photo: Mike Matheny (Scott Kane/USA TODAY Sports)
The St. Louis Cardinals franchise prides itself on its stability – and rightfully so. In the more than two decades under current ownership, the Cardinals have consistently been among Major League Baseball’s most successful franchises.
The record on the field includes 13 post-season appearances, 10 National League Central Division titles, four NL pennants and two World Championships. However, there was a clear shift of power in the division that began when the Chicago Cubs unceremoniously defeated the 100-win division champion Cardinals in the 2015 NL Division Series.
The Cardinals slid from three-time defending division champions to playoff outsiders the next two seasons, while finishing a combined 26 ½ games out of first place in 2016 and 2017. The second year, the Cardinals had to endure the additional embarrassment of the Cubs clinching the division on the Busch Stadium turf.
Yet, the organization seemed unfazed.
Literally hours after the Cubs celebrated their first World Championship since 1908, the Cardinals front office granted manager Mike Matheny a three-year contract extension. Since the team’s leader since 2012 already had a year remaining on his then-current deal, the financial commitment to him was increased to four years – through 2020.
Midway through the 2017 season, John Mozeliak was promoted to a new title, President of Baseball Operations, with his right-hand man, Michael Girsch, named general manager. The two were given new contracts through 2020, as well.
Despite this leadership locked in place, the trajectory did not change.
By July 14, 2018, St. Louis had been mired in third place since late May and was headed toward a third consecutive playoff miss. One day before the All-Star break, the Cardinals had a 47-46 record. They were 7 ½ games out of first, closer to the division cellar than its top.
That day, the announcement was made that Matheny and his two hitting coaches, John Mabry and Bill Mueller, had been dismissed. The manager had led the club for the prior 6 1/2 years and had 2 1/2 years remaining on his contract extension.
The stability of the Cardinals foundation had been rocked to its core by the first in-season firing of a manager during the tenure of the Bill DeWitt Jr. ownership group.
Cardinals teams under the 47-year old Matheny had compiled a 591-473 record, with that win total the fifth-most by any manager in team history. His career post-season mark was 21-22 as he helped lead the team into the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 playoffs, including the 2013 National League Championship. But by mid-2018, that seemed a long time ago.
Amid great hope and considerable fanfare, new coaches had been added mid-season 2017 and again that winter, but the team had not shown progress on the field. The hitting coaches were the only major area of the field staff exempt from these earlier waves of changes.
Prior to the firings, DeWitt made it clear that in his view, the 2018 team was of playoff caliber, so while of course, the players shared responsibility for the underachievement, the manager took the fall. DeWitt specifically singled out the offense as a major area of disappointment, hence the hitting coaches were also dismissed.
A growing list of off-field player controversies with Matheny at the center may have been the final straw for a man whose leadership traits were often cited as one of his core strengths. Areas of his job performance which were oft-criticized over the years include lineup construction and in-game tactical moves, especially bullpen management.
Matheny was replaced by bench coach Mike Shildt. While the team then played its best baseball of the season through the rest of July and August, they struggled in September, falling short of the post-season for the third consecutive year.
After his firing, Matheny did not remain on the sidelines for long. Following the season, he joined the Kansas City Royals in an advisory role in player development. There is speculation he could replace manager Ned Yost starting in 2020, which ironically would also be his last season under contract with St. Louis.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
Bonus for members of The Cardinal Nation
Not yet a member?
If you enjoyed this article, please consider joining The Cardinal Nation to receive the most comprehensive coverage of the St. Louis Cardinals from the majors through the entire minor league system.
Take advantage of our special 20 percent off holiday offer, ending tonight at midnight.
© 2018 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.