Welcome back to the Big 3, a weekly feature taking a look at the three biggest takeaways from the Cardinals’ last week. Whether it’s a particular player, a moment, or a trend, the Big 3 will have you ready to talk Cards all week long.
On the field, this past week was another unremarkable one for the Cardinals. They went 4-3 out west, claiming a series against the D-backs and splitting a four-gamer with the Giants.
It wasn’t a bad week, but the Cardinals still lost ground on the Brewers in NL Central, where they sit 7.0 games back. They also haven’t picked up ground in the wild card race, where they trail the Braves by 4.0 games. This upcoming set of games against weaker competition leading into the All-Star Break will be critical for the Cardinals in determining how the organization should approach the trade deadline, but before we get to that, how about the three biggest topics from the week that was:
1. How is Matheny leading his men?
Not only has this season been another difficult one to stomach in the Cardinals’ performance on the field, but it appears that all isn’t well in the clubhouse, either. Mark Saxon’s report in The Athletic this week that Mike Matheny and Dexter Fowler have basically not spoken to each other in months is one that made you cringe. But then again, it’s not the first time the Cardinals have experienced a similar situation under Mike Matheny.
We remember what happened during spring training in 2017 when Kolten Wong and the word ‘platoon’ began to pop up in the same sentence. Wong entered that spring under the impression the second base job was his, and he spent a lot of time tinkering with his swing, working to improve, rather than worrying about posting gaudy stats in games that didn’t count. When Matheny commented to the media about a possible platoon at second between Wong and Jedd Gyorko, he did so without having spoken to Wong about that potential shift to the team’s game plan, which led to Wong making some controversial comments out of frustration.
It was an example of a crisis that could have easily been averted with better, more frequent communication from Matheny toward his players. The current kerfuffle with Fowler is a nasty case of deja vu suggesting Matheny didn’t learn from his previous lapses in communication.
Fowler is disgruntled, and though it bears mentioning that his opportunities would perhaps be greater in volume if not for his dismal .167/.270/.271 batting line, it’s interesting to consider the whirlwind the Cardinals have led him through since his signing with St. Louis before 2017.
Fowler started in St. Louis as the team’s prized free agent signing, starting center fielder and lead-off batter, and has since gradually conceded all of it. It began last year with Fowler (at least publicly) graciously relinquishing the lead-off role to Matt Carpenter for the betterment of the team. Then this past winter brought the conversation that Fowler was no longer the center fielder; he was being moved to right field. Now Fowler is not even an everyday player, and his salary looks more like a burden than a prize.
But even as a veteran player experiences a decline, and as feverishly as some old school fans would argue otherwise, it remains the organization’s responsibility to keep its players, its employees, feeling good about coming to work. What kind of picture is being painted for potential free agents about life as a Cardinal? After all, even if a player is performing poorly, malcontent in the clubhouse doesn't invite others to want to insert themselves into that kind of environment.
Considering Fowler has reportedly been blocking Matheny’s group texts to the team, it’s safe to say Dex doesn’t feel so good about his job these days. That Matheny hadn’t, to this point, recognized this fact and made an effort to improve the situation is an indictment against his managerial record this season.
It’s also another strike against the narrative of Matheny as a ‘players’ manager.’ Are these communication issues something of a trend in the Cardinals clubhouse? Have there been other instances of these breakdowns of which the media simply hasn’t caught wind?
If it’s a trend, it’s a trend only Matheny has the power to reverse.
2. Molina snubbed
When the All-Star Game rosters were announced Sunday, there was only one Cardinal with a guaranteed spot in the festivities. Though Matt Carpenter still has the chance to be voted in through the Final Vote process in the National League, it was Miles Mikolas who was selected by Major League Baseball as the lone representative for St. Louis, since no Cardinals were chosen organically by the fans, the players, or NL manager Dave Roberts.
Basically, MLB was forced to pick a worthy Cardinal to participate because the rules say every team must be represented, and nobody else decided a Cardinal was worthy. Ouch. Talk about a diss. And no Cardinal should feel more snubbed than the franchise catcher, Yadier Molina.
Even after missing an entire month of baseball, Molina’s stats stack up right alongside the other top catchers in the NL. Willson Contreras, who was voted into the game as the NL starter, has an OPS of .841 with 7 home runs and 34 RBIs. By comparison, Molina is at .816, 13 home runs and 38 RBIs, in several dozen fewer plate appearances.
Both Buster Posey and J.T. Realmuto have put up strong numbers offensively and are certainly worthy All-Star candidates, but it was jarring to see Molina miss out considering his reputation and his remarkable power surge this season.
Though Molina leads NL catchers in home runs, and sits third in RBIs and SLG%, it appears he was the fourth catcher under consideration for an NL roster that apparently had room for only three catchers.
From a realism standpoint, it’s probably not the worst thing for Molina to receive a break in lieu of playing any more baseball than the Cardinals’ schedule requires of him. Still, I don’t buy the argument that Molina probably doesn’t even care that much about the snub; even if the fans and media understand why it would be good for Molina to get some mid-season R & R, don’t expect me to believe that the guy who trains to play 174 games a year doesn’t expect to make the All-Star team.
3. Carlos stabilizing?
Carlos Martinez began his 2018 campaign looking like a lock for All-Star weekend in Washington, D.C. A pesky lat injury, though, forced him to miss several weeks on the disabled list, and he didn’t really look much like himself when he finally did return to game action.
In his first four starts after returning from the DL in early June, Martinez compiled an 8.10 ERA and barely averaged four innings pitched per start. He walked 20 batters in 16.2 innings. The Cardinals lost all four of those starts. His ERA ballooned from 1.62 to 3.24.
It was bad.
But then, Carlos slowly began to turn things around. He earned a win and a quality start in his last outing of June, and this week, Martinez piled on two more quality starts and two more Ws to propel the Cardinals. He pumped six, six and seven innings in the three starts, and walked a combined three batters across the three outings. Over night, he’s looked like a completely different pitcher: essentially, the pitcher he was before the injury.
It’s not going to be an All-Star year for Martinez like many of us predicted in the early going, but with his ERA back down to 3.05, it appears the Cardinals’ ace is back on track to pursuing another impeccably solid season atop the St. Louis pitching rotation.