The Cardinals have their new manager and he has a tall task ahead of him.
Oliver “Oli” Marmol is the new Manager of the St. Louis Cardinals.
That’s not something I would have expected as recently as three weeks ago. Team President John Mozeliak admitted that he flew home from the Wild Card loss to the Dodgers not planning to have to hire a new manager. Something happened in the days that followed, and it’s becoming increasingly likely that we’ll never what that something was.
Monday’s press conference to introduce Marmol did not shed much new light on the situation as the team voices largely echoed the “philosophical differences” line and focused on moving forward.
Oli Marmol offered the Cardinals the two things they value most: organizational continuity and cohesion. He cut his teeth in the Cardinals organization as a 6th round draft pick in 2007. He’s managed in the Cardinals’ minor league system. He’s been Mike Shildt’s bench coach the last few seasons. He knows the Cardinals organization backward, forward, sideways, and upside down.
Of course, so did Mike Shildt.
The Cardinals believe that whatever it was that caused Shildt to break from the front office won’t be an issue with Marmol. The hope is that he will continue to provide the best parts of what Shildt brought to the table (specifically noting his emphasis on execution on defense and the base paths) while better integrating modern “analytics” into on-the-field performance.
Mozeliak emphasized during the press conference that Marmol will have an appropriate level of autonomy for his position. Clearly, though, the club wants a seamless integration of baseball departments: player acquisition, scouting and analytics, player development, coaching and management, and player personnel.
That’s a goal I happen to agree with. So, with that in mind, here are five things that I want to see from Oli Marmol:
1. Better Accountability for Players and Coaches
Back in late June, Tommy Edman reported that the club had a team meeting to talk about the struggling offense. This piece – Four Critical Failures Have Brought the Cardinals to an Organizational-Defining Moment – outlined my conclusions at the time. While players had access to scouting reports and analytics, the coaching staff and players failed to make full use of them to develop both pre-game and in-game offensive game plans. That, in my opinion, was a failure of accountability and one that had to result in significant change – either in approach or in personnel.
At the end of the season, I revised that conclusion, noting that their improved offensive performance since that team meeting indicated they had at least somewhat straightened out their issues. However, the fact that they had to make changes in their operating strategies indicates this problem was more systemic than a blip. As does the persistent rumors of conflict between Jeff Albert and Mike Shildt.
Going forward, this has to be resolved. The Cardinals have invested heavily in their scouting and analytics department. The team has implemented an organization-wide offensive approach with Jeff Albert at its head. The team wants organizational cohesion. That means that the manager, scouts, analysts, coaches, front office personnel, and the players all need to be on the same page.
Why have a scouting department if players are going to ignore the scouting reports and hit by feel? Why employ an analytics department if the manager is going to manage by gut instinct? The flip side is also true. Scouting and analytics need to provide the manager and players with reports they can effectively implement.
The bind that ties all of that together is communication and accountability. It’s a tough ask for a young manager to hold older players, veteran players, proven players, set-in-their ways players, and superstitious players to adapt to fit an organizational model, but that’s why he’s very well paid.
2. More Creative Use of the Pitching Staff
Mike Shildt did this well. For awhile. In 2020, when the season was compressed into a few short weeks, Shildt and pitching coach Mike Maddux found creative ways to cover their innings, including using a variety of minor league starters as short-inning starters and long-outing relievers.
I expected that to continue. As the club entered the spring of 2021, they had a wealth of relievers who were starters in the minor leagues, including Alex Reyes, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Daniel Ponce de Leon, John Gant, and Jake Woodford. Ahead of them was a group of starters who, besides Wainwright, would need their innings totals managed. The situation seemed perfectly aligned for Shildt and Maddux to continue what they did in 2020, keeping their starters fresh and rotating their relief core through multi-inning outings.
That plan never materialized, partially because a huge chunk of the starting rotation suffered injuries and the rest of the pitching staff caught the world’s worst case of the “walks”.
That resulted in what I feel was a significant regression in pitching creativity. The front office scoured the waiver wire for washed-up strike-throwers that Shildt could plug and play into his traditional rotation and bullpen alignment. When the walk and innings crises demanded creativity and innovation management fell back on “tried and true” vet arms in set roles.
It worked out. The team won 17 straight games and reached the postseason but results don’t always indicate a successful process.
