As they aim to give Mike Matheny’s coaching staff a new look, the Cardinals are bringing back some familiar faces.
In a move that is both a reunion and a refresher, longtime Cardinal Jose Oquendo is returning to the major-league team as third-base coach, and Willie McGee, the much-beloved former batting champ and MVP, will also join the dugout as a coach.
Mike Shildt, who spent this past season as quality control and later third-base coach, will move to bench coach, a spot recently vacated by David Bell. All of the new roles were announced Monday afternoon, leaving the Cardinals with two more vacancies on Matheny’s staff, pitching coach and bullpen coach.
“Obviously our staff is not complete, but we see this as several exciting steps,” said John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations. “The goal of our staff is to be collaborative. Anyone (McGee) or any of the coaches can help or enhance what we’re trying to do as a staff — we’re always looking for that.”
To bring Oquendo back to the staff after two years away, Mozeliak and Matheny traveled to Florida last week to meet with him personally.
Oquendo, 54, took a leave of absence before the 2016 season because of a recurring knee injury that required several operations. When he returned, he did so as a special assistant and tutored, as he often said he wanted, the young infielders at the team’s facility in Jupiter, Fla., near his home. The Cardinals talked to him as far back as 2016 about a role in the dugout that would keep him on Matheny’s staff, but Oquendo suggested he didn’t want to “halfway” coach. This past summer, Mozeliak spent time with Oquendo in Florida and explored what kind of position would bring him back to the majors.
At season’s end, Matheny joined the conversation and when Bell left this past week to become San Francisco’s farm director, the opening for Oquendo emerged.
Third base is his “comfort zone,” Mozeliak said.
As the quality control coach, Shildt had already been handling some of the responsibilities traditionally tied to the bench coach position, and the move for the former Class AAA manager is a natural advancement. Oquendo slides back into the same role he had, from coaching at third base to directing the infield, with an assist from first-base coach Oliver Marmol, who grew in that role this past season.
McGee, who agreed to a two-year contract, enters the dugout without a title other than coach, though he’ll oversee outfield play and baserunning. His other roles will develop over time, as the Cardinals finalize their staff and also as McGee finds places he can assist. The 58-year-old has spent the previous three seasons as a special assistant to the general manager, and he received accolades for the work he did as a roving guest instructor throughout the minor-league system. Players gravitated toward McGee every spring as he spent time with the major-league camp working on baserunning, drilling outfielders and talking hitting.
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The Cardinals allowed McGee to establish his own pace of coaching early on in his work with the team, with the idea that his prominence would grow, year by year.
“We really hoped there would be a time when his career as a coach intersected with the big-league team,” Mozeliak said. “We’re happy after the experience he’s had this is that time.”
The Cardinals’ search for a pitching coach got more complicated this past weekend as several more teams dismissed their pitching coaches and entered the mix. The Cubs dismissed longtime pitching coach Chris Bosio and, per usual, become a leading rival for the Cardinals’ interest in Jim Hickey, whom the Cardinals are reportedly set to interview in person this week.
The Cardinals did have initial contact with Bosio as well, a source confirmed, as they consider shifting their list of candidates.
Mozeliak had hoped to finalize the staff by the end of the month.
Cleveland lost its pitching coach, Mickey Callaway, to the Mets as their new manager and San Francisco also reassigned its pitching coach, Dave Righetti. In the span of a weekend, the list of teams searching for a pitching coach grew, and now includes contenders like the Cubs, Washington, and Cleveland; a playoff team in Minnesota; and chasing teams like the Giants, Kansas City, and the Cardinals.
The Royals dismissed pitching coach Dave Eiland earlier this month, and he does share several of the traits the Cardinals are looking for in a hire.
The Cardinals went less than a month without a coach who had ties to Tony La Russa’s staff. The week after the season ended, the team told pitching coach Derek Lilliquist that his contract would not be renewed, and for the first time in Matheny’s tenure he did not have a coach he inherited from La Russa. Oquendo reconnects the two. His return will be enthusiastically celebrated by a clubhouse where players often described keeping in touch with him and missing him being around.
During a game this past season in Miami, shortstop Aledmys Diaz heard Oquendo whistling to him from the crowd to adjust his positioning. Catcher Yadier Molina posted a picture of Oquendo on Instagram and remarked how he missed the “Secret Weapon” and referred to his “old school baseball.” Within the walls of the clubhouse, Oquendo was viewed as a trusted confidant for players, an instinctual adviser for fielders and a quality control valve who had the respect and trust of players to call for improvement.
Much of that is rooted in his three decades with the team.
“So stoked about (Oquendo) and Willie coming on board!” second baseman Kolten Wong exclaimed on Twitter. “Two guys that bring a ton of knowledge and bleed #Cardinalred.”