues that has evolved over time and will take time to change.

The column mentions Carpenter along with Wainwright and Molina as current leaders, which certainly makes sense. The latter two are almost certainly going to be back for 2018 – and quite possibly all three. So next season, you could have a mix of the “want-to-be leaders” who have to earn the respect of a new clubhouse and the “incumbent leaders” still leading as they have before. That transition may not instantly sort itself out.

In sharing the feelings of the anonymous player, the column drew a divide between the outsiders and the internally-developed players. I am not sure the team’s lackadaisical play can be accurately delineated that cleanly. In fact the only concrete on-field example cited in the article was a key mistake by Trevor Rosenthal, who of course is not an outsider.

The Fowler observation was especially concerning, as being the last in and first out of the clubhouse each day does not send a good signal to young players. The 2017 outfield was basically Fowler and a bunch of young, not fully proven guys. Other than Tommy Pham, this area of the team was a disappointment.

The primary approach suggested by Ortiz to address the culture would be to bring in other outsiders, and apparently shed the ones who are not team players. It seems the real change in this recommendation would be for the front office to do a better job identifying the right personalities to pluck from other clubs. Again, it was not mentioned in the column, but the signing of Mike Leake would seem to represent another recent misstep.

Ortiz’ column identified a problem, but I am not fully satisfied with why it happened and how realistically it can be addressed quickly. These are difficult and complex questions which cannot easily be answered.

On one point, perhaps we can all agree, however. The Cardinals need to start making changes in this direction.

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