The Matheny Roster Cycle Has Repeated Itself

For a moment there, right after the Fowler signing, the Cardinals actually managed to convince some of us that they weren’t going to call it an offseason. The club, wrote Derrick Goold, “could become more aggressive than previously believed, turning toward free-agent sluggers Mark Trumbo and Edwin Encarnación as possible pursuits.” Maybe such a change in strategy was actually on the table; maybe this was a bit of empty chest-puffing from an organization that finally sensed some fan discontent over its tight-fisted approach to the free-agent market.

In any case, nothing came of it. Encarnación signed with Cleveland for a lot less than expected; Justin Turner returned to the Dodgers and José Bautista appears to be headed back to Toronto. The Cardinals are reportedly looking to bring a left-handed outfielder and possibly another bullpen arm to spring training on minor-league deals, but what plenty of us knew in our hearts to be true back in December is now beyond doubt: they’re done. Having dumped nearly $40 million in salary via the departures of Matt Holliday, Jaime García, and Brandon Moss, the club enters 2017 on track for not just another sharp drop in revenue-adjusted payroll but a slight nominal decrease in payroll from last year.

It wouldn’t be fair, though, to blame another middling offseason entirely on Bill DeWitt’s spending allergy. That much became clear a couple weeks ago, when the Royals agreed to trade Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners in exchange for right-handed nonentity Nate Karns. The Cards had previously signaled interest in Dyson as a platoon candidate, and as a left-handed hitter and elite defender, he’d fit well into an outfield still lacking for both of those things.

The issue with Dyson may have been what else he would bring to the team: questions. Would he be used as a fourth outfielder or in a platoon? If the latter, with whom? When would it be best to bring him off the bench as a defensive replacement or a pinch runner? When he plays, where does Fowler go? How long a leash should a struggling Grichuk (or, for that matter, Piscotty or Fowler) get before Dyson got a shot to play every day? Would Tommy Pham ever see the field again?

It’s not that there aren’t good answers to these questions. It’s that the Cardinals have a manager who is incapable of coming up with them. Every potential move the front office could make to improve the team’s depth and flexibility comes at the cost of giving Mike Matheny more opportunities to use his roster inefficiently.

This is one half of a vicious cycle identified by Viva El Birdos’ Craig Edwards in an excellent overview of Matheny’s tenure last season. You should read the full post for all the details, but here’s his tidy summary of John Mozeliak’s recent attempts to build a Matheny-proof roster:

  • Provide depth in 2014, Matheny uses it poorly.
  • Provide stability in 2015, Matheny uses it poorly.
  • Provide depth in 2016, Matheny uses it poorly
  • Provide stability in 2017…

Assuming it wasn’t just general negligence, failing to acquire Dyson might be the clearest sign that the Cardinals are over-correcting towards stability in 2017, but it’s far from the only one. Just about every move the club has made or hasn’t made this offseason can be understood through the lens of making things as simple as possible for Matheny, after a season in which Mozeliak publicly conceded that he’d given him “too much roster flexibility.”

Giving the boot to Holliday, a marquee player and clubhouse leader? Simpler than figuring out how to get him some playing time in left and at first and seeing if he could still be worth what it would’ve cost to keep him, which wouldn’t have been much. Lining up Eric Fryer for a Tony-Cruz-style, three-starts-a-month-if-he’s-lucky backup role? Simpler than trying to achieve a better balance with Brayan Peña or someone similar in the interest of Yadi’s health. Passing on Turner, Encarnación, Bautista, and others? Simpler than further muddying the situation in the infield, where the mere existence of Jedd Gyorko will probably be more than Matheny can handle.

Some of these moves may have made the Cardinals better, some may have made the Cardinals worse, but all of them made the Cardinals simpler. Throughout the offseason, we’ve seen Mozeliak, like an expectant parent trying to child-proof a house, all but affixing giant block-letter labels to players’ foreheads. Matt Carpenter: “FIRST BASEMAN.” Kolten Wong: “SECOND BASEMAN.” Maybe he’s finally gotten it right, and put together a team that Matheny won’t find a way to mismanage.

Or maybe we’re just in for the second half of the cycle, the one where players get hurt or underperform or wear down from overuse, and the team doesn’t have the pieces to cope. Maybe Grichuk struggles again and can’t turn it around this time. Maybe one injury-free season doesn’t mean that Yadi is invincible. Maybe Holliday bounces back in the Bronx, and Matheny is right about Wong, and we’re right back where we’ve been before, wondering how the Cardinals ever hoped to compete with such a thin and one-dimensional roster. And round and round we’ll go, and the obvious solution will remain the same.