When Mike Matheny was hired as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals in November 2011, it came at arguably the apex of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise. This may sound hyperbolic, but consider that the Cardinals were just weeks removed from the franchise’s eleventh World Series championship, they had as deep and acclaimed of a farm system as they’d had in generations, and their divisional rival with the most institutional advantages, the big-market Chicago Cubs, was floundering and in the early stages of a rebuild from which they may never emerge. And the Cardinals assigned the task of its new Major League leader to somebody who had never worked as a full-time employee of a MLB team in a role other than player.
While he was certainly criticized, the early years for Mike Matheny were certainly fruitful–the Cardinals made the NLCS or further in each of his first three seasons with the team, and the 2015 team of Matheny’s fourth year won 100 games. But the wheels were starting to come off around Mike Matheny–mostly in ways beyond his control (he could hardly be blamed for stagnating payroll and the general decline of the front office’s player development wing), but for a manager whose results were the primary driver in developing his reputation, this created a crisis of confidence.
By 2017, following Matheny’s first season without a playoff appearance to celebrate, the Cardinals were stuck with an unexpected surplus of corner infielders, none of whom were that inspiring but any of whom, in a vacuum, seemed to deserve playing time. Matt Carpenter had asserted himself as one of the team’s strongest hitters, so he seemed to be a given at either first or third base (while Kolten Wong, the far superior defensive option, held down Carpenter’s old position of second base). Jedd Gyorko was the team’s surprise leader in home runs in 2016, and while he had been acquired with visions of playing second base or perhaps even shortstop, he had largely settled into third base as the upper limit of his defensive potential. All of this left Matt Adams without a full-time position.
Matt Adams was a man out of time–he had enough big, powerful hits throughout his career that he would have been a big star in the 1990s or earlier, but the quantity was never as high as it seemed, he didn’t draw a ton of walks, and he essentially only played one relatively unimportant defensive position. Adams seemed far more essential to the Cardinals’ recipe for success than he ever really was, a sentiment shared both by most Cardinals fans and by his manager. And Mike Matheny attempted to solve for the Matt Adams conundrum by deploying a lineup which includes Jedd Gyorko and Matts Carpenter and Adams. And this was what marked the end of the Matt Adams era in St. Louis.
The solution, seemingly cobbled together late in Spring Training, was to put Matt Adams in left field. In theory, left field was a sensible spot to put a mediocre defensive player, but while this solved the “problem” of his lack of playing time, it created a host of new ones. Adams, for his part, wasn’t hitting particularly well, even by his not-as-high-as-you-might-remember standards–while memories of Chris Duncan, a first baseman pushed to the corner outfield because of the presence of Albert Pujols, were natural, Duncan was at least, for a while, a truly premium offensive threat despite obvious defensive deficiencies. Converting Adams to a left fielder also created a new surplus, this time in the outfield–the Cardinals had just signed Dexter Fowler to a five-year contract with an eye on moving 2016 center fielder Randal Grichuk to left field. The pressing need to acclimate Adams to his new surroundings seemingly led to him getting more playing time. Even if Matt Adams in the outfield were strictly for emergency situations, the Cardinals had a productive fourth-outfield option lingering in Memphis (more on him later).
The limited metrics on Matt Adams’s defense in left field for the Cardinals aren’t too bad, but anecdotally, it was a disaster, and few questioned this. Just a couple weeks into the 2017 season, his poor glove was a matter of national discussion–famously, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs came right out and asked “What’s the Point of the Matt Adams Outfield Experiment?“, an article mostly remembered half a decade later for its subsequent tweet being liked by the aforementioned Memphis fourth outfielder. Perhaps most strikingly, the Matt Adams outfield experiment seemed to be based entirely on Mike Matheny’s whims. The only way the front office could stop it would be to take the ingredients away from the chef. And on May 20, 2017, Matt Adams was traded for pennies on the dollar to the Atlanta Braves for a non-prospect.
Matt Adams would eventually return to St. Louis in 2018, as a late-season reinforcement, but his 2017 departure was his more memorable exit, and it felt like an anticlimactic way for a player who, shortcomings aside, did provide some memorable walk-off and postseason heroics during his time with the Cardinals. Even for those who had soured on Adams, to give away a useful player because the manager doesn’t understand how to use him felt like an insult, like the front office trying to rationalize their grander mistake of hiring such an uncreative tactician to helm the team in the first place.
And then the non-prospect became Juan Yepez.
As a 24 year-old rookie in 2022, Juan Yepez has been a critical part of keeping a lineup frequently in flux on the path to the postseason. With six home runs in 151 plate appearances and surprising versatility in the field, Yepez has become the heir apparent to early-2010s Allen Craig, a supernova of a utility man whose impact was seemingly trying to be recreated in 2017 in the form of the true first baseman later traded for Juan Yepez. Whether Yepez will keep up his strong last season-and-a-half of professional plate appearances remains to be seen, but given that he was acquired seemingly by accident, anything he does contribute to the Cardinals seems to be a purely accidental surplus.
In 2017, even with Juan Yepez nowhere near the big leagues, the Matt Adams trade did provide a major benefit to the Cardinals, even if by complete accident–it opened up playing time for Tommy Pham. The 29 year-old aforementioned Memphis outfielder was easily the team’s most productive player in 2017, earning well-deserved down-ballot MVP votes and keeping an otherwise floundering team relevant well into late September.
In 2018, Pham wasn’t quite the megastar he was the year before, though he played reasonably well, but his prickly personality, which has become a full-blown national meme in the light of his altercation earlier this season with Joc Pederson over fantasy football roster rules, became a bit of an issue. Harrison Bader had emerged as a superior defensive center fielder, but thanks to Mike Matheny’s tendency to avoid conflict, he was largely relegated to playing right field in deference to Pham. While Mike Matheny was often celebrated early in his tenure as somebody capable of juggling the egos of an MLB clubhouse, his confusing ways of handling outfield playing time seemingly satisfied nobody, and although Pham outlasted Matheny in St. Louis, the damage to the relationship between Pham and the Cardinals was done. On July 31, 2018, Tommy Pham was dealt to the Tampa Bay Rays for three middling prospects, a shockingly low price given his value a few months earlier.
Two of the prospects, Justin Williams and Roel Ramirez, did play for the Cardinals, but neither made a ton of noise. But the third prospect, Génesis Cabrera, eventually became an integral part of the Cardinals’ bullpen. The lefty appeared in 71 games last season for the Cardinals, achieving a respectable 3.28 FIP. In 25 appearances in 2022, Cabrera has a 2.27 ERA, and last night, he picked up a two-inning save to vault the Cardinals past the Milwaukee Brewers for first place in the National League Central. Unlike the Adams-for-Yepez trade, the Pham-for-prospects trade has a lot of shades of gray to it–the Cardinals did lose out on a valuable player, albeit one who would have reached free agency by 2022. But the value of the trade, one seemingly necessary directly because of an oft-criticized manager, continues to amass, even if by accident.
Am I saying that you should thank Mike Matheny any time Juan Yepez comes up with a big hit, or any time Génesis Cabrera closes the door on a division rival? Well, no–as a general rule of thumb, I am opposed to giving Mike Matheny credit for anything. But it is worth consindering how much silly little strokes of luck can pay off in the end. Baseball is a weird sport sometimes and even if the process of giving away a player because you don’t trust your manager to use him correctly is absolutely the wrong one, sometimes it will pay off for no good reason.