A Look at the Cardinals at the Break

It’s not going to get any better, I don’t think.

I’m not necessarily talking about the Cardinals, though I think there’s a case to be made that what you see may be what you get.  No, I’m talking about my ability to stay up to date and write in a semi-regular manner instead of letting games pile up before we sort through the Heroes and Goats.  Honestly, I’m considering letting those go by the wayside next year, though I worry that if I don’t have that hook, if I don’t have that push to write regularly, I will eventually fade away to just Twitter and podcasts.  Which might be for the best, who knows?  Anyway, we’ll do a quick recap of Heroes and Goats for the West Coast trip at the end of this post, but before we get to that, let’s talk about where the Cardinals are right now.

Around the equator, there’s a belt called the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, where the winds from the northern hemisphere collide with the winds from the south, pushing against each other.  Sailors in that area get stuck as the winds don’t really exist on the surface.  There’s a word for that area: the doldrums.  And that, my friends, feels like the best definition of where the club is at right now.  They can’t get enough traction to push upward but they aren’t bad enough to sink downwards.  (The rest of the division is helping out with some of that latter part.)  They feel like they are stuck in this vortex where they won’t be able to make the playoffs for the fourth straight year but also will wind up with the 19th pick in the first round of the 2020 draft, reducing their options for an infusion of talent.

You remember your mistakes more vividly than your correct guesses at times and I distinctly remember saying, in a Meet Me at Musial right at the end of April, that I thought this team was too good to go on any extended losing streaks.  They immediately hit May and stopped winning, with a bit of a rebound in June.  While the offense has been fingered as the problem, as well it should be, it’s also almost an unfixable one.  It might be noted that, with Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina (coincidentally or not, right after Rusty wrote his great examination of Yadi’s stats) out of the lineup to heal, the Cards put up some runs on the West Coast trip.  That comes with a couple of caveats, however.  One is that those teams, especially Seattle and San Francisco, aren’t that good.  The second is that they didn’t even go .500 on the trip.

And that’s the real trouble, as Tara and I talked about this week on Gateway to Baseball Heaven.  Patch one hole and something else springs a leak.  Get some good offense and that’ll be the time the starting pitcher can’t get out of the third.  Dakota Hudson went against the Padres and instead of that being a win for the Cards, they lost by 10 because Hudson didn’t have it that night.  They score four runs in a Miles Mikolas start and lose by that many because the outfield defense got shaky and Mikolas served up a grand slam.  Michael Wacha can start to make you believe that there’s still something left with three strong starts out of four, only to allow four runs in 3.1 innings to a Seattle team that sits 20 games out at the break.

So what can you do?  Jon wrote about that here at the Conclave a week ago and the issues really haven’t changed.  You have to hope that Matt Carpenter comes back healed and somewhat returns to his normal form, that Paul Goldschmidt‘s binge this past week was a sign of things to come and not just because he was back in familiar territory, that Yadier Molina heals up to be productive enough at the plate when they run him out there after the break (obviously his Instagram fingers are still working fine….), and that Marcell Ozuna can heal from his hand injury and provide the offense that he has given on the regular this season.  There’s no big hitter walking through that door and even if there were, where do you play them?  There’s a strong argument you could upgrade center field, at least overall (you aren’t going to be able to get someone that plays defense better than Harrison Bader, most likely, but the upgrade in offense would more than offset moving Bader to a defensive replacement) and maybe you could talk about moving Kolten Wong for the same reason (just not around Tara), but I don’t know that the sluggers for those positions are out there and could be acquired by John Mozeliak.

The bullpen, knock on wood, has been the best part of this team over the season and I don’t think they can do much there.  You could make the argument that they could go get a Will Smith or something of that nature, install them as closer, and move Carlos Martinez back to the rotation to shore up that issue.  That’s a fair discussion to have, but you also have to figure that, by this point, it’d take until mid-August for Martinez to really get back to being able to go deep in games.  Until then, you’d have to make sure someone like Daniel Ponce de Leon is available on Martinez days as he starts out by just going two or three innings, then works his way up to six or seven.  Of course, asking him to go seven might be a stretch since no one else on this staff does it on a regular basis.

So it would seem the Cardinals go out and get a starter.  While the rotation might be able to absorb two of them, right now there’s only one spot and even that brings its own issues.  Miles Mikolas might be glad that he signed the extension in the spring, because otherwise I feel he’d be just getting a qualifying offer from the team after this season.  He signed that extension, though, and he’s staying in the rotation.  That’s not a huge issue, of course.  He’s not been as consistent but he’s still shown plenty of ability.

Speak of inconsistency and Jack Flaherty‘s ears always perk up.  Flaherty looked remarkable Sunday but four of the five starts previous he gave up at least four runs and didn’t go any deeper than one out in the sixth.  The talent is there and if he’d stop letting one of every five fly balls from leaving the yard, the results would probably look better as well.  No matter, he’s going to stay in the rotation–even though he has an option, there’s no way they send him to Memphis to “get right”.  He is what he is and the only way he’s going to improve is going up against major league hitters and adjusting.

