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Will the Cardinals Add Their Own Don Zimmer?

With all the recent criticism of the managing approach of St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, as well as his hitting coach, John Mabry, in the area of the club’s ongoing offensive struggles, it seems odd that Matheny’s apparent right-hand man, Mike Aldrete, has remained above scrutiny.

Perhaps it is because the bench coach is rarely seen on television other than to be the manager’s phone conduit to the video coordinator during instant replays. Of course, there is far more to the job than that.

In recent years, the bench coach position has emerged as a mainstay across Major League Baseball. As close to an assistant manager as there is, the role generally includes in-game strategy consulting and organizing daily routines for the players and staff.

My sense has always been that the bench coach was less important during the game under an experienced manager, and more about handling the routine matters than offering a lot of advice to the skipper.

For example, I admired Joe Pettini and respected his teaching ability, but in the heat of battle, one would think that Tony La Russa hardly needed his bench coach’s advice. I know Joe handled the lineup card and did some defensive positioning, but I doubt his opinion was consulted on double-switches or which relievers to warm, for example.

As pointed out by blingboy in the comments here, Rob Rains wrote about the Cardinals current bench coach situation on Saturday.

“There already has been some suggestions in the Bay Area that bench coach Mike Aldrete could be headed back to Oakland to serve as the A’s bench coach,” Rains noted. “If that happens, it would be nice to see the Cardinals bring in somebody with major-league managing experience to serve in that role.”

I agree with Rains 100 percent and have had similar thoughts.

The prototypical bench coach, in my opinion, was the late Don Zimmer. Zim was a former player, former manager and life-long baseball man in his normal retirement years. In other words, more experienced than the manager, comfortable in his role, but not a threat to the skipper’s job. I sensed Joe Torre, not a bad manager himself, frequently relied on Zimmer’s counsel.

Rains continued. “The Cardinals have not been shy about promoting coaches from their own system, but sometimes that can create an atmosphere where nobody wants to question the manager or challenge any of his decisions. The Cardinals need a bench coach who isn’t afraid to do that, and has the experience necessary to have Matheny listen to his opinions and recommendations.”

I have nothing against Aldrete, but I also have no feeling for how he functions in the details of his role. Does he try to advise Matheny differently and is shut out? Or is he reluctant to speak up and question his boss, as Rains hints may be the case?

Or could Aldrete be no more knowledgeable than Matheny in the ins and outs of in-game strategy? Does the Cardinals former assistant hitting coach know any more about the nuts and bolts of managing than the manager himself? While Aldrete has been in baseball a long time, he has only been in the big chair himself for a total of two minor league seasons over a decade ago.

Bottom line, if Aldrete does decide to leave the Cardinals, it would create an ideal second chance opportunity for general manager John Mozeliak to find Matheny’s ideal Zimmer while indirectly blunting the sharp criticism directed at Matheny.

Much has been written about the importance of a good manager putting his players in the best possible position to succeed. How about the GM doing the same for his hand-picked skipper?

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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37 Responses to “Will the Cardinals Add Their Own Don Zimmer?”

  1. crdswmn says:

    This is certainly an option that I heard mentioned in more than one quarter. As bling suggested though, how receptive would Matheny be to such a person? Given the recent events, and the criticism that has been lodged against Matheny for his management of the NLCS, a move in that direction would signal that the org is also unhappy with Matheny’s performance. Such a message being sent would more than likely embarrass and even anger Matheny, which would make it even less likely that he would be receptive to it.

    If Aldrete were to leave on his own and a replacement hired, doing it in such a way as to not create the impression that the new bench coach is there to second guess Matheny would be important. All of it would have to be done carefully and with the right PR behind it.

    I for one would welcome any efforts to corral Matheny’s bad decision making.

    • Brian Walton says:

      If Aldrete leaves, they have to fill the job with someone. Why not get a bench coach with a broader portfolio of experiences than David Bell, for example? That should not be viewed as threatening if they get the right person. For example, I wonder if Tom Kelly is bored with retirement? How could you not be receptive to someone like that? On the other hand, somebody like a Bobby Valentine could be a disaster.

      • crdswmn says:

        Naturally that would be ideal. The question is whether Matheny would be likely to accept his counsel or not if there was strong disagreement between the two on an issue. Matheny seems incredibly pig headed to me, based on comments and explanations he has given in the media.

        It’s an idea worth exploring if the opportunity presents itself.

        • Brian Walton says:

          As you know, Aldrete was a hold-over from TLR’s staff. At the time, I had the feeling that Matheny did not select some or all of his coaches. After a few years and a contract extension, he might expect more control now.

          • crdswmn says:

            The Tom Kelly notion is an interesting one, though isn’t he still working for the Twins in the front office?

            I would be concerned that he would be just as mired in old school thinking as Matheny is though. I could be wrong, of course, not knowing the man at all other than from when he managed the Twins.

            Someone with some Saber knowledge would make me happy, but those kind of guys with any managing experience probably don’t exist.

