LAS VEGAS -- Though he has been working in professional baseball for nearly two decades, Mike Shildt will find himself a bit out of his element this week as he navigates Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings for the first time in his career.
"What should I expect?" he jokingly asked a few days before traveling to Las Vegas.
What he'll find is a fishbowl of attention as discussions heat up, rumors fly and deals get done over the next four days. Shildt will double as an active participant, helping develop the organization's offseason strategy, and an interested observer watching the front office try to execute that vision.
Last week, just before the organization finalized a trade for Paul Goldschmidt, Shildt invited MLB.com into his Busch Stadium office for an extended conversation, the highlights of which can be found here:
MLB.com: One of the organization's stated priorities this offseason was to retool the bullpen. What changes and/or additions would you like to see?
Shildt: "We're doing our very best this offseason to figure out how to think about the current guys we have in our bullpen and figure out how to get the most out of them. I feel really good about what that process looks like. With that being said, if you look, we were in the bottom third of almost every category in the bullpen in the National League and in the entire league [in 2018]. You look at postseason teams and guys that win in the postseason, they're pretty strong in their bullpens. There is zero coincidence in that. It's a big factor.
"I was talking to [president of baseball operations John Mozeliak] about it: All of our individual parts are important -- baserunning, defense, starting pitching and, clearly, offense. But if you're looking at a city block, one of your taller buildings would be your bullpen."
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MLB.com: Did you watch the postseason with a critical eye on bullpen usage?
MLB.com: And what were your takeaways?
Shildt: "It was probably the most fascinating playoffs I've ever seen. Of course, I'm looking at it from a little different lens, but my primary reasons for watching games was to see how and why and what people are doing. Clearly, people are getting more creative, and there's a lot of scrutiny to it. I think it's a little crazy how it's gone to some degree.
"Part of it is intuitive in the sense that certain teams go to a bullpen early because that's the strength of their team and that's what they have. Your job as a manager, in simple terms, is you get the guys that have the best chance to succeed in that situation. I thought other managers were brilliant in how they did it. It just looks a lot different."
MLB.com: Can you take what we saw of bullpen usage in the postseason and modify it for use during the regular season?
Shildt: "I don't think it's sustainable over 162 [games]. You guys ask this question [before games] -- and I get it -- about bullpen availability. Well, bullpens are fluid every day.
"Clearly, we want roles. I want roles. I'd love to have the eighth-inning guy, the seventh-inning guy, the matchup guys, the ninth-inning guy. And a lot of days you have it set up. But there are days you go and know that this guy has pitched X-number days in a row and needs a blow or whatever the case may be. So that changes the dynamic of your bullpen.
"To be able to be uber aggressive with your bullpen on a consistent basis for 162 games, I think, is only sustainable if you have really, really, really good depth. When I say depth, I mean quality depth.
"The term is 'bullpenning,' right? You can bullpen your way through it, but it really gets down to what that looks like. Who are you bringing in that's better? And if you're doing it earlier, who are you going to bring in after that? I get the concept. I understand it. One thing I still put an eye to is I understand that the leverage situation may be the sixth or the seventh. That may be the spot for your better guy. But the reality is if you sit there and read the tea leaves, you know that spot is coming back up again. And what does that look like?"
MLB.com: In your answer, you noted that you like the idea of having defined roles for certain relievers. So is it your preference to have a designated closer that you hold for save situations?
Shildt: "Ideally, I'd like that person to be the one that always shuts the door. Now, I can still be open-minded to looking into it more. I would be open to [pitching them earlier in games] in certain situations. But again, you look at the Andrew Miller example a couple years ago, you could bring him in [early] knowing you had guys behind him who could nail things down. It's easier to do that if you've got those other pieces. I'm not saying we don't, but sometimes you try to create what, in a vacuum, is a good matchup without having an answer for the later innings."
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MLB.com: You pointed out that your bullpen ranked in the bottom third of the league in several categories last season. One of those was strikeouts. Does that need to be addressed going into next year?
Shildt: "That's the way the game is going. Without strikeouts, you're putting more pressure on your defense. Yeah, having guys able to come in, especially in the higher-leverage situations, and get a strikeout is important. Again, you look at the way bullpens are being built and some of the teams in October, they had relievers with strikeout-type stuff.
"The converse of that is we have guys like Jordan [Hicks], Dakota [Hudson], guys with exceptionally high ground-ball rates. There's something to be said for that, too. I think ultimately you have to be above average at something. The lack of strikeouts was real."
MLB.com: Shifting focus here, what did you feel your offense lacked last year?
Shildt: "What lens are we looking through? Are we looking at the whole year, or are we looking at the second half?"
MLB.com: Evaluate it over the course of the full season.
Shildt: "Then I would probably say our lack of consistency. I really do believe that we demonstrated with the 10 series wins in a row [in the second half] that if you do this, this and this well and on a consistent basis, you're going to win series. That's what can carry you to the playoffs.
"The more consistent players we have, the more consistent we are, the better we are. We saw it for a period of time, but having a consistent identity will help, and I feel comfortable and confident we're definitely heading in that direction."
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MLB.com: How much concern do you have about an imbalance with such a right-handed-heavy lineup?
Shildt: "A good hitter is a good hitter. But there are matchups and information to consider. It can complicate things for another manager to have more contrast. You look at L.A., for example. They absolutely maximized matchups [last year]. I thought Milwaukee maximized it, too, to where there's intentionality in how they built a roster. I'm not saying it's easy to do, but you look over from a managing perspective and start trying to match up, you know they have a counter piece for it. There's something that continues to create some level of competitive advantage.
"That being said, if you have a solid player that is just a good player, you ride with that. You feel OK with that."
MLB.com: How large is the gap between your club and the two that finished ahead of you in the NL Central last year?
Shildt: "It's not that far at all. Honestly, I don't feel like we're catching anybody.
"I get it. I'm not naïve to the fact that Chicago has been to the playoffs the last three years. Milwaukee went to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series and won our division. That being said, if you look, our head-to-head series with Chicago [last year] was favorable to us. And we played Milwaukee tooth and nail."
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.