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A Mike Matheny postscript... and a mea culpa

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This firing might have had something to do with the Cubs’ success, and the Cardinals’ inability to keep up.

Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

In a bit of a surprise, Mike Matheny was fired on Saturday, not long after that night’s game ended. Much has, and will, be made of Bud Norris and Dexter Fowler and the roles they might have played in this dismissal. While those discussions carry some weight, Matheny was almost done, anyway. While I’ve ridiculed his decision-making, his bullpen usage isn’t especially why he’s out of his gig. This is a Mike Matheny postscript.

Imagine for a moment you were invited to an early Cubs front-office meeting in late 2011. What would you pound the table for? What would be “the thing” the Cubs need to do to catch and pass the Cardinals. After all, winning a division, or a pennant, is fine. However, ripping the heart out of a long-time rival would be a plum.

Along with “Draft Kris Bryant” and “Trade for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop,” what strategies would you strongly encourage? In late 2011, it was the Cardinals. They were the summit. For Theo Epstein to earn any credit, the Cubs had to collapse their reign. Or, at least, live in equality with them.

***

The Cardinals were a bit predictable. They tended to draft pitching early, and accept the misfires. After all, nobody in the division was doing anything any better. They were very deliberate to overspend internationally. The decisions that did in Matheny weren’t Matheny’s, they were decisions by Epstein.

To overcome history, the Cubs needed to accrue talent. More than the Cardinals had. More than the Cardinals could imagine would be incoming. Bats would be prioritized early in the draft, especially from the college ranks. Arms would come later in the draft, in depth. The progress on the hill would be slow, but with enough offense, it might be enough.

Short-term pieces would be traded for longer-term ones. This would be a very difficult sell. Until it worked. International free agency would be maximized as much as possible. St. Louis had done well there, but they hadn’t lined up with the Yankees for a decade.

Any gray area would be pushed. As long as no rules were broken. And, like “Free Cable TV” at motels in the 1970s, many of the strategies soon became automatic. Even the Cardinals broke the spending limits once.

This takes us to around 2016 or 2017. Take your pick. The Cubs had caught and even passed St. Louis. However, Matheny’s methods were still a viable alternative to what the Cubs were doing. Another slight edit was taking place. I missed it, completely. Which is where my mea culpa comes in.

***

I’m rarely in opposition to moves by the front office. Here and there, perhaps. I’ll point them out, and why. I thought they badly mismanaged Chris Rusin’s option seasons, punting two of them, needlessly. However, I point out the disagreements to emphasize the agreements.

In 2017, I was opposed to a string of roster moves that cost Felix Pena and Pierce Johnson. They both fetched “surrender value” (waiver fees) or somewhere near it. I’m not a fan of giving up something needlessly, when the return is slight. Both have MLB time in 2018.

I missed what was going on. Like Pena, Johnson, or others like them, they weren’t what the Cubs needed to complete the role-reversal. Simply, the Cubs needed better bullpen options. More bullpen options, and better bullpen options.

Johnson or Pena could have fit in with the current relievers in the “Des Moines Variations.” Justin Grimm was given one final shot. Matt Carasiti left for Japan. And the available roster spots were manipulated. Cory Mazzoni. Randy Rosario. Anthony Bass on a non-roster invite. The bullpen became a monster. Not of high-end names, but pitchers who can record MLB outs.

***

Matheny was a bit stuck in the past. While he rotated his line-up fairly well, he’d have a tendency to ride his three or four best relievers rather aggressively.

“Isn’t that the goal?”

It used to be. And that’s why the Matheny Way wasn’t going to win the National League Central.

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What did in Matheny was the merging of the Epstein talent gathering, and Joe Maddon’s willingness to give players days off. The two were both massive aspects. Maddon wanted 15 hitters and 17 pitchers. Epstein asked if 17 and 19 might be better.

Matheny’s swansong was 2015. He pushed his players in an old-timey way. Everyone in the very small Cardinals market (sarcasm) was happy. Until about the first of August. Suddenly, the players were out of gas. The bullpen was vulnerable. Starting pitchers started to drop off the map.

The Pirates and Cubs kept pushing, and Matheny coaxed 131 regular season starts out of Yadier Molina. The Cardinals won the division, but watched the Cubs celebrate in Wrigley in October.

The next year, his bullpen was weaker than before. The minor league options were less ready. As Seung-hwan Oh and Matt Bowman wilted, only Zach Duke was good enough to help. Until his season ended after pitching all three games of a series the Cubs won two-of-three.

Matheny’s players were getting gassed. His pitchers were having more difficulty recovering. And Maddon was trying to outdo himself with unforeseen lineup combinations. After 2017, the Cubs continued to tighten the 40-man roster, with no realistic end in sight. Players from every draft class are ahead of the Rule 5 curve. Pitchers, hitters, catchers. It doesn’t matter.

It wasn’t just that Matheny was played by Maddon. Which he was. Epstein knew what was needed to usurp St. Louis. He and his front office have done it, with the support of the ownership box.

Faced with the Cubs looking better, deeper, and more prepared for the future, the Cardinals have blamed Matheny. Perhaps he deserved it. However, most of his decisions seem to have been supported by the ownership.

Matheny ran his players hard. In an old-school fashion. That some fans still believe makes sense. However, Maddon’s liberal use of his bench keeps his regulars rested, allows for matchup adjustments, and one more key component. It forces Epstein to keep bringing in better talent. From overseas. From the waiver wire. From the third day of the draft.

Epstein’s commitment to making the Cubs better doomed Matheny. The handwriting was on the wall. The Cardinals didn’t trust their center field options. As such, they paid a hefty five-year deal to add Fowler. As compensation, the Cubs added Alex Lange, who is in front of the Rule 5 curve.

It was likely time for Matheny to go. The Cardinals may bounce back, or they may continue to fade. How their front office responds will tell quite a bit about how the team will respond. It won’t be big-money free agents. It won’t be firing two hitting coaches. To catch the Cubs, they will need a plan. A plan that will bring in more talent than the Cubs will think they’ll bring in.

Good luck with that.