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December 23, 2011

On the Beat

Trial By Fire

by John Perrotto

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In many ways, Mike Matheny seems to be stepping into a no-win situation as the Cardinals' new manager.

For one, he is tasked with following a legend and taking over a club that has nowhere to go but down. Tony La Russa retired last October after 16 seasons as the Cardinals' manager following his team's stunning run to a World Series title, which culminated in a seven-game victory over the Rangers in the Fall Classic.

On top of that, Matheny inherits a team that just lost the second-biggest star in the storied history of the franchise. First baseman Albert Pujols bolted to the Angels as a free agent earlier this month, signing a 10-year, $254-year million contract in the wake of 11 spectacular seasons that put him behind only Stan Musial in the Cardinals' pantheon of stars.

Matheny comes into the job without ever having managed a game at any level. His only non-playing experience in baseball has been to serve as a roving catching instructor in the Cardinals' minor-league system.

Yet Matheny insists he is ready for the challenge. So does Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, who hired the 41-year-old Matheny over Terry Francona, who won two World Series in the previous eight seasons as the manager of the Red Sox, among other candidates.

"Mike just clearly stood out above the rest of the candidates," Mozeliak said.

"You know, that's probably the most frequent question I get, and I have to say I think they're just going to come daily," Matheny said when asked what he thinks the biggest challenges will be in his new job. "I think there are going to be challenges and things that continue to come, and to me that is one of the more exciting things as I sit here right now. They're going to continue to come throughout the season and probably as long as I'm in this position. I understand that that's how this thing works, and we'll take them as they come."

The first challenge will be to try to win without Pujols. The Cardinals can move right fielder Lance Berkman to his more natural position of first base and slide Allen Craig into right field, provided he is recovered from knee surgery by Opening Day. The Cardinals are also pursuing free agent Carlos Beltran to play right field.

In addition to Berkman, the Cardinals have left fielder Matt Holliday to provide thump in the middle of the lineup. Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina is still around, too, along with third baseman David Freese, shortstop Rafael Furcal, and center fielder Jon Jay, while some combination of Skip Shumaker and Daniel Descalso will play second base.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff will get a big boost from the return of Adam Wainwright, who missed last season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in spring training. He will front a rotation that will include Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook, and left-hander Jaime Garcia. Jason Motte emerged as a solid closer last fall when the Cardinals chased down the Braves in the National League wild card race, then upset the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers in the postseason to win their 11th world championship.

That still-talented core of players, along with the way the Cardinals overcame both the injury to Wainwright and an 8 1/2-game deficit to the Braves in the last five weeks of the season, makes Matheny confident they can survive in a post-Pujols world.

"I do have to say that the 2011 Cardinals were as resilient as any team I've ever seen," Matheny said. "If you look at the number of DL moves and the number of key components that were in and out and the push down to the end, you saw something about the core character of that team that was extremely different. And these guys would almost thrive when adversity came. To me that's, I think, indicative of the personality of the team. I think they're going to handle things regardless of how it all turns out. I think they're going to come out swinging. That's what this team does."

Matheny understands that some people question whether he is qualified for his new job since he has never managed. He spent 13 seasons in the major leagues as a catcher, though, with the Brewers (1994-98), Blue Jays (1999), Cardinals (2000-04), and Giants (2005-06) before a series of concussions ended his career. Matheny believes his playing experience makes up for his lack of managerial experience, and he also has a veteran staff that includes pitching coach Dave Duncan, hitting coach Mark McGwire, and third base coach Jose Oquendo.

"I wasn't good enough to just go out there and play, so I had to do the little things to keep me ahead," Matheny said. "I couldn't help but see who's up in the bullpen. I had to look and see what the idea was to try and think along with the manager so they didn't have to waste a trip out to the mound to know that we were two batters away from a lefty and we've got one up in the top, let's be pretty smart until we get to that spot, trying to think ahead with bunt plays and double steals, trying to manage the running game. So those sort of things, for a catcher, that's conscientious, and once again, pretty aware of my skill set at the time that I had to do those things or I wouldn't have had a job, but that's really how I watch the game. I can't watch a game to this day as just an independent spectator. I'm constantly looking and learning and trying to dissect what the thought processes are, the game inside the game."

Matheny believes the biggest key to success for a major-league manager is being able to communicate with his players. That figures to be his biggest strength. As a player, he was noted for his ability to work with pitchers and mentor young players. While Matheny is familiar with many of the Cardinals' players from working in the organization, getting to know them better will be his focus in spring training.

"Really more than anything else, the development of the relationships with the players and reading them and keeping them in a position where they're going to excel is going to be important," Matheny said. "Xs and Os—I've always believed that you go to every game trying to learn something new, whether you're a player, whether you're a coach, even whether you're a spectator, in my opinion. There's always something new that happens in this game, and that's one of the beauties of this. I have my radar up and put a great support staff around me that has the same concept and ideology of ‘We're going to get better every day we're out there.’ Some of it will come from trial and some will come from successes, and I think you put everything together and spring training will just be the launching board."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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