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Cardinals looking more and more clearly like Matheny's team

ST. LOUIS -- One of the last things former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said at the podium Sunday night during a dinner that, in part, celebrated his election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, was to compliment the man who replaced him.

Of all the moves general manager John Mozeliak has made -- and there have been many, from acquiring Matt Holliday, to replacing Albert Pujols with Carlos Beltran, to rehabbing and reloading the farm system -- La Russa said the best will never swing a bat again or a throw a pitch for the club. He will, however, help define it.

That move, La Russa said, was hiring Mike Matheny as manager.

"When you hear one of the greatest managers of all time pay a compliment to the organization, to Mo, and to myself that's something that I just don't dismiss," said Matheny, who was seated on the dais at the annual St. Louis Baseball Writers' dinner next to Mozeliak at the time of La Russa's verbal bouquet. "I also realize that he knows, too, that I walked into a really good situation here and it's something that I'm very, very grateful for and he knows, too, that I've got a long way to go."

Matheny took over a club that won the World Series and has done what no Cardinals manager before him has -- earned a playoff berth in his first two years at the helm. While Matheny's first roster came pre-stocked with All-Stars and established pitchers, the club he'll take into his third season shows a shift that has happened behind the sustained success.

The team he inherited has increasingly become the team he's nurtured, one that reflects him more than predates him.

Fresh off a 97-win season and the league pennant, the Cardinals saw little turnover to their roster but significant change. It's possibly only Holliday and Yadier Molina will return to the same position they manned last season. Only three pitchers who threw for La Russa in the 2011 World Series remain. Five positions players are still here.

Each previous spring, Matheny described how he would like to deploy more speed in the offense. This spring he has it. Mozeliak traded for fleet-footed center fielder Peter Bourjos and the club intends to give steal-hungry rookie Kolten Wong a chance to win a starting job at second base. Matheny values defense, and the Cardinals upgraded theirs at potentially four positions, including Matt Carpenter shifting to third base. Matheny has embraced the team's youth movement, turning to 20 rookies during the 2013 season. The club will continue to skew young as 2014 could have four starters with less than three years of experience and ascending prospects in contributing roles. La Russa would recognize only a few faces.

"Mike, as a young manager, didn't back off using young players," Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said this offseason. "I think that's one of the great attributes that he has. He's willing to take a young player and expose him to the situations that can be stressful."

During a chat with the media Monday on the final day of the team's 18th annual Winter Warm-Up, Matheny said it took a while to "unpack" the 2013 season.

He described how in every corner of the visitors' clubhouse at Fenway Park there was a group of players coping with the end of their season. That image stayed with him. He had to get over the loss in the World Series before he could review the season. In meetings with Mozeliak, the coaching staff and members of the front office, Matheny helped outline some of the improvements the team could make to a pennant-winning roster: Defense. Speed. Improved success against lefthanders.

Matheny said spring will shape the specifics.

He called the competition for spots in the rotation "fierce." He acknowledged an intention to introduce more defensive shifts to the team. He said there will be higher expectations for fielding from a team that was pedestrian in 2013.

"I think it's an area that we felt could be improved whether it's by personnel or whether it's by improving the people we have and I think both have happened this winter," Matheny said. "Guys have been given very clear instructions of what they needed to do to possibly help themselves out, which in turn helps us out. ... All of that is reason to have the expectations that we're going to walk into spring training fully anticipating that we're going to be one of the best defensive teams in baseball."

The Cardinals had one of the finest lineups in baseball last season but relied on a statistical outlier. The Cardinals hit .330 with runners in scoring position, the highest average for any team since at least 1950. That helped a club that hit the fourth-fewest home runs (125) score the third-most runs (783). It's a formula the team has aimed to adjust this winter by adding pop at shortstop with Jhonny Peralta and adding speed.

"The identity is going to be developed over time," Matheny said. "The identity should be what we were able to do last year and then figure out how we can enhance that. I would love the identity of this (offense) to be what they've proven not what people are projecting. And what's been proven is that this is a tenacious offense. It's an offense that is resilient and it has the capability and the rare ability to get things done in big situations. I want them buying into the hype there -- that what they did last year with runners in scoring position wasn't a fluke, that that's the team we are."

As much as the style of play will reflect Matheny, the manager's influence may be clearest in the style of player the Cardinals have pursued.

Matheny has fostered a climate in the clubhouse that is geared toward the players, sometimes protecting them, sometimes challenging them, always motivating them. He has, according to veterans, instant credibility and trust in their ranks. That faith will help build this team. Several key contributors to past success will be challenged for their jobs this spring -- from Jon Jay in center field to Daniel Descalso and Pete Kozma on the bench -- and, barring injury, an accomplished starter will not make the rotation.

"The message is what the truth is," Matheny said. "There's nobody who's necessarily going to walk in and throw their glove in the locker and say, 'I'll be ready opening day.' There's a process, and the process is going out and proving what you can do. ... When it comes to guys in a tough situation right now, that's truly a great challenge. But the conversations are normally honest to the point, 'Just come in and compete. ... Force the hand. Force the issue.'"

Several of those players intent on doing that sat near Matheny on Sunday night, and reminders of what's expected from him were all around.

It wasn't just La Russa's accolade. It was members of the 1964 team reminiscing at the start of the 50th anniversary year of their World Series title. It was Chris Carpenter's career and trips to four World Series being honored.

"I think once again it reflects back on leadership," Matheny said. "My job is not necessarily defining who I am and what I want these guys to be or an (extension) of my traits, as much as I need to be a representative of what the organization stands for. That's something that was very clear when we went through the interview process. I need to even better understand the culture of this organization and understand even better the history that is here. I need to be able to translate that somehow into that clubhouse, that these guys have to live up to those expectations."

(c)2014 St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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MIKE MATHENY


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