Support Players or Athletic Supporters?

Steve Mitchell-USA Today Sports

Sometimes a baseball team fields an entire roster of All-Stars and future Hall of Famers (though rarely) and sometimes you can look at a roster and see maybe half of it providing you top-tier production. If you can’t get that other half to contribute at least every once in a while then you’re not going to play very deep into October.

The Cardinals have had ups and downs this year with their bullpen, sometimes the last line of defense in a tight game. On the flip side, at the plate, the St. Louis bench is dreadful. If there is a weak spot on this team that is it, and if they don’t end up in the playoffs Mike Matheny can look back at his reserves and find a big reason why.

Source: Elsa/Getty Images North America

Some of the relief pitchers the Cards employ are outstanding in their roles, yet unprecedented success last season hasn’t completely transitioned into this year. Righty Seth Maness, practically a lock for an inning ending double-play when appearing last year, has struggled and found himself in Matheny’s dog house at times in 2014. He’s about the only right-handed option for more than 2 innings though because the Cards have FOUR lefties in their bullpen at the moment, Sam Freeman, Kevin Siegrist, Nick Greenwood, and Randy Choate.

Source: Jeff Curry/Getty Images North America

Randy is a specialist, and has been very good this year, once again, in taking care of 1-2 batters in special circumstances. Freeman and Greenwood have split time between MLB and AAA-Memphis, and Siegrist is trying to recover the form he showed last year, where he was dominant, but ha spent time on the DL this season and hasn’t been the same.

Trevor Rosenthal leads the NL in saves with 34, despite showing flashes of Jason Isringhausen’s cardiac arrest inducing inconsistency. He throws a million miles an hour but he’s also thrown a TON of pitches, and his struggles can be potentially linked to overuse by a manager who inexplicably doesn’t seem to understand how to manage his pitchers.

The brilliant, blinding star of the season has been by far All-Star righty Pat Neshek. He’s having an off-the-charts kind of season many guys experienced last year for St. Louis, and his ERA sits well below 1.00. Watch him pitch if for no other reason than to see his unorthodox windup, but the guy throws darts and just gets outs, every time he’s on the mound. Former closer Jason Motte may not be a factor at all as he just went on the DL today.

Source: Jeff Curry/Getty Images North America

Cardinals starters have been pitching later into games recently, looking more like the early season staff than they did just following the All-Star break, which has lifted some of the pressure off the bullpen, but the relief corps has blown its share of late leads this year, and that can’t happen if you’re going to win it all. Michael Wacha could be pitching out of the ‘pen once (if) he returns from the DL next month, which would give them the additional right-handed innings eater sometimes necessary to bridge the gap to Rosenthal and Neshek. Carlos Martinez could also be given a relief role before September is over, especially if John Mozeliak decides to shelve Wacha for the season.

St. Louis’s bench is one of the worst I can remember, with Tony Cruz (.231AVG/91ABs) Mark Ellis (.190/158) Daniel Descalso (.177/96) Shane Robinson (.130/46) and usually Peter Bourjos (.216/196.) I know there are fancier stats that go even further to prove my point, WAR for example, but I don’t really understand them so I won’t comment. It’s obvious enough with these numbers that the back-ups are awful. I’ll give Bourjos benefit of doubt because he’s not really had the chance to play as often as he should BUT, if he had hit better from the get-go, it would’ve never been a problem. He’s much better defensively than most any other St. Louis outfielder.

Source: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images North America

The 2014 Cardinals are 61-52 and only a single game out of first place in their division. The Central is highly competitive. Pittsburgh is only a half-game behind St. Louis before today’s games. Can the Cardinals overcome their opponents and win the Central? Yes, but only if everyone stays healthy. Can they do it without Wacha and Yadier Molina? Yes, but only if everyone else stays healthy, because this is NOT as deep a team as everyone thought in April.

Advertisements

Is the Cardinals Battery Energized For a Stretch Run?

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The lineup Mike Matheny has been using lately with some regularity looks about as good as it can right now, and barring some major miracle, these are the pieces St. Louis will put forth in the battle for the Central Division. Lack of offense notwithstanding, taking 2 of 3 from Milwaukee was a good step in the right direction but no matter how many runs they score, if the Cardinals don’t get solid pitching down the stretch their chances will be slim.

July 9, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Yadier Molina is still eyeing a September return, but for now the task of handling the pitching staff falls on the shoulders of Free Agent signee A.J. Pierzynski. A.J. is the kind of guy you love to hate, especially when he’s on the other team, but since joining the Cards the 35-year-old back-stopper has done a pretty good job filling in. Nobody can replace what Yadi does for this team, but the Cardinals could do much worse (Tony Cruz) on a daily basis than Pierzynski.

Ace Adam Wainwright has given up 11 earned runs in his last 16+ innings of work and with Michael Wacha just now starting to throw again and still on the DL, the rotation is adjusting to the additions of Justin Masterson and John Lackey.

