Winter Meetings interview with Mike Matheny

Q. Good off‑season so far?

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, didn't feel like much of an off‑season. We've been moving a lot. But, yeah, everything's going well.

 

            Q. What has been your role here? You came two years ago to this thing to learn a lot and kind of invest in what Mo was doing and learn off of that. I would imagine things have changed a little bit in the two years since your first Winter Meetings?

            MIKE MATHENY: My first Winter Meetings was pretty hectic. Walked right into Albert and everything that was going on there.

            Fortunately, we've been able to get a lot of work done before we showed up here, so still things to be discussed, and enjoy spending some time with our front office and talking about the landscape and not just the big league team but also through our system. Once again, trying to learn as much as you can about kind of the ‑‑ how the long‑term view looks and trying to put together a plan not just for this year but moving forward.

 

            Q. Do you feel any rosters (indiscernible) for next year in terms of A, where you see any holes remaining, and B, how good it looks this early in the off‑season? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, really happy. Obviously, excited about the addition of Jason Heyward. And I've said it before and I'll say it again, he's a superstar caliber player. Watching him develop and continue to grow and hopefully create an atmosphere here where he had no complaints about the atmosphere where he was, and obviously was excited to be a part of the Braves organization, being a kid from that area.

            But I do think he's excited about jumping into what we have going on here and seeing how he fits, then continue to try to push him forward. We're still talking about a young player, a player that a lot of people know of, but still, I believe, the best is yet to be seen with him.

            Then with Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle, both integral parts, as we talked at the end of the season how we needed to find a couple pieces to help us out in that bullpen and help solidify and realizing there might be some change. Excited with what both of these guys bring. One, they're experienced, two, their stuff, and three their versatility.

 

            Q. Do you have any more of a say in player acquisitions now given your experience than when you started? And how has your relationship with Mo evolved since then? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, I would say, just like any other relationship, the more time you spend you build credibility. Mo has been very good, even from day one, asking my opinion and also using the resources that I have of people inside the game to find things behind the scenes about players whenever there is a question that comes up. So I've been very fortunate to be in the middle of all the moves that we've had, and be able to talk with Mo about the positives and negatives of some of the other options out there and try to get to a point where we believe we get the best offer to the best option.

            It's just been kind of a fluid process to where I think everybody just throws in what they can to help make the best decision possible, and I'm glad it's that way.

 

            Q. Have you found whether it's essential that you guys share the same philosophy with player evaluations or is there something to be said for creative differences? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I think it's great to challenge each other if there's an area that we don't agree. I think both sides go in pretty open‑minded to look at all the information that the front office is able to gather, and then also take some of the information that we know from the baseball side and not necessarily baseball experience, but personal and relationship‑wise, when you start talking to players from other teams who have been in the clubhouse with certain players and to find out how they're made up and kind of how they're wired, and if it fits into what we're trying to do and what we already have established.

 

            Q. Have you thought about where Mr. Heyward is going to bat in the order? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Well, I know everybody else has (laughter). You know, I'm excited about a player that could fill quite a few different roles. You see him fitting just like a couple of our other players, fitting anywhere in those top four spots. It's just going to take time in Spring Training, just to plug somebody in this early. I know it makes for great conversation, but the reality is we need to see how our players are improving. Because I know everybody's going home with a list of things that they want to get better at, and give them time to show what they've done and what they're working on and realizing that the history of what someone's been able to do speaks volumes, and Jason has been a guy who can get on base. He's also, I believe, a guy that can drive in a lot of runs. That's a great combination. And you have a mixture of some speed there too, which I know nobody in our fan base is disappointed about. We like having that as a weapon.

            So all of those things are going to go into the mix, but we'll need to get our club together and just kind of see firsthand if we watch how it fits in.

 

            Q. Did you talk to him ‑‑ he told us that his approach kind of changed when he went to the leadoff spot from when he was sitting lower in the order. Have you talked to him about that or has he expressed that to you? 

            MIKE MATHENY: We've talked a few times, but that's not necessarily a conversation right now. I want him to go ahead and just keep working on getting strong and feeling good at the plate. Once we get to Spring Training, just start watching how things go. I think there is something to be said about that.

            We also watched Matt Carpenter jump into ‑‑ even though he was still hitting leadoff, we saw a different approach through October where we're watching the ball jump off the bat and seeing a little more power. That's something that intrigues us as well. So we have some great decisions.

            Once again, I think it comes down to the player's versatility and the ability that we can mix things up a little bit if we need to. But hopefully it becomes very obvious once we start our spring season before we get to Opening Day to figure out what is going to be the best mix and then realize we have a couple pieces that could be moved around.

