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.

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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.

 

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?

Happy Opening Day 2014, MLB Fans!

YADICOVERMost of my writing these days is over at BleedinBlue.com where I wax poetic on the trials and tribulations of the St. Louis Blues. This year there have been fewer tribulations and a lot of success, and the playoffs are only 2 weeks away. Today is Opening Day of the 2014 Major League Baseball season for the St. Louis Cardinals who are picked by most to win the Central Division. Some even think they’ll go all the way to the World Series again.

There have been three MLB games already played, all involving the Los Angeles Dodgers, a team I loathe and for whom I wish nothing but failure and misery. Today is the real Opening Day, and the Cards are in Cincinnati for a three game series against another team worthy of intense hatred and disgust, the Reds. They’re thugs and punks and will no doubt cry, “Woe is me!” when the Cards whoop their ass this week due to a myriad of big names starting the season for the Reds on the Disabled List.

While you’re waiting for the game to start, an afternoon affair that begins at 3:10 St. Louis time, go read a very good article on the Cardinals from Sports Illustrated’s by Ben Reiter. The article is on his blog, and talks about the wealth of depth that makes St. Louis a perennial contender. Ben also has the cover story for the March 31 issue, a wonderful piece on Cardinals MVP Yadier Molina. Go get it from your local newstand, it’s good stuff.

 

The Boys are Back!

noteNo, I’ve not posted here in a long time or really written much of anything in a long time. Life gets in the way of the things we love sometimes, eh?

The Boys I speak of above are, of course, the St. Louis Blues of the NHL. The Blues opened their season with a home game last night against the Nashville Predators with a big win! Words cannot express how excited I am about hockey starting again, and like last year, I’ll be writing about the Blues over at BleedinBlue.com.

BB_FBCover

I’m not the only great writer (see what I did there?) on the BleedinBlue.com staff, so be sure to browse thoroughly, there’s a lot of good stuff there and with a full season (thank the Hockey gods!) there will be even more content this year than last.

I will once again be wagering the success of the Blues against some friends and their respective hometown teams, though it’s more of a “Twitter Friend Bet” this year, as one of them is more or less (semi?) retired from blogging.  I won last year and I think I’ll win again this year. I’m already up a point on the Wild and 2 on the Flyers. Yes, J, SD, I went there, whatcha gonna do about it? 😉

CARDSOne of the beautiful things about October, and one reason Fall is my favorite season, is that in addition to hockey starting up, the MLB playoffs have begun, and it’s always more fun when the Cardinals in involved. They murdered the Pittsburgh Pirates in Game 1 of the NLDS at Busch III last night, 9-1. The Pirates are the media darlings this year, the little engine that finally could, and while it could be a good series, the Birds on the Bat are off to a smashing start. Game 2 is another home game this afternoon. GO CARDS!

Other reasons Fall is the best: Baked Maple Pumpkin lattes from Kaldi’s Coffee in Kirkwood, cooler weather, honeycrisp apples, and Thanksgiving.

Stay tuned to this station for commentary on the Cardinals and Life in General and be sure to check out BleedinBlue.com for Blues news and notes. Thanks!