Both veterans picked up wins in their Cardinals debuts, though in opposite fashion. Masterson labored through six innings giving up 5 earned runs and walking 3, but was the beneficiary of a sudden surge by the offense. Lackey threw 7 strong frames Sunday allowing just 2 ER and striking out 4 in a one-run Cardinals win.

August 4, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Lance Lynn seems to have settled into the #2 slot behind Waino though he’s struggled with his control this season. He’s also had a bit of bad luck in that the Cardinals aren’t scoring runs behind him (or anyone very often, for that matter.) Lynn has only allowed 3 earned runs in his last 3 starts but is just 1-2 in those games, in which St. Louis has only scored 4 runs of their own.

Shelby Miller has made enormous strides in his last two starts, and the difference lies in one immediately obvious fact: he has thrown more curveballs in that time than in most of his previous starts combined! That may be a slight exaggeration, but the youngster has relied far too heavily on his fastball this season, and a Major League starter cannot throw only one pitch.

Whatever the motivating force behind Miller’s decision to finally start trusting his breaking-ball, it’s working for him. Prior to last week’s win in Sand Diego, Miller hadn’t lasted at least six innings since June 19, a game in which he labored. Now he’s gone 6+ (7 last night) innings in two consecutive starts and that bodes well for the Cardinals and their chances for post-season success.

August 5, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Miller will likely stick in the #3 spot if he continues to pitch this way, but the new faces provide St. Louis with options for a playoff rotation that should keep fans from panicking, even in light of Wacha’s questionable return. Lackey seems to be the most likely to join the top four, with his experience and competitive spirit.

Masterson, the other newcomer to the staff, will likely be starting games down the stretch with Wacha (hopefully) easing his way back into live innings, but Justin needs to get his accuracy under control if he plans to contribute more than long relief. Wacha should also be a middle-innings guy out of the pen upon his return. My playoff rotation would then look like this: Waino-Lynn-Miller-Lackey.

 
I’ll be back tomorrow with some thoughts on the Cardinals bullpen, bench, and perhaps my final opinion on whether they have what it takes to legitimately make a run at another championship in 2014.

 

Examining the Cardinals Outfield

 

I previously went through the Cardinals infield, breaking down each position and what I thought of the starters at each spot. Today I’m looking at the outfield and their impact on the success (or potential failure) of the team this season.

 

LF

Matt Holliday entered into his Cardinals service with great scorn from me because of the ludicrous amount of money he was signed for (7 yrs/$120M.) He’s been on and off my “list” frequently since that 2009 contract, because of his streaky offensive contributions and questionable defense. Bottom line though, the guy has delivered on the deal, putting up some of the best hitting stats by a Cardinal during his tenure.

He’s been hot recently, with 7 HR, 17 RBI and a .662 SLG% over his last 20 games. He’s been better in the outfield this season than last, and his spot is pretty much guaranteed through 2016, provided he can produce in the offseason. Provided the Cardinals can GET there, of course.

 

CF

This is a much more interesting spot in St. Louis right now. Jon Jay looked to lose his place as the starter early in the season with the addition of speedster Peter Bourjos. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Bourjos never really adjusted to NL pitching (or simply isn’t very good at the plate) and has hit a dismal .219 this year. He’s been especially bad versus lefties, which effectively ruined his chance at a regular platoon with the left-handed Jay who happens to be destroying left-handed pitching so far in 2014.

July 24, 2014 – Source: David Banks/Getty Images North America

Jay was outstanding manning center field last year, but looked shaky this season, opening the door for Bourjos who can track down just about anything hit near him with his fleet feet. Jay has been solid with the bat though, and when he’s healed up from a wrist injury he’ll likely return to more every day play, with Bourjos one of the few right-handed bats off the bench.

 

RF

Now is the time of Oscar Taveras, and whither the rookie’s offense will go, so will go the chance for the Cardinals to extend their season come October. With the recent trade of Allen Craig to the Red Sox, Taveras has taken over as a regular in right, and can also play center if necessary. The organization, possibly excepting Mike Matheny, wants his bat in the lineup daily, and the expectation is that he’ll be an everyday guy for the remainder of the season.

If he can get into a groove the Cards may pose a serious threat to the Brewers for the Central title. Oscar has 3 extra-base hits including a HR, 2 walks, 5 RBI and is hitting .308 since Craig’s ousting. Looks like the youngster is ready for the challenge.

August 1, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

Sadly, the Cardinals bench is (not) enhanced by one reserve outfielder, right-handed hitting Shane Robinson, who has about as much business on a big league roster as  that Descalso chump. Fortunately, St. Louis has prospects in the AAA Memphis outfield who could potentially help the team yet this year, led by Steven Piscotty and Randall Grichuk.

 

I’ll wrap up my Cardinals evaluation next with an overview of the battery, including the starting rotation as it might look for post-season, the bullpen and the future of a certain All-Star catcher for this season. Are the Cards contenders or pretenders? Come back to find out.

