Kansas City Royals general manager Dayton Moore has built a level of trust during his 13-year tenure, which includes the rebuilding effort that led to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015 as well as the 2015 championship.
His choice for the manager to succeed Ned Yost carries the utmost importance as the Royals try to dig out of a hole that has included three consecutive losing seasons, including back-to-back 100-loss years.
“Knowing Dayton, what type of guy he is, he’ll make the right decision for this team for this team and this organization,” Royals outfielder and franchise cornerstone Alex Gordon said at the end of the season.
Former St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny became the presumptive leading candidate to replace Yost since last winter when he joined the organization in an advisory role.
Matheny, who ended a 13-year playing career in the majors in 2006, didn’t post a losing record in any of his seven seasons at the helm in St. Louis — even his abbreviated seventh season, which led to his firing in the middle of a July 2018 playoff push.
Despite a 591-474 overall record, three division titles, four consecutive playoff appearances to start his managerial career and one National League pennant, Matheny’s tenure in St. Louis raises legitimate questions about his fit for a Royals organization still building towards contention.
Moore must sort through all of Matheny’s background and separate noise and substance.
Is Yost’s strength a Matheny weakness?
The perception of Matheny that emerged in St. Louis seems an alarming juxtaposition to the outgoing Royals manager that the organization celebrated and waxed poetic about during the final week of the season.
The starkest contrast comes in the handling of young and inexperienced players at the major-league level. Players and Moore lauded Yost’s relentless belief in his players in the face of their struggles.
“In 2010 when I moved to the outfield, I remember the meeting we had when I first came up,” Gordon said in September. “It was in Yankee Stadium. He called me in his office. He said I don’t care if you go 0-for-4 with four strikeouts and three errors. As long as you play hard, that’s all I care about.”
Yost took a similarly supportive stance the past two seasons through growing pains of Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, Nicky Lopez, Ryan O’Hearn and outfielder Bubba Starling.
This is paramount with players like O’Hearn, Starling and Lopez seemingly candidates to begin next season with the club, and young top pitching and position player prospects closing in on the majors.
Multiple Cardinals who played under Matheny voiced complaints about an atmosphere that made it difficult to perform.
Cardinals second baseman Kolten Wong enjoyed arguably his most productive season in 2019. He posted a 4.7 WAR as calculated by Baseball-Reference. Wong spoke to the Associated Press during spring training about being more comfortable under Mike Shildt, Matheny’s replacement and former bench coach. Wong credited Shildt for giving him “that flexibility to be myself and play my game.”
“I will just say the leash wasn’t too long for me, that’s just how it went,” Wong told the AP. “It was a very short leash. It’s tough to play when you have that kind of pressure. Obviously, I want to play every day. In order for me to play every day it was a make-or-break situation every single day. It was tough.”
This season, Wong enjoyed marked improvement, offensively, from the previous season.
However, it should be noted that his slash line of .285/.361/.423 in 148 games in 2019 is very similar to his production under Matheny in 2017 (.285/.376/.412).
Outfielder Randal Grichuk, who the Cardinals traded to the Toronto Blue Jays prior to the 2018 season, was also critical of the way playing time had been handled with the Cardinals.
“There was a lot of times when me and fellow outfielders kind of felt that if we were in the lineup, you’ve got to get two hits — or one hit and a walk — to be in there the next day,” Grichuk told Canada’s Sportsnet.ca. “And that wasn’t good for anybody’s confidence or anybody’s state of mind stepping in the box. It’s a tough game to play. And it’s even tougher when you’re looking over your shoulder. Or questioning what’s going on or why it’s going on.”
A production game
It’s hardly shocking that players who felt they needed and/or deserved more opportunities to fixate on the manager who parceled out playing time.
Matheny spoke to comments made by Grichuk during an interview on the Tim McKernan Show podcast in February 2018, citing the logjam of talented outfield options such as Stephen Piscotty, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler in 2017.
“That’s the game we play,” Matheny said. “This is a production game. You can look at the talent we had, I mean at the beginning he was competing with Tommy together some for those repetitions. Tommy kept producing, which produces more opportunity to get back in there.
