Why John Mozeliak, Cardinals extended manager Oli Marmol

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If you were perplexed or surprised — or shocked, even — by St. Louis Cardinals manager Oli Marmol’s two-year contract extension Friday afternoon, you were far from the only one.

The Cardinals’ decision to extend Marmol fresh off the franchise’s worst-performing season in 30 years came as a surprise to the industry as a whole. Virtually nobody expected chief executive officer Bill DeWitt Jr. and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak to make a definitive decision on Marmol’s contract status — which was set to expire after the 2024 season — before the regular season started. There was too much at stake, at least from an outside perspective, especially given St. Louis’ last-place finish in 2023.

Yet after one month of spring, DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak had seen enough from their 37-year-old skipper to know he was still their choice for the long haul. So on Thursday afternoon, shortly before the Cardinals’ afternoon exhibition game against the New York Mets, Mozeliak called Marmol up to his office and delivered news not even Marmol saw coming.

“I gave him no warning,” Mozeliak said with a smile.

Twenty-four hours later, Marmol’s extension became official. He will be under contract to manage the Cardinals through the 2026 season. The announcement begged two questions: Why now, and why Marmol?

“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in Oli,” Mozeliak said to The Athletic on Saturday afternoon. “I think Oli grew from last year. I think there are some things that he would do differently if he could, and anybody that’s growing in a job, that’s what you want to see. The reality is, we’re always growing in our jobs. No matter how long you do things, you’re still evolving, you’re still changing and you’re still trying to do what you do better. And I think in Oli’s case, he was very reflective about that.

“I never doubted he was the right person for this job,” Mozeliak added. “But I also thought of all the things we needed to get done right away. This (extension) was something we could deal with later.”

The things that couldn’t wait were centered around the roster, which saw a significant amount of change over the past five months. Mozeliak had made clear his offseason plans would be centered around pitching, clearing up an outfield roster jam and re-establishing a veteran presence within the clubhouse. Extension conversations would need to wait, and that was a message he had relayed to Marmol in October.

“We were doing a lot of unpacking on the season, trying to think about what we could learn or what we could do different,” Mozeliak said. “At the time, I said as far as a contract extension goes, let’s not focus on that right now. Let’s just worry about the roster, get ourselves into a position, and then maybe at some point we’ll revisit it, or maybe we will simply wait until the end of the year. But as the offseason transpired … I felt like overall the roster was in a pretty good spot.

“As camp was starting to unfold, I started thinking more and more about Oli and his situation, and the more I thought about it, I felt like we should try to do something. I feel he has the support of his players, the coaching staff and obviously the front office and ownership, so I began talking to Bill (DeWitt Jr.) about it much more in earnest.”

Roughly two weeks after Mozeliak’s realization, DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak sat down and decided Marmol’s extension should happen before the start of the regular season. The idea caught Marmol off guard, as it hadn’t been routinely discussed. But there was no hesitation from Marmol, who has spent nearly two decades in the Cardinals organization, including the entirety of his professional career.

“In my head, I just made a mental note that I’m just going to go out there and do my job, do it well and let this end up the way it’s supposed to end up,” Marmol said. “At the end of the day, this is where I want to be. So my hope was this would be the case. I want to do this for a long time and I don’t want to do it anywhere else. I was hoping something could be structured where we could go into the year and feel good about it.”

The organization’s desire to be aligned — from ownership down to the players on the roster — ultimately fueled the decision on Marmol. There was a scenario in which Mozeliak could have seen how the start of the season went before making a decision. But the more he contemplated, the more Mozeliak felt it would be best to lock Marmol down early — especially because Mozeliak wasn’t necessarily mulling over a managerial change anyway. He believed Marmol was the right man for the job. A dicey start to the season would only increase external noise for a change to be made, so rather than keeping that scenario open as a possibility, Mozeliak decided to ensure there would be no question about the future leader of the club. That sentiment was also shared by ownership.

“All three of us were somewhat relieved,” Mozeliak said. “Because what you didn’t want to have happen was if we got off to a rocky start, all of a sudden everybody is calling up someone’s head. So really, it was more of not just a vote of confidence, because he knows we appreciate what he does and how hard he works. But I think it’s something that now no longer will be a distraction, for Oli, staff, players and front office.”

DeWitt Jr., Mozeliak and Marmol kept the news under wraps, including that night during a team party hosted by Paul Goldschmidt. Most players were not notified about the extension until arriving at the clubhouse Friday afternoon. But as Marmol’s news conference was set to start, a steady stream of players and coaches filed out of the clubhouse and onto the media patio, eager to be in attendance for the official announcement.

It was that group, Marmol said, that reinforced why he wants to be here.

“I’m sitting (at the news conference) and I’m answering questions, and I look back and every player is standing,” Marmol said. “That’s the cool part of the job. It’s when you have the buy-in of the guys who you’re around the most: the players and the staff. So when I’m sitting there and I see that, yeah, that’s cool.”

Cardinals brass didn’t dodge the obvious question during Friday’s news conference. How could the organization extend Marmol after his club posted the first losing season under Mozeliak’s 17-year tenure?

“There was never any doubt in my mind that he wasn’t going to continue being the Cardinals manager,” Mozeliak said. “But coming off the year we just experienced, I think a lot of people would have been happy if we were both gone.”

“Me too,” DeWitt Jr. interjected with a laugh.

But throughout the 2023 season, Marmol continued to foster a good relationship with the front office. He kept an open and approachable dialogue with his coaching staff, leading to all but bench coach Joe McEwing returning. Marmol hired former Cardinal and close friend Daniel Descalso to fill that role, and it’s been a seamless transition. And perhaps most importantly, even despite a 91-loss season, Marmol never lost the trust of the clubhouse.

That was evident Friday when the majority of his players stood in unison for the duration of his news conference.

“He’s done a tremendous job since he’s been here,” Miles Mikolas said. “Obviously last year was a tough year, but you can look at that a ton of different ways. He’s a guy that is really invested in this team. … I think he’s the right guy to lead us going forward.”

“I don’t think it’s any secret, social media can be at times pretty ruthless towards him,” Matt Carpenter added. “But that clubhouse loves him. Our players respect him, care about him. … What he went through last year and what this team went through last year was tough, but he took it in stride. I fully support him. And I’m not just saying it because we’re friends, I mean it. I really think he’s the right man for the job and I think his best years are to come.”

For those reasons — a revamped roster (one which the front office believes will indeed compete for playoff contention this year), a strong supporting staff and player buy-in — Marmol will manage the Cardinals for the foreseeable future. It was never a question of if he would, it was simply a matter of when it would be official.

(Photo of Oli Marmol: Jim Rassol / USA Today)

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