 

            Q. How strong could the division be again this year? You have multiple playoff teams the past couple three years? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, I don't see anybody in the Central going anywhere except getting better. You're watching every team commit to trying to push the needle forward and teams you've expected in the past have been good, and we'll watch some teams who maybe have been overlooked. There are going to be more in that mix.

            So we're preparing once again just to control what we can control and realize that everybody's in the Central's going to be shooting for us, and that makes it a good place to be.

 

            Q. Kevin Cash was just hired to manage the Rays, and similar to your situation having not had any management experience but a previous catcher, what advice would you give to him? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I think some of the best advice I was given, definitely, both talking about having big‑named managers that we've been called in to replace, and some of the best advice I was given was to not try to be a second‑rate version of whoever it is that we're replacing and make sure we're the best version of ourselves that we bring to the table. Be consistent with what we believe and trust the people that we have around us to go in the right direction.

            I feel very fortunate that I was able to keep in contact with Tony and to be able to use him as a resource and can still continue to bounce things off him. Even though he's in a competitor's organization now, as a person, I know he understands the rare challenge of being manager at this level. Fortunately, I've had quite a few people who helped invest into me, and just it's invaluable.

 

            Q. What was the biggest challenge for you to start managing at the Major League level? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I don't think you can narrow it down to one particular challenge. There are so many different facets to it. It's a job description that seems to be evolving all the time, day by day. But once again, I think surrounding yourself with the right people is the best first step, and being in an organization that believes in you and believes in a mission that's bigger than just the wins and losses, but building something great and trying to maintain it.

 

            Q. When you just look at the raw numbers and try to look at metrics and stuff, a case could be made (indiscernible) that in some ways you overachieved (indiscernible, if you look at one differential for most of the year. Do you buy that? If so, where does that leave you going forward? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, that's something that could be taken the wrong way too, because I believe all the hype we had going into last season was true. That set a great expectation level for us. The reason that expectation was high is because we had a very talented group of guys returning and brought in a couple of strong pieces.

            Now, put into reality is we had trouble last year at times scoring runs. We had trouble at every area of our game. We had injuries just like everybody else has, so we've had our share of challenges, without question. When it came down to it, the way we continued to win games with small margins and small run production, I think that says a lot about a club.

            So to say that I was disappointed in any way would be completely false, because what we ask of these guys is to come out and play with heart, come out and play the game the right way and regardless of how that is viewed on the outside. When the guys keep competing that way, there are going to be days and years when it all clicks and years when it doesn't. I see why people would go in a direction that we'd overachieve, but I think that would kind of be almost a backhanded comment to some of our guys and their ability. But in the same breath, I feel that at times we just had to find a way to win, and that sometimes gets undervalued.

 

            Q. We were in Arizona during at the GM meetings and talked to Mo, and Mo used a term "fragile." In some ways maybe the team is considered more fragile than in previous years because of some things that have happened and where guys are in their careers. I guess where I'm going with this is how much ‑‑ a year ago at this time people thought this might be a 100‑win team, and that was based on something that they couldn't repeat. But how delicate do you think the balance is for this team? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Well, I think it's delicate every year. I mean, you never know what you're going to show up with in Spring Training. You have 60 individuals trying to pair down to 25 that you hope come together as a team, but you start out basically with just a bunch of guys in the same outfits. It's a challenge every year and you never know how it's all going to come together, and I think that's a great challenge for us as a staff to try to help put that together. But you just don't know what you're going to get year to year.

            I think that fragile nature Mo was talking about, a lot of it had to do with the group that was beat down. You look at the nature of games and how we won games last year, I can't remember ‑‑ for the people who followed our team day‑in and day‑out, I can't remember a season with so many close wins and near losses. It was a gut‑wrenching season with the day‑in, day‑out, and that does take quite a toll on a club.

            Then you start mixing in the other things with we do have some guys who are getting a little older or having some injuries. Those sort of things do add to the challenge, without question.

 

            Q. Do you buy into the run differential in general? Is it valuable? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I think in general. Fortunately, it didn't haunt us, kill us last year. We sure loved it the year before when we were putting up all kinds of runs. I don't think anybody on our pitching staff would fight with you to say it's very important. They'd like to have a little more room to work with.

            But in our offense, I still believe that we've got the kind of offense that can throw up great offensive numbers. Over the long haul I believe in those numbers. Because the teams that are able to have those big differentials, it doesn't just indicate what the offense is doing, it's also indicating the kind of stress you're putting on your pitching staff, and over the long haul, that's going to wear on you.

 

            Q. Do you foresee having to cut back on how much you use Molina to avoid injury? I know last year's injuries weren't due to usage, but as he gets older? 

            MIKE MATHENY: That's always a great topic. I think he's becoming more aware of what he can do and what he can't do, which helps. We put a plan in place, especially last year after he was hurt, which wasn't, as you said, caused by overuse. It was just one of those freak injuries. But you hate to also have these guys in, especially when they work and they take so much pride in how they prepare.