  2. blingboy says:

    My first thought was “too bad Red isn’t 10 years younger”. 🙂 Of course, Red managed in a different era, especially as to pitchers and pen usage. But still, how cool would that be.

    The problems are nice,y summarized by crdswmn above. I would only expand on it by pointing out that a manager with three years experience probably expects to have the authority to pick his own bench coach. It really would be a delicate situation if it is something Mo has in mind.

    A half-way point, if the right guy isn’t out there or interested, might be Oquendo. It seems Jose has been judged not to be manager material, but I seriously doubt it is due to lack of familiarity with in-game strategy. But along those lines, I seriously doubt that Matheny’s shortcoming begin with the first pitch and end with the last one. Still, if Aldrete moves on, Oquendo would be an obvious enough in-house replacement not to cause Matheny too much angst, or attract too much awkward attention. Of course, that doesn’t mean Matheny would embrace the set up. Just an idea for a fall back.

    In the end though, I can’t get past the idea that if you need to bring in that kind of help, then you’ve got the wrong guy in the manager slot. I think the Zimmer situation was different in that he was in NY because he could help rather than because Torre obviously needed help. Matheny obviously needs help, lots and lots of help.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I appreciate that Oquendo is a beloved Cardinal and long-time third base coach. His managerial experience, however, consists of one season in rookie ball almost 20 years ago and the World Baseball Classic. He was also the bench coach one year for TLR back in the 1990s.

      It gets down to what qualifies one to be a bench coach. In addition to managerial experience, does he have a strong enough personality/influence to make any difference? Then there is the matter of the fact that he could be viewed as a possible successor.

      Since Whitey and Red would seem to be out of the question, I think for a change to have maximum impact, the new bench coach would need to come from the outside, with gray hair as a prerequisite. Continuing the in-house, “take the path of least resistance and disruption” approach of hiring would likely change nothing.

      P.S. I get your point about the right guy in the job in the first place, but that is Monday morning quarterbacking. The Cardinals are where they are and aren’t going to take a mulligan. A well-seasoned bench coach would be a far more realistic approach than starting over.

    • crdswmn says:

      I don’t think Oquendo would be a good choice. I suspect he would be just like Aldrete is now. Not going to second guess the boss but just get along.

      I agree with Brian, the new bench coach would have to be an outsider with a big resume.

  3. crdswmn says:

    Some former MLB managers (not advocating any of them)

    Ken Macha
    Bob Geren
    Cito Gaston
    Dusty Baker
    Kirk Gibson
    Jim Tracy
    John Russell
    Ron Gardenhire

    I left off Bobby Valentine and Ozzie Guillen for what should be obvious reasons. I almost left Dusty Baker off for the same reasons, but I decided what the heck.

    • blingboy says:

      I got a chuckle out of the idea of Dusty advising Matheny on pitcher usage. The only thing missing from the picture is Curly Joe.

      I’d put Bobby Cox on the list, not that he’d have the slightest interest in the job. Too bad Lasorda is too old like Red. Not that he’d have any interest either. That would be the hang up with most guys we could name. Why would they want it? Would have to be a guy who not only is qualified, but such a die hard baseball guy through and through that his idea of a fun retirement would be to have a job in the dugout 162 games a year, all the travel, etc.

      Maybe we could talk Whitey into being the bench coach for home games, Tommy for west coast trips and Bobby for east coast. The Cards would be a laughing stock, but it seems we are already in some circles after this recent display. I really do hope that Mo and BDW understand, or soon come to understand, the absurdity of having the wrong guy at the focal point of the wonderful organization that has been built over the last almost 20 years. As you all know, I am counting on exactly that.

  4. JumboShrimp says:

    One good thing is reporters and fans are now openly and widely talking about Matheny’s problems. This is healthy, because it puts both Matheny and Mo to reduce Mad Mike’s madnesses.

    What are the problems? One is a tendency not to use one or two members of bullpen. This adds workload on starting pitchers and effective relievers alike. As a consequence, Matheny fried Mujica in 2013, Motte during 2012, and overused Neshek and Rosenthal in 2014. The team needs to establish goals for Mike of innings pitched per week for each pitcher on the roster, to prevent him from just using 10 guys, instead of the full 12.

    Matheny will go to Rosenthal too many days in succession. The team needs to define strict limits on how often he can use any reliever.

    Matheny overuses key individuals: Wainwright; Molina, when healthy; Holliday; Matt Carpenter; Rosenthal. Related to this, he underused Bourjos during 2014.

    Matheny does not like platoons. Maybe they bother him, because he has to make a decision which guy to play and thinking may be one of Mike’s least preferred activities. The Cards can easily remedy this problem by telling Mike what players he must start against each starting pitcher. If the manager cannot be trusted to make smart use of players on his own initiative, then take the lineup decision away from him. This does not need to be revealed to the public, so Mike does not lose face before the public. Mike can still act like he is in charge of the lineup, but the team should decide starting lineups on his behalf.