St. Louis Cardinals, Contender or Pretender?

Jeff Curry/Getty Images

I’m no professional sportswriter, but I *am* a fan, which gives me the right to nit-pick, bash, bitch & moan, and play armchair GM for all my favorite pro teams, right? This is my first true foray into dissecting the Birds on the Bat. You’ve been warned.

 

After yesterday’s MLB trade deadline, I want to break down this year’s St. Louis Cardinals, position by position, and see if this is truly a team that can contend for a championship right now, or if fans are just fooling themselves into believing it, simply because we’re used to the Cards being there in October.

July 28, 2014 – Source: Denis Poroy/Getty Images North America

The Cards made a pre-deadline moves this week, signing free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski and then bringing in 7th year vet Justin Masterson from Cleveland in exchange for an AA outfielder, James Ramsey. Ramsey was projected by many fans as the best true CF in the St. Louis system, so the deal for a relatively mediocre starting pitcher was met with skepticism. Masterson was brought in to eat up innings, which he’s done in the past (he’s averaged 198 over the last 4 seasons) and will help bridge the gap between now and (hopefully) mid-September when Michael Wacha returns from the DL.

GM John Mozeliak saved the bigger shake-up for deadline day, rocking Cardinal Nation to its foundation yesterday by sending fan favorites Joe Kelly and Allen Craig to Boston in exchange for 35 year-old veteran pitcher John Lackey, minor league lefty Corey Littrell, and cash considerations.

I’m not going to examine the trades in depth today, that’ll be for another post. This is my overview of the “State of the Union” that is the Cardinals and how they stand heading into tonight’s series opener versus the Central leading Milwaukee Brewers.

1B

I’m going to start at first, with Matt Adams. Guy is pretty quietly crushing his best MLB season, and setting the bar high for his future. Hits the cover off the ball, line drives, uses the entire field, continues to beat the shift, and you could probably make a case for a Gold Glove the way the big man plays his position.

July 6, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

The only knock against him is that he’s hitting .197 versus lefties this season. Not good, but I don’t think he can get better by not facing them and with the departure of Craig there really isn’t another option for Matheny at first, especially a right-handed one. I’m not worried about that because Adams should be an All-Star cornerstone in St. Louis for a long time.

2B

At second base the Cardinals have found their man for the foreseeable future in Kolten Wong. Speed, surprising power, and youth top his list of pluses. Kong may yet lack polish, but without moving Matt Carpenter back to the middle of the infield, there isn’t a better option for the Cards at second this season, or moving forward for that matter. I’d like to see him work counts more like Marp and get on base more often. IF he can raise his OBP Wong would be the lead-off man, with Carpenter hitting second in my lineup.

I’m really not interested in seeing Mark Ellis start any more games this season, and he’s pretty much the only other choice at the position.

SS

July 6, 2014 – Source: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images North America

While his numbers at the plate aren’t going to win any awards, Jhonny Peralta has exceeded most expectations with his team-leading 14 homers this season, and has been very good at shortstop thus far. Short is an area where the Cardinals have struggled in recent years, and Johnny looks like a very good fit. It would be nice if they had a backup who deserved to play in the majors to give Peralta some rest every now and then, but playing every day doesn’t seem to bother him.

(yes, I’m specifically saying that Daniel Descalso has zero business being on the team)

3B

Matt Carpenter was an All-Star this season, though I’m not convinced he deserved to be. Yes, he’s very good at getting on base and he’s solid in the field but I think the guy is way overpaid and possibly overrated. There’s no question he was great last year, has a good hitting eye and can play at this level, but to get the kind of contract he signed after ONE full season with the big club? I was also skeptical of the deal Matt Holliday got to come to St. Louis, and that’s panned out, so I’ll give Marp time.

July 25, 2014 – Source: David Banks/Getty Images North America

That said, he strikes out looking far too often for my taste and is on pace to finish with significantly more Ks than he did last year, probably with a lower average as well. For now he’s the best bet to lead off because of his OBP, but he’s not been the catalyst this season he was last year. Will he ever be? Last year the Cardinal offense had an historic season, one unlikely to be matched, ever.

Obviously the Cardinals have struggled to score runs this season. Is it because they don’t hit enough homers? Probably part of it, but only because they’re not manufacturing runs the way they have in the past. Marp has to be the leader there and when I watch him take strike three right down the middle, it makes my stomach turn. He leads the NL in pitches seen per plate appearance, but that doesn’t automatically mean he’s one of the best hitters in baseball.

Marp showed yesterday how successful the Cardinals offense can be when he’s consistently taking good ABs and getting on base. I like him in there and he should finish up in the .290+ average range. I’m not comfortable saying this, but Descalso is Carpenter’s back-up here, so obviously St. Louis needs Marp to stay healthy to win.

I’m going to leave this for today, and pick up again tomorrow with the outfield. I’ll cover the battery in another post after that, and sort of summarize my feelings on this Cardinals team, to answer the titular question. Contender, or simply pretender?