“I think you would love if you could say regardless of if I am good or bad, no matter what I do today I can still have a chance of doing it for as long as I want to. That’s not real. The reality is we have to go compete. We have to fight every single day. We have to earn.”
While Yost showed great patience while developing players at the major-league level, his situation with the Royals was significantly different than Matheny’s with the Cardinals.
The Royals faced minimal expectation to win in 2010 when Yost took over for Trey Hillman 35 games into the season. Similarly, Yost had the luxury of patience with young players as the Royals lost 104 and 103 games, respectively, the last two seasons when youth and development ruled the day.
Competition for playing time figures to play a bigger role as the Royals progress. Moore and Yost have both alluded to higher expectations and increased competition for playing time next season as the club continues to build up its talent base both in the majors and minors.
“It’s going to get real next year,” Yost said.
It could prove a positive that Matheny, who will have no previous allegiances to any players, has experience to draw upon to navigate the changing dynamic the Royals hope lies ahead.
Cardinals clubhouse issues
Moore certainly believes in the importance of organizational culture from the front office all the way down through the major-league club and player development system.
In his final season with the Cardinals, headlines raised the question of whether Matheny fostered clubhouse unrest.
Reports conveyed an adversarial relationship between a star player and Matheny as well as a potential bullying relationship between a veteran pitcher and a rookie and the same veteran pitcher cast in the role of a snitch, reporting to Matheny on the actions of other players.
Outfielder Dexter Fowler, the team’s second-highest paid player on a multi-year contract with a no-trade clause, and Matheny had such a contentious relationship that the two barely spoke for months in 2018, according to a report in The Athletic.
The Athletic also reported that veteran closer Bud Norris had been “mercilessly riding” 21-year-old rookie reliever Jordan Hicks, and that Matheny had endorsed Norris taking a leadership role in the bullpen and assuring young pitchers were meeting the club’s standards. Hicks reportedly had repeated incidents of showing up late.
The Athletic report on the bullpen dynamic, for which Hicks declined comment, stated Norris reported to Matheny regularly on the actions of bullpen pitchers and Matheny issued fines based on Norris’ information.
However, parts of both reports were downplayed or outright refuted by the parties involved.
Fowler and Matheny later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they communicated regularly, and Fowler offered to show texts to and from Matheny.
After the story of the seemingly toxic relationship between Hicks and Norris, Hicks addressed the matter in an interview with the Post-Dispatch.
Hicks told the newspaper, “He has the best intentions for me. I think he’s nudging me in the right direction. That’s the best way to put it. I’m a rookie. I need guys guiding me. He actually does care about me. I know that.”
In a television interview following his firing, Matheny referred to the Norris-Hicks story as having been “mistranslated” and not indicative of what had gone on in their clubhouse.
Second time around
Moore will have to sift through Matheny’s track record of successes, failures and controversial headlines and find a comfort level. He’ll presumably gather as much insight and information on Matheny’s last managerial job as necessary, and he’s had the past year to start to develop a relationship with Matheny.
Matheny, 49, hadn’t managed at any level prior to getting the Cardinals job. At the time of his hiring, he became the youngest manager in baseball.
While so much of the backlash from those outspoken on social media emanates from Matheny’s time in St. Louis, Moore will almost certainly take into account that Yost benefited greatly from his experience in Milwaukee when he took the helm for the Royals.
Before Yost became the franchise’s career wins leader and led the way to back-to-back World Series appearances and a 2015 championship, he had been fired by the Brewers in the middle of a postseason run.
At the time of his firing in 2008, Yost became the first manager in the majors — excluding the 1981 strike season — fired in August or later with his team in playoff position, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Yost felt that his year off provided perspective and a chance to re-examine which helped him become a better manager in his second stint. Moore may find it intriguing to hire Matheny in similar circumstances.
“This isn’t a troll when I say this, when Dayton makes the call to hire the new guy, that’s enough for me,” Royals pitcher Danny Duffy said after the season finale. “That’s all I need. Dayton’s endorsement means everything to all of us. That’s really all that matters. A guy Dayton calls manager is who I want to be manager.”