    For the lineup changes that need to take place during a game, then we need a smarter or stronger bench coach to tell Mike what to do. Mike should be restricted to a Master of Ceremonies type role, open envelopes passed to him from the bench coach, and go out to the umpire and read aloud the contents of the envelope to announce player changes.

  5. crdswmn says:

    Well, if anyone thought Matheny might be in trouble, that presser this morning put all of those thoughts to rest.

    I never expected Matheny to be fired. But I didn’t expect complete and total capitulation by Mozeliak to Matheny either. How depressing.

    • Brian Walton says:

      blingboy is likely to sink into a deep depression.

      • crdswmn says:

        Well, we can join Depressed Anonymous together. What a farce that presser was.

        • JumboShrimp says:

          We learn where Jon Jay’s occasional power went. He had a bum wrist, but still hit for average. Terrific performance for a guy in pain. In some past post seasons, Jay disappeared. This year, he got plunked with a lot of pitches, had a damaged wrist, and still hit well for average. He should be able to lift his game next year, when less sore.

          • JumboShrimp says:

            Choate should have value to another team because effective against slugging left swingers. Now he made an error in a game versus the Giants, Choate also wonderfully provides a convenient fall-guy for Mo and Mike. They knew what kind of pitcher Choate was when they recruited him via free agency. One subsequent change is we have developed more southpaws. Freeman was effective, though he walks too many. They hope Siegrist can rebound from a terrible 2014. Greenwood is a bit like Maness in terms of not walking many. There are other lefties at AAA and AA. Lefty depth now makes Choate a plausible trading chip for the off-season (as well as somebody to blame for the debacle by the Bay).

            • JumboShrimp says:

              The Cards are in a strong position as regards Oscar. He can work out rigorously during the winter or there is no reason he cannot be assigned to Memphis next April. Taveras got a premature promotion in June owing to the oddly abrupt performance decline of Allen Craig. Another year or half year of AAA training would help Oscar to become more effective in the majors.

              Bourjos is a good trading chip. Everyone appreciates he had a fine 2011, before benched by Mike Trout. Its not easy to switch leagues to a team with playoff aspirations like the Cards who could not just hand Bourjos CF and let him play enough to develop the hitting. The Cards will have to decide whether to keep Bourjos like So Taguchi, using him off the bench to supply increased downtime for aging Matt Holliday or whether Bourjos could instead land somebody useful via a trade.

            • JumboShrimp says:

              Mad Mike could not bring himself to use Old Choate against Ishikawa, thereby putting Ishikawa in a position to succeed.
              Not to worry, its still Choate’s fault. Off with Choate’s head, sayeth Mo.

            • JumboShrimp says:

              We are awash in southpaws. Jaime Garcia will be back. Freeman, Greenwood, and Siegrist are around. Cooney did not get a trial in September, but will get a long look in spring training. Marco Gonzales, Tyler Lyons, Kiekhefer, Hald, Cornelius, Gast, Stoppelman, etc.

              • Bw52 says:

                Gast made a decent return this season.Anything from Jaime Garcia will be a bonus.Who knows if he will even be able to make a comeback.Maybe Jaime can go get blessed by Oscar the anointed one.After Oscar the great gets done walking on water he can heal Jaime`s shoulder .

                • Brian Walton says:

                  Like Garcia, Gast finished the season back on the DL. Too bad you have such a negative attitude about Taveras.

                  • crdswmn says:

                    It’s a shame that Mozeliak felt the need (for whatever reason) to join in on publicly casting aspersions on Oscar. He has turned a camping fire into a 5 alarm blaze. It’s baffling to me why he did it. Those kind of things have a way of sticking with a guy forever.

                    I watched Oscar play a lot in the minors. I remember there were issues with him when he was at AA, but I never got the sense that they were particularly worrisome. He is young and it sometimes takes time to learn all the nuances of the MLB baseball culture. What he needs more than public shaming is someone he can relate to and trusts to teach him what is acceptable and what isn’t. I really question the methods that were used here.

                    • Brian Walton says:

                      I agree 100 percent.

                    • Bw52 says:

                      Oscar has been in the Cards system since 2009.5 years before this season.He ought to know by now what is expected of him.He should not need baby sitting.Either he gets serious and dedicates himself to his craft or he joins a long list of “can`t miss ” types who did.Maybe Oscar read too many of his own press clippings.

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      Baseball managers and executives can change their opinions in a week. Its fine with me if they give Taveras a pep talk about lifting weights.
                      The Cards enjoy years of control over Taveras. There is no pressure to unload him in a trade, so he has time to focus on improving.
                      Oscar has a lot of upside, if he applies himself. If assigned to Memphis, he will dominate the PCL. If given at bats in spring training, he will excel there. At some point, he will hit his way into a lot of playing time, because true talent will reveal itself. If not with the Cardinals, then with another team. The Oscar story should have a happy ending.

  6. Brian Walton says:

    Kary Booher from Springfield wrote an entire article about the bench coach situation without mentioning Mike Aldrete’s name. He backs Chris Maloney for the job. I don’t see the fit.

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