But the Cardinals' gut told them the inexperienced Matheny was capable of taking on a challenge like this; that he had enough leadership and people skills to go from zero coaching experience to manager of a defending World Series champ in a baseball-first city. On Sunday, that led to them giving him a two-year deal with a third-year option to be their next on-field leader.
Normally, I love gambles like these.
But on a veteran-laden team that's ready to win now -- with or without the return of Albert Pujols -- this is a gamble that in no way needed to be taken.
Not with a pool that included Terry Francona, a two-time World Series champion who would've been the easy choice to keep this Cardinals train moving forward; or Jose Oquendo, the long-time third-base coach who has spent a lot of time under the tutelage of La Russa and would've represented the smoothest transition; or Ryne Sandberg, another hot-shot candidate who actually has Minor League managing experience.
All five of the other candidates the Cardinals interviewed over the last two weeks, including Triple-A manager Chris Maloney and White Sox third-base coach Joe McEwing, had either served as a Major League or Minor League manager, or a Major League coach.
In the end, Cardinals senior vice president and general manager John Mozeliak decided that didn't outweigh what Matheny provided -- knowledge of the organization, respect from his peers and a high upside.
"I think a lot of people would've said the simpler choice would've been to go with somebody with experience, but we looked at this as someone who could have short-term success with this current club, but also could be somebody that we believe in for long-term success," Mozeliak said during a Monday news conference that introduced Matheny to the public. "When you try to balance that with everything that we were looking at, we really felt comfortable with Mike taking over."
There isn't a person in baseball who has a negative thing to say about Matheny, regardless of his inexperience.
Jon Jay and David Freese took to Twitter to express their excitement over the hire late Sunday night; Matt Holliday praised him via a text message to Cardinals beat writer Matthew Leach; Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter learned a lot under him; and for what it's worth, Pujols -- who will not base his decision on one manager anyway -- apparently loves the guy.
But it's easy to feel good right now, when the games haven't begun, the praise is being piled on and the good spirits still linger. What happens if Matheny's inexperience costs him to make some moves that lose the Cardinals some games, or they fall into a long losing streak, or doubt starts creeping in?
To that effect, Mozeliak said: "I really think Mike has the aptitude, the intelligence and the character to withstand this."
But nobody really knows if he can manage in the big leagues -- if he can adequately make all the in-game decisions necessary throughout the course of a game, handle bullpen and bench roles, construct a lineup, keep higher-paid and more-successful players in line, deal with the media and take on the countless other tasks a manager deals with in a 162-game season.
And anybody who believes you can just jump into the job fresh, without any previous coaching experience, and inevitably succeed simply because you're a good leader and communicator is disrespecting the arduous task that the job presents.
"I think any experience is important; experience in general," Matheny said. "I think it's something that I'm eagerly looking forward to, surrounding myself with people to continue to absorb [knowledge]."
The last three Cardinals managers -- a list that includes Whitey Herzog, Joe Torre and La Russa -- had at least made the playoffs before taking on the job in St. Louis. But of the four previous cases in which a first-year manager has taken over for a defending World Series champion, two have happened with the Cardinals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau: Bob O'Farrell in 1927 and Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst in 1965.
Matheny joins newly named White Sox skipper Robin Ventura as the second manager with no coaching experience to be hired in a little over a month. But the White Sox are the type of team that can make that type of move, because they're the type of team that needs a new direction and a fresh start after an underachieving season.
The Cardinals didn't need a change in direction this drastic.
They didn't need to go from a Hall of Fame manager with 33 years of experience to a 41-year-old skipper who's the youngest in all of baseball and among the greenest.
Maybe Matheny is just that talented. Maybe he's the type of guy who can shorten the learning curve, catch on incredibly quickly and be so good that he seamlessly transitions from special assistant and Spring Training instructor to big league manager of the highest order. Maybe he's more Joe Girardi (National League Manager of the Year just three seasons removed from being a player) than A.J. Hinch (miscast as a skipper and gone after a season and a half with the D-backs).
"I don't think it's going to be the simplest of transitions," Mozeliak admitted, "but I certainly think he's up for it."
But nobody -- not Mozeliak, not any of the players and coaches and executives that have nothing but good things to say about Matheny, not even Matheny himself -- has any real idea if he can actually manage.
On a team like this, and a pool like that, why take the gamble?