Mike Shildt as the Cardinals’ third base coach from 2017 (Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons)

Cardinals leave more questions than answers after firing their manager

The Cardinals announced yesterday afternoon that they “dismissed” manager Mike Shildt after three and a half years in the position. During the team’s teleconference to announce the move, Cardinals’ President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak cited “philosophical differeneces” as the reasoning behind the decision, but declined to elaborate any further. Mozeliak notified Shildt yesterday morning that his 18 year tenure with the organization had come to an end.

What this means

When I first saw this notification on my phone, shock is the only word I can use to describe it. I have to go back to November of 2014 and the Jason Heyward trade coming out of the blue to find a time where I was as surprised by a move the Cardinals’ front office made.

After all, the Cardinals had won 90 games this season and had made the postseason in each of Shildt’s three full seasons at the helm. He was a Cardinals’ lifer who had joined the organization as a scout–after being hired by Mozeliak–and worked his way up as a coach, minor league manager, and major league coach before landing the top uniformed gig in the organization. So there was little reason to suspect that he would not only continue to be the Cardinals’ manager in 2022, but also receive an extension this winter.

I’ve been quick to point out on Twitter how this team’s 90–72 record affects the final opinion of this team. The historic winning streak is great, but let’s not forget that without it, the Cardinals were on their way to an 82–80 record and missing the postseason.

Despite those struggles, I felt that extending Shildt was going to be the right decision for the organization because the team was still showing up to fight every night even as the injuries mounted. That showed quality leadership and kept them in position to be able to capitalize on a historic winning streak with a postseason berth.

But I’m also a strong supporter of the idea that once you’ve realized that someone is no longer the right fit for their job, it should be their last day. And after listening to that teleconference, it became pretty clear that that’s how Mozeliak felt about the situation.

Maybe I just missed it because I didn’t pay as much attention to the Cardinals this season as I have in years past, but there was some conflict between Shildt and hitting coach Jeff Albert. When asked about it during the teleconference, Mozeliak indicated that it was not the only reason behind the firing, but left unsaid is that it was a contributing factor. Perhaps even driving many of the other reasons.

Since Albert returned to the Cardinals’ organization in 2019 as the team’s hitting coach, his employment as been a hot button issue for fans because it has not led to an immediate offensive improvement. But whether fans think that it’s working is beside the point, the point is that the front office believes in him and the philosophies and approaches he brings to the table. In the years since, they have expanded Albert’s influence to have him lead the creation of the hitting philosophy that’s taught throughout the organization, from top to bottom. The offensive explosion in the minors this season was attributed to Albert’s approach.

So if there were agreements between Shildt and Albert on this, issues that were perhaps hinted at by Tommy Edman earlier in the season on preparation and adjustments, this could be the main reason behind it. Perhaps Shildt felt like he was on firmer ground than he actually was when he made an argument for something during a staff meeting last week?

Mozeliak talked about needing to make sure that everyone is on the same page. Most will suggest that means that the front office is looking for a “Yes Man” and that Shildt no longer fit that definition, but that’s not the read I get on this situation. I believe they value people having differing opinions, but at the end of the day everyone has to be pulling the same direction and buy in on the direction being taken.

My takeaway from the teleconference was that there were pre-existing disagreements, but they either recently blew up or Mozeliak realized that they were a lot bigger than he previously understood and a decision needed to be made. And the reason for the expediency is that you want to have a managerial opening before other teams start filling theirs. So after 18 years of working together, Mozeliak no longer sensed that Shildt would be able to get on the same page and buy into the direction he wanted to take the organization.

Going forward, there are still a lot more questions than answers about what prompted this move by the Cardinals, but Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr did not reveal much of anything to us to allow us to make that determination on our own. Shildt is expected to make a statement on Monday about the decision, and while I don’t expect him to say much of anything, more information will eventually work its way out about what happened. But in the absense of information, this leaves room for media and fans to inject that void with their own narratives and assumptions about what happened. I feel like after 18 years of service to the Cardinals, Mike Shildt deserved better that what they gave him on Friday.

If this was a baseball decision, let’s hear it. Until we know more it’s hard to say whether this was a good or bad move.

“In the absence of truth, lies reign.”

Another thing to consider is that when Shildt was promoted three and a half years ago, much was made about his connection to George Kissell and “The Cardinal Way.” Kissell was the man at the center of the concept and after his death, his son put together about a dozen books of Kissell’s notes about baseball and Shildt received one. So I think it’s fair to ask what those “philosophical differences” were and what Shildt’s departure represents for an organization when it comes to some of the core philosophies that Shildt was said to embody just three years ago.

What’s next

The next manager of the Cardinals will be something to watch over the next month. The leaders in the clubhouse–literally–are going to be Stubby Clapp and Oliver Marmol.

Clapp, 48, played 23 games for the Cardinals twenty years ago and after minor league coaching stints with Houston and Toronto, he returned to the Cardinals organization for the 2017 season as Manager of the Memphis Redbirds where they won back-to-back Pacific Coast League championships for him. After 2018, Clapp garnered some managerial interest from the Blue Jays, but would end up returning to the Cardinals as the first base coach.

Marmol, 35, was a 6th round pick by the Cardinals in the 2007 draft. After spending four seasons in the minor leagues, Marmol transitioned to coaching. In 2012 he would be manager of the Johnson City Cardinals and in 2015 he would be moved up to the Palm Beach Cardinals. In 2017, Marmol would become the big league Cardinals’ first base coach before moving to bench coach for the 2019 season. The organization has talked highly of Marmol’s managerial prospects and may have been ready for the job three years ago, but may be a serious candidate this time.

There are also reports from Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune that some players have heard that former Cardinal and current Padres bench coach Skip Schumaker may interview for the job.

Regardless, I expect that the front office will take a few days to collect their thoughts and then begin looking at potential outside candidates they might be interested in talking to before they make a decision. Having guys like Clapp and Marmol on the coaching staff, who they believe could make good managers, has to provide the front office with a sense of comfort with the decision.

Personally, my biggest question is whether this decision reveals that Mozeliak is getting some pressure from his boss to produce a division winning ballclub. After all, we heard for years from the front office that the goal is to win the division every season. But the Cardinals have won just one over the past six years, the worst such stretch under DeWitt’s ownership. If it weren’t for expanded playoffs in the COVID shortened 2020 season, they would have missed the postseason. And they had to settle for a second wild card this year.

During the teleconference, Mozeliak did most of the talking while DeWitt seemed like he was there to provide support. If felt atypical of DeWitt, who is one of the more involved owners in the league to not have been more active that he was. Three and a half years ago, he was very involved with the decision to fire Mike Matheny, flying into town to meet with him and attend the press conference. DeWitt often takes the lead, but not here. Which would seem to suggest that the decision to fire Shildt was more on Mozeliak than the Matheny decision was.

However, given that Mozeliak also termed the 2021 season “a real success” right in front of said boss, I question whether that can be true. DeWitt and Mozeliak see eye-to-eye and he is involved in every decision, but fundamentally they are falling short. They are a good enough team to be there, but not good enough to top the very best teams on a consistent basis. Some of that is resources, but some of that, especially in the division, is decision-making. That’s something that I don’t feel that this front office deserves the benefit of the doubt on at this point. And that brings us back around to this decision.

I’ll leave you with this though. How many front office executives in baseball survive the firing of two managers, let alone three?

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

Retired-ish blogger. I’ve written about the Cardinals and baseball since 2010. World record holder for most hitless at-bats in an inning.