Adjusting is something that Dakota Hudson seems to have done and in May and June he was probably the best pitcher the Cardinals had going.  There’s still questions about Hudson and I do think he’ll probably take a bit of a step back in the second half, but he seems to have improved his walk rate and while the strikeouts are still too low (which has always been my issue with him), the ground ball rate of 1.62 since May 1 can do a lot to offset his inability to get the punchout.

Probably the most consistent pitcher has been Adam Wainwright.  He’s not been the best, but it feels like right now you can count on Waino to give you a quality start or something close to it.  Since May 22, he’s only given up four runs once in a start, though in fairness one of those starts only lasted 4.1 innings.  We thought at the beginning of the year that about now we’d be looking at Wainwright as the weak link, that maybe he’d have been shifted to the bullpen or even decided to hang it up, that if a pitcher was needed (which, let’s be fair, we never really thought with this depth that there would be a need to get someone from outside) that Wainwright would be the odd man out.

If Michael Wacha had pitched like he could or we thought he would, maybe we are still having that conversation about Wainwright even with the results that he’s put up.  It’s safe to say that a 5.54 ERA, a 6.22 FIP, and a 1.638 WHIP is not what we expected from Wacha.  If anything, we would have guessed an injury that might have hampered him or taken him out of the equation, but from all accounts he’s healthy.  He’s just…bad.  He’s given up four runs or more in seven of his 16 appearances.  He’s given up six or more runs four times, including in an inning of relief against the Phillies.  Now, five times he has given up zero or one run, which is just enough of a tease to make you think it’s still in there.

I’ve said before that the organization isn’t likely to just dump Wacha by the side of the road given all that he has done for the club over his tenure.  He’s not going to be a Cardinal next year by any means but they aren’t going to waive him or the like, I don’t believe.  That said, that doesn’t mean they won’t try to upgrade that spot in the rotation.  I don’t know if they really make a play for Madison Bumgarner, who would be a step up from Wacha to be sure (though how much he has overall is definitely up for debate) but no matter what they do, if they can get a reliable starter in that spot, it helps.  Does it help enough?  Nobody has any clue.

Which brings us basically full circle.  John Mozeliak could easily sit on his hands at this trade deadline.  Folks would gnash teeth and say the front office doesn’t care, but exactly what do they do that makes this team more than a middling squad?  The only thing that gets them out of the doldrums is a reinvigorated offense and the parts for that are already on the staff.  I’m not saying that Mo doing nothing is the right move or that there’s no deal that helps this team out there.  I’m just saying that even without doing anything, the Cardinals could catch fire and make a move up the standings.  The fact that they are just two games out helps–thank goodness this NL Central hasn’t been as good as we thought, even if it has been as close.  (As I’m putting this post together, I see Jon has already covered this as well.)

And, let’s be honest, what do they have to deal away?  They aren’t going to be moving Nolan Gorman or Official Prospect of the Blog Dylan Carlson for a middle reliever.  Those guys are guys that go for someone like Max Scherzer and that’s not going to happen.  Are there other gems in the minors?  I know Junior Fernandez is rising quickly, but what would he bring back?  Can the Cardinals really make the big splash that it might take to get them out of their postseasonless rut?

The Cardinals sit in the doldrums.  They are Thanos’s favorite team as their record is perfectly balanced, as all things should be, and they don’t seem to be able to get away from that .500 mark very far.  Whether they can snap their fingers and take control of their destiny remains to be seen.  Hopefully they have a run in them.  Because sitting in the doldrums is a good way to wither.

All right, quickly, Heroes and Goats for the record:

Saturday, June 29 (12-2 loss at San Diego)

Hero: Tommy Edman.  His leadoff homer made it seem like this game would be different.  It was, but not in the good way.

Goat: Dakota Hudson.  Sure, he got a little BABIP bad luck and the Padres flared a few hits, but he also did a Lance Lynn from the 2012 NLCS by completely missing a throw to second and then gave up back-to-back homers.  The short night wasn’t all his fault, but it was a lot his fault.

Notes: The Padres have some sluggers, don’t they?….Daniel Ponce de Leon went 5.1 innings, which is a remarkable relief stint, and struck out nine.  Still allowed four runs, though….Cards struck out 12 times and had only five hits.  Not winning many games like that.

Sunday, June 30 (5-3 win in 11 at San Diego)

Hero: Matt Wieters.  Hit a tiebreaking homer in extra innings, get a Hero tag.

Goat: Tommy Edman.  Probably his first real bad game, going 0-5 with three strikeouts.

