Manager Mike Mathen talked Monday about the impact new coaches Willie McGee, Jose Oquendo and Mike Maddux can have on the Cardinals this season. 

By Rob Rains

Willie McGee’s last at-bat for the Cardinals came in October of 1999. It’s been 23 years since Jose Oquendo’s last game as a player for the Cardinals. Mike Maddux never pitched for the Cardinals and threw his last pitch in the majors in 2000.

Those three additions, however, could provide a bigger impact on what happens with the Cardinals this season than any of the team’s player acquisitions.

Somebody who believes that could indeed be the case is manager Mike Matheny, who talked about the three new members of his coaching staff on Monday, the final day of the Cardinals’ Winter Warm-Up.

“We got better,” Matheny said. “We need to be growing; we need to constantly searching for excellence. As you bring in great people I think you create an atmosphere where that is more likely to happen.”

After working for the organization for several years as a roving minor-league instructor, McGee will fill a non-specific role, but his work will likely focus on outfield play and baserunning. After a two-year absence, Oquendo returns as the third-base coach, while Maddux joins the organization for the first time as the pitching coach.

The addition of McGee, one of the most popular Cardinals ever during his playing career, perhaps came as the biggest surprise – at least to Matheny.

“I still can’t believe that phone conversation,” Matheny said in describing his offer to McGee to join the major-league staff. “It’s not the first time where I’ve said, ‘You ready to help us out a little bit more?’ and usually the answer was just very clear and completely respectful that, ‘it’s just not time with where I am with my family.’

“He didn’t miss a beat. It was like he knew I was calling. To hear him say, ‘Yeah I want to be a part of this’ was just a great day for me and for the Cardinals.

“I said, ‘Really?’ I wasn’t expecting that. I thought the best chance we had was, ‘You know let me think about that a little Mike.’ I can just hear his voice. Even telling him we needed him to show up to St. Louis a little more it was, ‘let me think about that. I need to talk to some people.’

“Right away you could tell he had been thinking about, and realized he could bring some value. I can’t wait to spend time with him myself.”

When Tommy Pham was honored at the Writer’s dinner on Sunday night as the St. Louis baseball man of the year for 2017, one of two people he signaled out to thank was McGee, for the role he played in his development in the minor leagues.

“It was pretty interesting to listen to Tommy,” Matheny said. “That small statement, small conversation; impactful coaches are just so rare. Willie’s had that all the way through our minor-league system. I’ve told everybody I could tell until I’m blue in the face that this guy is special as a teacher.

“He’s not a guy who is going to go out there and just say stuff to say stuff. He’s very deliberate when he needs to say something and how it needs to be delivered.”

Matheny said he was reluctant to pigeon-hole McGee into a specific assignment, because he knows that won’t be the case.

“He’s going to have so many hats,” Matheny said, noting other coaches also will play roles in working with the outfielders and on baserunning. “But basestealing, we want that voice. When it comes to hitting, absolutely when we watch how close friends he is with John Mabry and Bill Mueller, to let them all have their voice. It would be crazy not to.

“The way the work goes there’s time to do that. We’re going to be beating Willie up.”

Oquendo also will be called upon to do more than his specific job title as he also has worked in the past with most of the current Cardinals, either in the majors or during his last assignment as a special instructor in the minor leagues.

“It’s timing,” Matheny said of Oquendo’s return. “He had some stuff physically that he just wasn’t able to do (after knee replacement surgery). We kind of followed his lead about what he needed. … The opportunity presented itself. To us it was a relatively easy move. He was sitting in our backyard.

“We all know what he can do and what kind of a job he does, not just helping the infielders improve and getting the most out of them but at third base too.”

While Matheny has years of experience of being around McGee and Oquendo, his relationship with Maddux has been limited to him “yelling at me a lot from the other dugout.”

“I think he brings a lot of credibility,” Matheny said. “Just look at that staff he had to deal with last year (as the pitching coach of the Nationals). Talking about Willie maybe taking guys to the next level, we have a very impressive group of young pitchers and now you have a voice of someone who has worked arm-in-arm with some of the best starters in the league.

“Those are some of the conversations that to me, quite frankly, Carlos Martinez needs to have. He shouldn’t be content with being the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals. He should be content with being talked about at the end of the year about being the best pitcher in the league.

“To have a pitching coach that has been around that level of pitcher … You want to get somewhere? You usually need to go find somebody who’s been there. I think that’s what Mike is going to offer to Carlos and the rest of the pitchers on our staff, a road map of what it should look like to be a pitcher at the highest level and then to keep pushing what you have.”

The Cardinals also should benefit from the presence of former pitcher Chris Carpenter, who will be around on a more consistent basis to serve as an additional mentor for the pitchers while also spending time in the minor leagues.

The other changes on the coaching staff were the move of Mike Shildt, who coached third after Chris Maloney was reassigned, to serve as the bench coach and the promotion of Bryan Eversgerd from Memphis to be the bullpen coach.

Matheny knows that missing the playoffs the last two seasons has created more pressure on his team, and himself, as he begins the first year of a three-year contract extension.

“We’re always going to have opposition against us,” Matheny said. “That’s what we do, we compete. I also believe we’re always going to have people who don’t believe in us. … It’s something that does motivate, not just to make us better but is kind of the melting pot where your character is built.

“There’s people all across this country that don’t necessarily have us written in winning the National League Central. To me that’s a challenge. How do we use that in a positive way to get us where we want to be? … The World Series is what we are paid to chase. It’s what our fans expect. It’s what we want to chase and what we expect of ourselves. It’s a perfect combination.

“The guys have seen enough of the last two years of us being left out of October. That’s not a place that we feel we should be.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains