photo: Jose Oquendo, Willie McGee (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
Following the disappointing 2016 season, in which the St. Louis Cardinals had dropped to an 86-win playoff miss from 100 wins and the divisional title the year before, manager Mike Matheny was presented with a three-year contract extension – despite one season remaining on his then-current deal.
Since that time, the Cardinals fell further – to an 83-win, third-place finish in 2017. Also since then, five of the seven coaches working under Matheny have left the club’s employment and only one of two remaining holds the same assignment, hitting coach John Mabry.
In my multiple decades of following the club, I cannot recall a similar level of coaching turnover in such a short period – other than when a managerial change was the driver.
The recent churn began last fall, when Derrick May was let go. The assistant hitting coach had been in that position for just one season, but the 2014 George Kissell Award recipient for player development excellence had been employed by the organization for a dozen years as minor league hitting coordinator and hitting coach at multiple levels. Apparently May’s teaching approach did not mesh with the big league staff.
Two new additions to the coaching ranks were made for 2017, both internal promotions. Triple-A manager Mike Shildt was named to a new position, quality control coach, and high-A manager Oliver Marmol was promoted to first base coach. 2016 first base coach Bill Mueller returned to his 2015 job of assistant hitting coach, replacing May.
By June 9, all was not well with the 2017 edition of the Cardinals. The club had just returned home from a disastrous road trip to Chicago and Cincinnati in which they were outscored 45-19 on the way to losing all seven games. The Cards had left St. Louis over .500 and in second place, but limped home six games under and just one spot out of the division’s cellar.
That day, an unusual mid-season shakeup of the coaching staff was announced. Third base coach Chris Maloney, who had absorbed criticism for his baserunning guidance, was removed from the staff, with Shildt replacing him. Maloney had been with the organization since 1991 with just one interruption and is a two-time Kissell Award winner and Manager of the Year in three different leagues.
Triple-A hitting coach Mark Budaska became interim assistant hitting coach during Mueller’s excused leave of absence to attend to personal matters. The Cardinals also promoted assistant minor league field coordinator and infield specialist Ron “Pop” Warner to the big league staff in a general coaching role. At that point, the front office “pumped the brakes” on the quality control position, which had been announced with fanfare a half-season prior.
A month later, catcher Yadier Molina issued two social media retorts, apparently due to his dissatisfaction following the promotion of prospect Carson Kelly and a perceived slight when his manager suggested he might have needed a day off due to fatigue.
Molina expressed his fondness for former Cardinals coach Jose Oquendo, who had left the major league staff in spring training 2016. Following knee surgeries, Oquendo chose to work with minor leaguers in Florida for the last two seasons and had reportedly turned down multiple offers to return to St. Louis.
At the conclusion of the disappointing 2017 season, two members of Matheny’s staff from the start – pitching coach Derek Lilliquist and bullpen coach Blaise Ilsley – were fired. The two had first joined the organization in 2002. A stated reason for the change was to secure a new pitching coach who is more willing to leverage advanced metrics and data provided by baseball operations.
Their replacements are veteran pitching coach Mike Maddux, not retained by the Washington Nationals despite being considered one of the best in MLB, with his new assistant former Memphis pitching coach and Cardinals pitcher Bryan Eversgerd.
The club received high marks from observers for two other staff additions announced this fall. Whatever issues Oquendo had were apparently resolved to the extent that he agreed to return to his long-time post coaching third base for St. Louis. “The Secret Weapon” is also a highly-respected infield instructor.
In the other widely applauded announcement, fan favorite Willie McGee also moved up from working with minor leaguers to St. Louis, where he will strive to improve outfield play and baserunning – two areas in which the 2017 club could have used help.
In other staff changes, bench coach David Bell left the organization with a promotion to farm director for the San Francisco Giants. Warner returned to player development in his prior role of assistant field coordinator and Swiss army knife Shildt shifted again to his third assignment in a year, named bench coach to replace Bell.
Here is a tabular view of the recent coaching changes.
|End 2016||Open 2017||Mid 2017 changes||Open 2018|
|Bench coach||David Bell||Bell||Shildt|
|Hitting coach||John Mabry||Mabry||Mabry|
|Asst. hitting||Derrick May||Mueller||Mark Budaska/Mueller||Mueller|
|Pitching coach||Derek Lilliquist||Lilliquist||Mike Maddux|
|Bullpen coach||Blaise Ilsley||Ilsley||Bryan Eversgerd|
|First base||Bill Mueller||Oliver Marmol||Marmol|
|Third base||Chris Maloney||Maloney||Shildt||Jose Oquendo|
|Quality control||Mike Shildt|
|General/IF||Ron “Pop” Warner|
If the Cardinals are able to reverse their downward trend in year three, perhaps the reworked coaching staff will receive a share of the credit. However, if the slide continues, neither the coaching shuffles nor the contract extension may be enough to save Matheny’s job.
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