Notes: Give the team a little credit, because down 3-0 after five on a getaway day could have been a recipe for shutting it down and moving on.  Instead, they rallied thanks in large part to Yairo Munoz and good baserunning by Paul Goldschmidt….the bullpen was outstanding, giving up just two hits (though four walks) and striking out nine in five innings of work…Miles Mikolas gave up three in six, a quality start even though he gave up another home run, something almost everyone in this rotation does way too often.

Tuesday, July 2 (5-4 loss at Seattle)

Hero: Jose Martinez for his two home runs, though I would have also accepted Yairo Munoz for his big two-run homer in the seventh that brought the Cards even with the M’s.

Goat: Giovanny Gallegos.  Gallegos has been outstanding and even here he struck out the side, but he allowed what turned out to be the game-winning homer to Tim Beckham after the club had tied it up, which is a tough pill to swallow.

Notes: Jack Flaherty had a lot on his mind pitching after the death of his friend Tyler Skaggs, so maybe we should discount his four runs in less than five innings.  The problem is that we’ve seen a lot of similar starts this season….good to see some power in a park that is more thought of as a pitcher’s park….good bullpen work, even though Gallegos got touched.

Wednesday, July 3 (5-2 win at Seattle)

Hero: Tommy Edman.  Three-run, tie-breaking homer in the ninth?  That’ll play, young man.

Goat: Kolten Wong.  0-3 with three strikeouts and pinch-hit for with Edman in the ninth.  We love the glove but the bat has to play some.  Maybe with a thriving offense you can carry one defense-focused player.  Right now 1) the offense isn’t thriving and 2) you have three (Wong, Harrison Bader, and Yadier Molina, in truth) that are defensive specialists.

Notes: This was the third straight game the Cards had rallied in the later innings.  That feels to be a good sign that the offense really is starting to wake up.  In May and honestly much of June a deficit after six would have made the game seem as good as over.  I’ll be truthful: I went to sleep after the seventh figuring it was over.  I might have gone to bed either way–the West Coast games are tough–but I might have at least entertained the idea they would rally in other years.

Thursday, July 4 (5-4 win at Seattle)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Two hits, including a two-run homer in the fourth that tied the game up at three.

Goat: Yairo Munoz.  He “wins” the tossup between him and Paul DeJong because he left three (instead of two) men on base and struck out once.  Both went 0-4 in this one.

Notes: Michael Wacha scuffled, allowing four in 3.1 innings.  At least Mike Shildt has shown that he’s willing to use the hook pretty early….Matt Wieters with another home run in a big spot.  Do you think he’ll get more than one day every two weeks when Yadier Molina is “healed”?  I hope so….Daniel Ponce de Leon with another step in to stablize the team and gets rewarded with the win.  There doesn’t seem to be any reason to send Ponce back to Memphis, though I’m a bit hesitant to hand Wacha’s spot to him and call everything good.

Friday, July 5 (9-4 win at San Francisco)

Hero: Dexter Fowler.  Three hits, including another homer.  Perhaps he just really likes the West Coast.

Goat: Dakota Hudson.  Staked to a three-run lead before he even took the mound, Hudson immediately gave two back and the third a couple of innings later.  Not the worst start, but couple that with his San Diego one and you wonder if he’s trending the right way.

Notes: Plenty of punch in this one, which unfortunately was the last win of the first half….Kolten Wong with three hits, which was a great sight to see….Paul Goldschmidt and Jose Martinez also went yard as the offense beat up on Drew Pomeranz and the bullpen.

Saturday, July 6 (8-4 loss at San Francisco)

Hero: Paul Goldschmidt.  His three-run homer (his second hit of the night) at least made it a presentable score.

Goat: Miles Mikolas.  I struggle to determine how much blame for the grand slam to assign to him, but in the final analysis he did give up the home run even if the defense behind him helped put the runners on.

Notes: I spoke well of Tyler Webb in the last Meet Me at Musial so of course he comes out and gives up three runs here and puts the game out of reach….ten hits in this one, which again would have been more impressive if they hadn’t allowed eight runs.

Sunday, July 7 (1-0 loss at San Francisco)

Hero: Jack Flaherty.  For all of his issues, Sunday showed exactly why so many people have such high expectations for the young hurler.  My Musial partner Allen Medlock noted that it was a short game, which may have been in part because people were ready for the break, but that shouldn’t discount just how well Flaherty’s pitches were moving and staying low in the zone.  He had no-hit stuff, there’s no doubt about it.

Goat: Matt Wieters.  0-3, one strikeout, three left on.

Notes: This game is probably different if Kevin Pillar doesn’t catch that drive of Paul Goldschmidt’s in the seventh.  A run scores there and Goldschmidt is on second at least….Jeff Samardzija is good, but I’m not sure he’s four hits in seven innings good.

That wraps the first half.  This weekend is the annual blogger event in St. Louis, so we’ll probably not get together again until early next week.  Which isn’t exactly out of character, is it?

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Last updated: 10/06/2022