Matheny hire puts GM's stamp on Cards

The St. Louis Cardinals put Albert Pujols' preferences on the backburner when they chose Mike Matheny to replace Tony La Russa as manager.

The pay-your-dues, bet-on-upside camp wanted Ryne Sandberg.

The experience-matters-most camp wanted Terry Francona.

The appease-Albert camp wanted Jose Oquendo.

General manager John Mozeliak didn’t listen to any of them. He hired Mike Matheny to manage the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Matheny never had held a managerial or coaching position in the minors or majors before the news release went out Sunday. Until he starts winning games, the absence of a track record will be the first, second and third things mentioned about him.

Matheny had a proud 13-year big-league career, during which he was known for stellar defense, before concussions forced him to retire. He served recently as a special assistant to the Cardinals’ player development staff. But in that capacity, his headshot appeared on page 198 of this year’s press guide. It’s time to update the bio.

Let’s not waste time trying to figure out what sort of manager Matheny will be. No one knows how he will handle his bullpen, relate to superstars or respond to controversies. Sources say the Cardinals hired Matheny because of his “presence” and strength as a natural leader. He indeed possesses those qualities. But so does the Dalai Lama. I don’t think he got an interview.

The evaluation of Matheny, the manager, can wait. For now, we should focus on what his hiring has revealed about the organization:

1. Mozeliak, 42, is leading the franchise in a broader way than when Tony La Russa was in the dugout. La Russa, 67, is old enough to be Mozeliak’s father. Matheny, 41, is a peer.

2. The Cardinals aren’t fretting about the secondary details — read: everything outside of money — in their effort to retain Albert Pujols.

This was Mozeliak’s first managerial hire. And to replace the winningest manager alive, he chose someone who was an assistant Little League coach earlier this year. (A.J. Pujols — yes, son of that Pujols — was on the team, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch.)

The move lends credence to the notion that younger GMs prefer managers who, by virtue of their inexperience, are more receptive to front-office interference. The Cardinals have swung from one of the most influential managers in baseball history to one who has yet to fill out a lineup card. If Mozeliak had grown tired of wondering, “What does Tony think?” then maybe we should have seen this coming.

Mozeliak has more political capital, so to speak, than at any other time during his first tenure as GM. Not only did the Cardinals just win the World Series, but they also did so largely because of key moves he made at the trade deadline.

Mozeliak won the World Series in his fourth year as a GM, becoming the fastest to do so since Theo Epstein in 2004. Mozeliak, to his credit, has never been much of an attention-seeker. But now people around the industry are realizing that he’s quite good. And if the questions about Matheny’s inexperience become tedious during the Cardinals’ news conference Monday morning, “Mo” can use the perfect rejoinder:

Dude, we had a parade like two weeks ago. Trust me, OK?

If continuity had been Mozeliak’s foremost concern, Oquendo would have been the choice. He has been the Cardinals’ third-base coach for the past 12 seasons. Oquendo could have kept virtually the entire staff together. But, obviously, Mozeliak had different priorities.

Even though Matheny had a limited role in player development, his promotion reflects the Cardinals’ many recent successes in the minor leagues. If Chris Maloney moves up to the major league coaching staff from his position as the Class AAA manager — which is very possible — it will convey the same. Mozeliak doesn’t feel that he needs to cling to La Russa’s legacy. That’s healthy.

The next question, of course, deals with what the hiring of Matheny portends for Pujols.

We know Pujols and Oquendo have a close relationship, to the extent that former Cardinals infielder David Eckstein told me Prince Albert would return to St. Louis if Oquendo got the job. Pujols has a good relationship with Matheny, too; they were teammates for four seasons and have similarly strong Christian beliefs. But the hiring of Oquendo would have been symbolic, in suggesting the Cardinals will do whatever they can to keep Pujols happy.

Frankly, that may not be a message the Cardinals need to send. They want to re-sign Pujols, but a failure to do so will not doom them. They could move Lance Berkman to first base, give Allen Craig regular at-bats in right field and invest in upgrades elsewhere. In fact, shortstop Jose Reyes might match the Cardinals’ needs even better than Pujols. And maybe Mozeliak (correctly) wonders whether the Miami Marlins have the money and cachet to sign them both.

With or without Pujols as his first baseman, Matheny will have an excellent team to manage on Opening Day, one that’s worthy of the responsibilities that come with defending a title. Is he the best man for the job? I don’t know. But one of the best things going for Matheny is the man who picked him. A World Series ring has a way of silencing the second-guessers.

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