When the St. Louis Cardinals signed veteran Bud Norris in February, the public response was more than a bit unenthusiastic. Coming just days after it was reported that the Chicago Cubs were signing highly-coveted free agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract, acquiring what looked like a back-of-the-bullpen depth piece was comparatively rather lackluster. But while Darvish has been shaky, with his ERA and FIP nearly five as he teeters around replacement level, Bud Norris has been a rare bright spot for the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen in 2018. By FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement, Norris has been the best reliever on the team this season.
The other bright spot in the Cardinals bullpen in 2018 has been Jordan Hicks, the Baseball Reference WAR preferred pick. While his early results gave some pause that he was, despite historic levels of velocity, a low-control reliever with a surprising inability to miss bats and that his low ERA was a matter of good and unsustainable fortune, the twenty-one year-old Hicks has improved at fooling batters, all while remaining a master of inducing ground balls and otherwise weak contact.
By all logic, Hicks represents the future and Norris represents a cameo. Hicks is 21, in his first professional season above high-A and his first extended period pitching as a reliever. The earliest point at which Hicks could become a free agent is following the 2023 season. Norris, meanwhile, is on a one-year contract and, at 33, could easily be having his very last gasp of Major League success.
But for the 2018 Cardinals, a team whose identity on the field (Are they a contender? Should they be selling what little they have in terms of short-term assets? Have we tried getting Jose Martinez a bigger mitt?) remains very much in question, it seems appropriate that even the most seemingly crystal-clear mini-battles on the roster could lack any real clarity.
In a profile of Bud Norris from The Athletic‘s Mark Saxon, the relationship between the veteran Norris and the rookie Hicks is detailed. Norris has specifically targeted the youngest member of the bullpen, “mercilessly riding” (in the words of Saxon) Hicks since Spring Training and openly calling him out any time there is a slip-up. While this policy of targeting Jordan Hicks does not appear to have been explicitly created by Cardinals manager Mike Matheny, the skipper does appear to have a laissez-faire attitude towards what could easily be described as hazing.
Matheny, laughing, noted that Hicks “probably” wouldn’t grow to appreciate the treatment he received from Norris, and also went for a full-on Old Man Yells At Cloud take by stating, “I think the game has progressively gotten a little softer. Man, it had some teeth not that long ago.” I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t note that Matheny’s epitome of the teeth-having generation here is Bud Norris, a man with a history of crying foul about other baseball players making him sad by being excited by doing well against him. It seems inconsistent to me, but I can’t tell you how to feel.
Jordan Hicks, for his part, “no comment”-ed when asked if he felt the way Norris was treating him would be in his long-term best interest, which seemingly confirms that if Bud Norris views all of this is an all-in-good-fun right of passage, the recipient of the abuse disagrees.
Later in the article, in an anecdote only partially about Jordan Hicks, Mike Matheny noted that Bud Norris, as part of his role as a leader in the Cardinals bullpen, “has responded by giving (Matheny) occasional reports of pitchers not living up to the standards the team set in Spring Training.”
Mike Matheny is deploying Bud Norris as the team’s snitch.
Should Jordan Hicks and others be adhering to reasonable established team rules, like showing up to meetings on time? Sure, in a perfect world, this would be a given. And for Mike Matheny to expect Jordan Hicks to remain focused throughout his rookie season so that he can become the truly elite reliever that most people believe he has the potential of becoming is not an unreasonable expectation. But by actively encouraging one of his players to act his liasson against the best interests of his teammates (Matheny has acknowledged that he has levied fines against players based on Norris’s advice), the Cardinals manager is skirting his own job responsibilities.
It is not the job of Bud Norris to act as Cardinals team narc, just as it wasn’t the job of Dexter Fowler to fix the team’s stagnant clubhouse. Bud Norris is on the Cardinals to pitch effectively, and to his credit, he has pitched far more effectively than most people believed he would in 2018. And sure, Norris probably had some of the tendencies he is demonstrating this season with Hicks without any of Matheny’s cajoling. But if Mike Matheny’s job is to unite the Cardinals clubhouse behind one common cause, literally dispatching one player to work in active opposition to other players is not only not doing his job, but he is actively undermining his own responsibilities.
Hopefully, we can get back to looking at the statistics and concluding if certain players are overperforming or underperforming, or things of that nature. But at this point, it is impossible to look at the Cardinals and look at the recent flurry of stories about friction in the clubhouse without looking at the guy whose sole job is to maintain that clubhouse (because it surely isn’t “making the mathematically cogent tactical decisions”). The Cardinals are four months away from what could be a franchise-altering period of free agency, and high profile cases of players, particularly minority players, being undermined make it a valid concern to wonder why anybody would sign with the St. Louis Cardinals when they have similarly lucrative options on the table from other franchises.
The 2018 Cardinals have become an edition of the franchise which is completely devoid of fun. Even the stories of Bud Norris, a veteran rebounding in the late stages of his career once he is touched with Cardinals Devil Magic, and Jordan Hicks, the hardest throwing pitcher who ever lived, are tainted. The toxicity of the Cardinals continues to permeate throughout the season and inspire a level of fan anger which, despite far outpacing the not-actually-terrible-ness of the team’s record, is fully justified.