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Matheny reflects on first year since winter hire

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It was one year ago at this same Winter Meetings setting that Mike Matheny began his indoctrination. A somewhat surprise hire as Cardinals manager given the absence of previous experience, Matheny arrived at Dallas' Hilton Anatole poised to soak in all that came with the new position.

With the Albert Pujols negotiations taking precedence, it turned out that Matheny hardly had an opportunity to leave the team's hotel suite.

"Last year, the only outside air I saw was when I did my interview like this," Matheny said as he began a 30-minute conversation with reporters on Tuesday. "Besides that, I was locked in my bedroom with the rest of the staff trying to go through a pretty monumental negotiation."

History has documented the outcome of that negotiation, but Matheny can now look back on it as the first movement on the learning curve that he has experienced over the past 12 months. He arrived in Nashville on Monday no longer a rookie manager and without the detractors who questioned his readiness for the position.

For less than two months earlier, Matheny had guided an 88-win Cardinals team to within one win of a return to the World Series.

"My philosophy going into this is to not get in their way," Matheny said. "I think, as we look back and see we were one win away from the [National League] pennant, that I must not have gotten them all the way. I think that's the best evaluation I can give."

Lessons were learned, though, and Matheny delineated some of them on Tuesday, having had enough time since the end of the postseason to appropriately reflect.

Matheny said he intends to be more deliberate in resting his team's veteran position players, some of whom experienced physical breakdowns as the season progressed. It's a group that, most notably, includes Rafael Furcal, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday.

While Furcal was the only one of the bunch to actually land on the disabled list, Beltran and Holliday dealt with persistent nagging issues. Both still regularly lobbied to remain in the lineup, and Matheny, more often than not, obliged. That was especially the case late in the season when the team was making a run for the second NL Wild Card.

"As we saw, a couple of our guys really struggled and labored through some different periods of the season," Matheny said. "I was riding them hard. I was pushing them hard. ... I can see how it did wear on them, and there's a fine balance there. Even as a player, you go through the same thing. You just want to play. There's a time for a manager to step in and do the right thing, which can help make an investment into the future of the season and that they'll finish as strong as they start."

Matheny may get a second go at a second-base competition, too, next season, depending upon what (if any) additions the Cardinals make this winter that could shake up the outlook of that position. Matheny employed a second-base rotation of Tyler Greene, Daniel Descalso and Skip Schumaker for much of 2012, not settling on a regular until late in the year.

Descalso, along with Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and Pete Kozma, could be in the mix for playing time at second next year. Assuming that Furcal does not experience any health setbacks, second base is set to be the only position of question heading into Spring Training.

"We have some very viable candidates, and we just go give these guys opportunities without drawing up conclusions at the beginning, especially right now in the Winter Meetings," Matheny said. "There are opportunities. We're going to give opportunities to all the players and just see how the pieces come together."

The priority when it comes to filling that position will be on the defensive end, Matheny said, given how many offensive pieces the Cardinals have in place elsewhere.

The key then is finding a way to ensure better overall consistency from the rest of the offensive unit. Despite placing near the top of the NL in several offensive categories, the Cardinals experienced several prolonged offensive outages, which hampered the team's ability to get on many extended winning streaks.

"Believe me, we stayed up nights at times trying to figure it out when we saw an offense throw 15 runs up and then go three games in a row without scoring a run," Matheny said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating for them. It's frustrating for our staff. It's frustrating for our fans.

"But what we do is we watch the control variables their effort, the scouting report, what they're doing to prepare. All that's in place, we know we've covered our bases. There's human error in this thing. That's how it works. It's a hard game. No one needs to remind me how tough hitting is. But I know our guys believe, as I believe, we're better than what we showed all the time."

St. Louis Cardinals