LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The St. Louis Cardinals had almost finished interviewing candidates to be their new pitching coach when a surprising new option became available. As the Nationals parted ways with Dusty Baker, they allowed Mike Maddux’s contract to expire, too.
“When that happened, we had to move quickly to react to the fact that there was another candidate,” Cardinals General Manager Mike Girsch said. “We quickly contacted him and the whole process, did the interviews and all that.”
The Nationals wanted Maddux back, and many members of their organization expressed the importance of retaining him in the days after the team announced it would part ways with Baker. But without a manager, the Nationals did not feel they could commit anything to Maddux.
“I talked to Mad Dog [Maddux] the day I talked to Dusty and we couldn’t commit to anything that day because we wanted to have the manager under contract and have the manager’s input on who we took,” Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “So he’s a well-established, good pitching coach and you saw this season, pitching coaches were in demand and they went pretty quickly. We feel fortunate that we got Derek [Lilliquist].”
Lilliquist, of course, had just been let go by Girsch’s Cardinals, for whom he had served as pitching coach for a half decade, a protege of their longtime coach Dave Duncan.
“It’s sort of weird,” Girsch said. “Accidentally, over the course of six weeks, we traded pitching coaches.”
Girsch was adamant that nothing about the swap was intentional, and no one had even suggested that it was. But that the Nationals would replace their coveted pitching coach with one who was just let go by a non-playoff team does raise some reasonable concerns. For example, if Lilliquist has the propensity for developing young pitchers that Rizzo said he does, why did the Cardinals let him go?
“I think a combination of things, but some of it is a new voice, a new approach,” Girsch said. ” . . . It was time for a change for us, a new voice in the clubhouse, a new voice with our skipper. Apparently everyone in baseball decided that with their pitching coach at the same time.”
Indeed, more than a handful of teams chose to replace their pitching coaches this winter, leaving a game of musical chairs to those remaining and hoping for proven pitching mentors. In Lilliquist, the Nationals get a former University of Georgia star whose professional career spanned seven seasons and included a 25-34 record. They get a groundball guru known for competitiveness.
“I think his best strength is his ability to relate to the pitchers and what they’re going through and what they’re trying to accomplish,” Girsch said. “That part of the game.”
New Nationals Manager Dave Martinez interviewed Lilliquist, as he did all members of his new coaching staff, and found in him a suitable voice to help manage the Nationals’ relatively experienced staff. Martinez will meet with all his coaches and members of the front office this weekend in West Palm Beach, a sort of offseason planning event.
Martinez’s former general manager, Jed Hoyer, praised the new Nationals manager Monday. He called him a “big personality” and an “optimistic person,” the kind of presence that will be the same person for his players every single day — “a person who will be in a great mood and excited.”
“I think a lot of what people think of the Cubs and that team personality was Davey constantly talking about ‘we never quit,’ constantly pushing those boundaries. In his own way, I think he’s pretty creative in how he thinks about the game,” said Hoyer, who said a lot of the Cubs’ willingness to rest players early in the season — and corresponding ability to play well later — was Martinez’s idea. The Cubs were 57 games over .500 in August and September over the last three seasons.
“We had a team in ’16 that was expected to win the World Series and had big personalities, and I think that’s going to be the 2018 Nationals,” Hoyer said. “I think he’s been there. I think that’s part of the advantage. He just went through that and I think that will be a big part of what he can bring.”
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