            Yadier is in fantastic shape again this winter, and there is a reason. He's doing it so he can be out there. The guy loves to play the game, but we do have to always keep it in balance, figure out the risk and reward of throwing him out there more often and how we can hopefully hold on to that until the end. But seldom have we had an issue where he wasn't ready to go as we got to the end of the season. He works hard to prepare to be ready to catch as many games as anybody in the league, and we'll see how his body responds.

 

            Q. What is the next phase or next step for Matt Adams to take for you guys from last year as an everyday player (Indiscernible)?

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, I've had good conversations with Matt and just kind of talking about his expectations and his goals and things that he wants to try to improve on through this winter and consistency.

            Last year I remember at this time we were talking about him working more to try to figure out how to hit left‑handed pitching, and that's continuing to be on the to do list. Those are things that are going to allow him to be out there on a more consistent basis, which he was out there very consistently this year.

            Depending how our team is made up, we've made no secret about it. We're still trying to find possibly a right‑handed bat that could help him at first base. We'll see how that comes together and what that looks like. But up until that happens and even afterwards, this guy is a very, very good player. I believe he showed it on the big stage last year in October of being able to get the big hit for us and to be able to drive the ball with power and all the things that we've talked about for a long time still hold true.

            It's just a matter of him being able to improve because the league knows him better now and they're going to continue to try to maximize on what they believe are weaknesses that he has.

 

            Q. Did you see a guy kind of fluctuate? I mean, the approach I guess is the word to use, but early on hitting for high average, then he went through a stretch where he was hitting for power, and he was kind of searching at the end? Did you see a guy who buried his approach or was trying to find an a approach? Do you think that elbow was more problematic than he let on? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I think at times the elbow bothered him and probably so did every other body part at some particular time. I think we also need to keep in mind we're watching a kid go out for the first time being an everyday player at this level. All of you know that being an everyday player at this level is different than being an everyday player at the Minor League level.

            There is a learning curve that comes along with it. To see him be able to adapt and adjust, I don't know if he's been given enough credit for teams pitching him one certain way. Obviously very radical shifts against him, and being able to take advantage of what was going on there. His swing wasn't necessarily feeling good on the power side, he figured out a way to get hits. Maybe he was doing some swinging and missing, he found out a way to make his at‑bats have impact with some power.

            It was, to me, a very good season, and he went through quite a few different changes. But this is a huge expectation given to a young player that never played every day in a production offensive spot, and being able to jump right into the meat of that order and have a solid season is very impressive.

 

            Q. Would you agree that when you look at ways to sort of amplify the offense that you had last season, particularly on the power end of right field or first base are kind of the spots where it could come from? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, it could. It wouldn't be a stretch either. We saw Matt Adams produce power all the way through. That doesn't just disappear. He's got lofting style power that not many guys in the league have. Once again, we're not trying to coach it out of him. But understand, too, there are different things that they're going through, whether it is physical or it's just not locked in mechanically.

            I can see that being a position that definitely could help us in our power production, and definitely also with Jason in right field. It's not a stretch to see him get to the numbers that he's already achieved. Not just in the Minor Leagues, but in the big league level too.

 

            Q. Do you think it's important to find somebody that complements either of them from the right side and makes that happen? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I think any help we can get from the right side, coming off the bench or being able to maybe spell definitely at first base, and possibly in right field, but that may be something we have internally as well. We have a couple of good candidates. Randall has shown that he can put together a very good at‑bat if that's the way our team breaks. So I think we have more coverage in the outfield than we do necessarily at first base. So that is something that we continue to try to open all of the doors that are out there.

 

            Q. You're the only team since the game split into three divisions to win your division averaging less than four runs a game. It goes maybe to the point where two years ago by doing something (Indiscernible), my point is how much of changing that is on Heyward's shoulders? Because your team is pretty much the same from a position standpoint. Is it a matter of guys who can get better or do you look at Heyward as the guy who needs to pull you out of it? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Well, first things first, we've got to make sure that we're giving credit to a pitching staff in both cases that did a terrific job, and that's where it starts with us. We never make that a secret. We understand with our starting pitching comes a big responsibility. These guys have done a great job in both cases in 2013 and 2014 of doing a nice job of keeping us where we needed to be.

            With that being said, I never want to put all the pressure on one person. Even though he is one of the different faces, I'd be crazy to think that we couldn't get more offensive production as far as power, as far as driving in runs than from quite a few guys in our lineup, and they'll be the first ones to tell you that too.