Going forward, I would like to see Marmol take advantage of the type of pitching staff he has, using openers, piggy-back starters, and multi-inning relievers, while forgetting that roles like “closer” and “setup man” even exist. That seems to be what the front office envisions based on the construction of their staff, and partially explains why they want to recast Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes as “starters”.
I do think the best role for Alex Reyes is as an opener, where he covers 3-4 innings per start. I would love to see the club piggy-back him with someone like Matthew Liberatore, who is close to MLB-ready but shouldn’t be relied upon for 6-7 quality innings as a 22-year-old. Cycle around the rest of your relievers as needed, while expecting almost all of them to cover an inning or more or to get better platoon matchups.
3. Expansion of the Coaching Staff
Mozeliak indicated that he would like to have Marmol’s coaching staff finalized by the end of the World Series. I anticipate that Skip Schumaker will be hired away from the Padres to serve as Marmol’s bench coach and assistant manager. If that doesn’t work out, then Stubby Clapp should be next in line for the job.
The club should not stop with just that addition. Other teams – most notably the Giants – have dramatically expanded their major league coaching staff. They have 17 coaches listed on their official coaching roster (including bullpen catchers). The Cardinals are probably already higher than you might think. They have 12 coaches under contract with at least one addition to be made.
Why more coaches? More voices. More methods of communication with players. More personal work with players. Better integration of message between analytics, scouting, front office, and players. More creativity in problem-solving and strategy development. Greater ability to explore and implement new technologies. I could go on.
This isn’t the 1980s when Whitey could do it all – from player acquisition to in-game management. MLB is complicated and changing rapidly. I would like to see the Cardinals continue to expand their coaching staff so they can not only keep up with standards but start to set those standards.
4. Situational Lineup Construction (and Player Buy-In to Make it Happen)
Let me just cut to the chase here. Yadier Molina, with his two consecutive seasons of an 83 wRC+, should not be batting 5th. Neither should Tommy Edman, with his career 5.5% walk rate, be plugged into the leadoff role every day.
I would like to see the Cardinals develop a roster that can be used situationally – with players coming in and out of starting roles and moving around the lineup based on matchups and skillsets (and not small sample size performance.) The Dodgers do this exceptionally well. And, yes, they have a virtually limitless payroll to make it work. But lower payroll teams are figuring this out, too.
The key is, again, creativity. Creativity from the front office: to not only say they want to create platoon opportunities (which was Mo’s buzzword early in the 2020 offseason) but to actually acquire the pieces to make it happen. Creativity from field management: to recognize the abilities of the players on their roster and use them that way. Creativity from players: recognizing that being used in a way that accents their skills while minimizing their flaws is good for them and their financial future.
Managing big personalities and egos is a big part of this and Marmol will have his work cut out for him. At the same time, this is what needs to happen and if the front office, coaches, and managers are all on the same page, then it will happen, regardless of ego.
5. Continued Focus on Defense and Baserunning
The last one is simple. There were a lot of positive changes that Mike Shildt and his team brought in after the Matheny era. Somehow, they need to do a bunch of things better while continuing to do the same things well.
The team can’t lose their focus on excellent defense and baserunning that they’ve had the last few seasons. This past season the Cardinals were 4th in baseball with a +11.7 BsR (Baserunning Runs) and 3rd with a +60.5 DEF (Defensive Runs). In 2019 they finished at about the same rankings.
Personnel changes – losing some players and bringing in others – will likely cause a change to these rankings over time, but the attitude of excellence in those areas, what Marmol called an “attention to details”, needs to continue at the same high rate. This is probably another good reason to expand the coaching staff. The Giants employ a “Quality Assurance Coach”. Everyone on the coaching staff needs to be concerned with quality control but having an organizational figure that solely focused on those details makes a ton of sense. In some ways, George Kissel functioned in that kind of role for a long time for this organization, though not directly with the MLB club. Marmol could use someone like that on his staff.
I think OIi Marmol was a good hire, the best choice among the names that were frequently mentioned. He’s already set the standard high, making it clear that the goal is to win the World Series and stating that anything less is a disappointment. The talent is there for them to do that. They have enough financial flexibility to make needed improvements to the pitching staff and offensive depth. This could be the best Cardinals team since 2015. It won’t happen, though, unless the Cardinals innovate, get on the same page, and hold each other accountable to best practices throughout the organization. Can the youngest manager in MLB do that? All indications are that he has the skills, but it will not be an easy task.