Halfway Home: The St. Louis Cardinals at the All-Star Break
With the All-Star game tonight marking the slightly-over-halfway point of the season, it’s a good time to look over how the Cardinals have done thus far.
At 47-41, it’s safe to say thus far the results have been a little underwhelming. Like me with my women, the Cardinals started off strong before they faltered and stumbled, and in the end everyone’s just disappointed wondering how they blew it. Unlike my dates, however, there is still hope for the Cardinals.
What’s gone wrong for the Cardinals?
Although Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday have thus far managed to stay healthy, injuries have struck several other key components of the roster.
Because of a sore back, Brad Penny, who started the season off strong, has been the world’s best benchwarmer. Although he was just 3-4 when he went down, this was more a result of poor run support, as he has a 3.23 ERA. The Cardinals could sorely use him as the number four starter. Kyle Lohse, who I’m pretty sure just swims in the money he swindled the Cardinals out of, has been out for a while because of a forearm condition. Not that his 1-4 record and 5.89 ERA were really exciting anyone.
Ryan Ludwick, who’s finally shown signs of returning to his all-star form, is also on the disabled list. His strong defensive play in right field and offensive pop are being missed right now, although John Jay has done well as a replacement. David Freese, who’d been having a strong rookie campaign hitting .296 with 4 HR and 36 RBI, is also on the disabled list and isn’t expected back until late July.
2. Average defense
The defense has been more error-prone than it has in years past, which as recently as two years ago was second overall in the majors in fielding percentage. Because Dave Duncan preaches pitching to contact, a solid defense is essential to preventing runs. This year, the Cardinals have committed 61 errors in 88 games and rank in the middle of the pack in terms of fielding percentage.
The middle infield takes a lot of the blame. Skip Schumaker has already committed more errors this season (11) than he did all of last season (10). So too has Brendan Ryan (12 this year, 9 last year), whose offensive struggles have perhaps carried over to the field, typically his strong suit. Both have, admittedly, made some spectacular plays, but giving away outs is a great way to wear your pitcher out.
3. Shaky offensive production
This is the biggest reason the Cardinals are now struggling to tread water. Aside from one hot stretch of six games where the Cardinals scored 44 runs (and one of those games they even got shut out), the lineup hasn’t been consistent.
Part of the problem is the fact that much of the lineup is very streaky. Ludwick and Colby Rasmus are notorious for being very hot or cold. Albert Pujols, ever the steady hitter, has also struggled with cold streaks during the season. Skip, Brendan, and Yadier Molina are all hitting well below their 2009 levels. Matt Holliday had a rough start to the season before he’s started catching fire, as most of his offensive production has come on within the last month.
So, what’s gone right?
1. Super rookies
Early on, a few of the Cardinals rookies were struggling. Allen Craig and Joe Mather both struggled so badly the team had no choice but to demote them. But for the most part, the rookies have acquitted themselves very well. The aforementioned Freese has been hitting, and after a very rough defensive start, has begun to settle down, occasionally making some terrific plays at third. John Jay has raked, hitting .377 thus far in 69 at bats.
The real revelation, however, has been Jaime Garcia. Projected as the fifth starter, Garcia is garnering serious consideration for NL Rookie of the Year. In 17 starts, he’s gone 8-4 with a 2.17 ERA.
The Cardinals have relied on one of the top pitching staffs in the league to remain above .500. St. Louis has the second best ERA in the majors, 3.39, and have the third most quality starts, 54.
Adam Wainwright has become a true staff ace. He’s gone 13-5 with a 2.11 ERA and 127 K. He ranks fourth or better in strikeouts (4th), wins (2nd), ERA (2nd), innings (2nd), WHIP (3rd), and complete games (2nd). Chris Carpenter has scuffled a bit since getting hit on the forearm, but he’s still 9-3 with a 3.29 ERA. Garcia has provided the team with a third potential ace, even better because he’s a sorely needed lefty. The bullpen, which took a bit of a beating in Colorado last week, is still doing well. Jason Motte at one point during the season retired 32 consecutive batters, has a 2.27 ERA and 38 K in 35.2 innings. Kyle McLellan has also pitched well in relief, and for all the grief he took for one game in Colorado, Ryan Franklin has converted 16 of 17 save chances.
Finally, what’s ahead?
That’s pretty tough to say. If the Cardinals can get healthy and avoid injuries, they have a strong chance to make a post-season run. Holliday’s (.300, 16 HR, 51 RBI) a second-half hitter, so if he can provide good protection for Pujols (who, despite his cold streaks, is still hitting .308 with 21 HR and 64 RBI), the duo should be able to carry the lineup for stretches.
One thing the Cardinals will have to watch closely is Garcia’s usage. He’s already thrown 99.2 innings. Now, typically a team won’t add more than 25 or so innings onto a pitcher’s previous workload. While Garcia did throw 155 innings in 2006, he missed all of last season after Tommy John surgery and only threw 122 in 2008 and 103.1 in 2007. Tony LaRussa’s going to have to balance the immediate needs of the Cardinals with the long-term implications for Garcia.