            So you look through the bulk of our lineup and what we had to do last year to win, which really does become the bottom line. They went about it the right way. I know they were excited to get home and start working on some things that they know they can do better. Part of that is just going to be putting together the kind of offensive seasons they've put together in the past. If we do that mixed with hopefully the solid pitching that we've had over the last couple years, I think it's all going to come out in the wash. You'll see kind of a team that does have that kind of run differential that helps teams get into the postseason.

 

            Q. Run scoring is at its lowest levels in 40 years. It seems like everything in the last few years shifts, and do you see anything that can tip the scale maybe back to even things out a little bit more on offense? 

            MIKE MATHENY: No, I don't have a great philosophical answer for you there. I think we have the pieces in place in our club, even though last year's offensive numbers were down. Universally, I think we still have an above‑average offensive potential team. It's just a matter of us putting it together and everybody getting better. That's our job as a staff, each one of us to get better. It's our job for each of the players to continue to figure out a way to push forward. Even though some people will tell you that we have certain guys that are maybe past their peak and their prime, and I'm not going to buy that and neither are they, because we continue to watch these guys do special things mostly because of the way they work, the way they prepare and just the special talent they have.

 

            Q. Has Adam been doing anything different with his elbow in the off‑season to ensure, if possible, those flare‑ups don't happen again? 

            MIKE MATHENY: He's just staying the course, staying the course with the medical team and what they're proposing to him, and just keeping him moving in the right direction.

 

            Q. It was at the Winter Meetings last year that you championed the elimination of the home plate collision. I'm curious, having gone through that rule for a year, your thoughts on how that went, and if there is any follow‑up to that this year, talking about how it went? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, the bottom line is we had less violent collisions at the plate and less players injured. That's really what the goal was. So I see it as a success, and I know Major League Baseball sees it the same.

            As we move forward, yeah, actually having a meeting tomorrow to continue to talk about just rules in general. I imagine that rule that was kind of cloudy to most of baseball with how that should be implemented, the play at the plate, I'm sure there are steps being made going forward, and we'll talk about that more yet tomorrow. But the concept's right. I think everybody in baseball understands with the majority of people; there are some that might argue about it. But we're keeping our guys on the field, and that's the goal.

            Hopefully we'll just have a clearer way to get to the point of not having those collisions and still maintain the integrity of the play at the plate.

 

            Q. (Indiscernible) wasn't applied to expanded replay at second base. It would seem to be ideal for that? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, I think they're worried about the same topic: player health. If we have our middle infielders stay in too long at second base just to make sure they're on top of the bag, you're talking about possibly violent collisions. So I agree with where the league stands right now.

            I don't necessarily want my second baseman or shortstop staying on top of the bag with a guy with a 90‑foot head start sliding hard into his knees. So the obvious ones I think are continuing to keep their eye on, but the real close ones I think they're just asking for more injury.

 

            Q. With one year in the books on the replay, was it positive? Was it negative? What is your take on it? 

            MIKE MATHENY: I believe it was positive. I think the goal was to get more calls right, and I believe the league has proven that that did happen.

            Once again, everybody was very clear this is going to be a fluid situation and we're not going to have it down perfectly how it's implemented, a lot like the play at home plate. But I think the rule in general is very good, and we saw a lot of positives come from it. I think there's some things that are probably going to change this year from what the league has learned, and I support it.

 

            Q. Mo said you had been talking to Carlos fairly regularly. How do you think he's doing in terms of Oscar and just his off‑season? 

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, he's doing well. Close friend, that's difficult for anybody, especially when it's made a little more public. But everybody handles grief differently. Everybody handles topics like this in their own individual way, and Carlos has slowly walked through this, and something that most people don't have to walk through at that age.

            But what I've seen, I've seen him mature, and I know that's a high price to pay for any particular improvement, but Carlos is definitely learning more about himself and his game and his career. And I think that could be said about a good number of guys on our club, and just how fragile life is one of those reminders you don't want to have to be hit right between the eyes with. But our club and to me, the baseball community, was all hit with that this winter.

 

            Q. Mo has gotten asked a few times about the composition of the bullpen. Obviously you add a couple of rights which kind of solidifies that side. To us he spoke fairly confident about the left side as well. But then you look at how you ended the season with your left side absent Siegrist. To you, how big a variable is Siegrist in how this thing comes together? It did look a little awkward at times without him.

            MIKE MATHENY: Yeah, he's a player we'd love to have, and our bullpen has a different look whether it's a healthy Siegrist and Sam Freeman throwing well. So both of those players are still with us, and are along the same lines of all our other players in trying to get better and working on some consistency issues and stuff and mechanics. Both very young players when you talk about Freeman and with Siegrist and also Marco thrown into that mix on the left side to go along with Randy.

            But with the way we'd like to use Randy, there is a need there on the left side for somebody that can consistently be out there and throw significant innings for us. That's going to be a great test for a couple of these young players.