Now that the Cardinals have zoomed into first place in the NL Central, they should be energized and happy. But this is no time to back down.
A two-game lead over the Brewers is not a 12-game lead over the Brewers. The Crew is in a bad way right now, having lost six of the last seven as part of their 11-15 record since July 5. But this works both ways; let’s remember that the Cardinals were up by 2 and ½ games on Milwaukee on June 14, only to lose 15 of their next 23 games.
The updated version of the Cardinals is better than the team that couldn’t hold onto first place in June, but the Cards still have plenty to prove … as do the Brewers. Because of their inconsistent patterns, neither team is particularly trustworthy, but the Cardinals have become more reliable during a 15-6 stretch of winning ball since July 10. Among NL teams, only the Dodgers (20-4) and Mets (18-7) have been better than the Cardinals over that time.
The Cardinals have an easier remaining schedule than Milwaukee. The Cardinals and Brewers will play seven more games than each other, and five will be staged at Busch Stadium where the Cards are 35-20.
The Cardinals have a lot going for them, including the key additions of starting pitchers Jose Quintana and Jordan Montgomery before the Aug. 2 trade deadline. And the team is getting healthier, with starting pitcher Jack Flaherty on track to return early next month. The team defense is fabulous, and the Cardinals run the bases as well as any team in baseball.
As I pointed out late last week, St. Louis (60-48) is one of only four teams in the majors that rank among the top seven in most runs scored per game, and fewest runs allowed per game. The other three are the Yankees, Dodgers and Mets. The Cardinals seem increasingly capable of playing big-boy baseball. But to reach the next level, they’ll have to take care of business.
Let’s get the obvious things out of the way. The rotation must and the bullpen must hold up. The Cardinals can’t get hit hard by injuries, especially on the pitching side. The Redbirds will be playing a bunch of games against losing teams and can’t have any letdowns. STL’s home winning percentage (.636) ranks fifth in the majors but it’s time to get the road record (25-28) on the right side of .500.
But rather than just go with mindless cheerleading, I have a few other matters in mind:
1. Let’s go, Tyler O’Neill. Since coming off the IL for the second time this season on July 14, the hulking left fielder is batting .196 with a .333 slugging percentage, two homers, and a .650 OPS. Opponents continue to dominate O’Neill with breaking balls and offspeed offerings. This makes no sense; O’Neill hammered those pitches last season when he stood with the most impressive power hitters in the majors.
2. Offensively, Dylan Carlson must show why the Cardinals refused to trade him. With a bat in his hands, Carlson had an awful April, was excellent in May and June, and has been struggling since then. In July-August he’s batting .217 with a .291 onbase percentage, .383 slug and .674 OPS. His strikeout rate has inflated to 22 percent over that time. His walk rate has gone down to a subpar 7%.
Carlson, a switch-hitter, isn’t getting much done against right-handed pitchers. In 277 plate appearances against RH this season he’s batting .219 with a .657 OPS. Not good. In park-and-league adjusted runs created (wRC+) Carlson was three percent above league average offensively against RH pitching; this season he’s 12% below average against them.
This offense can’t peak and stay at a high level unless O’Neill and Carlson emerge from mediocrity. When the Cardinals won 17 in a row late last season, both of these dudes were mashing.
3. The leadoff spot is grossly underperforming. Is there a way to fix it? This issue is a drain on the offense and prevents the lineup from reaching its full potential. The Cardinals have a .293 onbase percentage from the leadoff spot. How bad is that? This current .293 leadoff OBP would be tied for the lowest OBP posted by the Cardinals in a season during the Bill DeWitt Jr. Era, which began in 1996. (The 1998 team had a .293.)
Tommy Edman’s overall OBP when leading off this season (.325) is OK. But Eddman had a terrible .282 leadoff-spot onbase percentage in July, and manager Oli Marmol has turned to Dylan Carlson to handle the No. 1 spot.
Here’s the problem with that: Carlson has a hideous .225 onbase percentage and .475 OPS in 201 plate appearances at leadoff this season. And during his Cardinal career, Carlson’s leadoff OBP in 261 plate appearances is a sickly .280.
Edman’s career OBP (.317) as a No. 1 hitter isn’t what this team needs, but if this is about choosing between Edman and Carlson, then Eddy is better at the job. But that doesn’t take care of the issue.
Going into next season, the Cardinals will have to upgrade at the catcher position. And unless something changes, they’ll also have to identify and utilize a new leadoff guy. There’s no need to gloss over this; the current .293 leadoff OBP is embarrassing.
4. Is Dakota Hudson really the best you can do to fill out the starting rotation? He has a 6.03 ERA in his last seven starts, and over that time his walk rate (10.3%) and strikeout rate (10.8%) are virtually identical. That’s simply horrendous. Marmol is exasperated by Hudson’s slow pace on the mound, and no matter how many times he’s told to work faster, Hudson rarely does so. If Hudson stays in the rotation, the Cardinals will likely lose more games than they win when he starts a game. They’re 3-7 in his last 10 starts. But when any other starter pitches, the Cardinals are 25-18 over the same stretch. Unless the Cards want to go back to rookie Andre Pallante as the fifth starter, a successful Flaherty comeback is imperative.
The real shame in all of this is how the organization largely wasted left-handed rookie Zack Thompson, who has pitched only 22 innings (and made just one start) for the big club all season. And he impressed with a 2.45 ERA for the Cardinals – only to be sent back to the minors on multiple occasions. Thompson has pitched 47 innings for Triple A Memphis.
The only drawback – I think – is the reluctance to have a rotation that’s packed with three lefties. But if the Cardinals give another shot to Matthew Liberatore – who struck out 10 batters in six innings in his most recent start at Memphis – they’d have three lefties in the rotation, anyway.
5. What the heck is the point of keeping T.J. McFarland in the bullpen to sit and sit and sit? McFarland has been horrible this season, getting blasted for a 6.60 ERA. Because of that, the manager and pitching coach don’t want to use him in any meaningful situation, and McFarland has appeared in just one game, a blowout loss at Toronto, since the All-Star break.
And yet … Marmol gets into situations when certain relievers are unavailable to use in a game because of workload – it happened Sunday against the Yankees. But McFarland still sits. If the manager and pitching coach don’t trust McFarland, then why is he taking up a bullpen spot? If the Cardinals are intensely serious about winning the NL Central, then why are they playing shorthanded?
Wouldn’t this team be better off with Zack Thompson in the bullpen instead of McFarland? Yes. They would. Good grief, Thompson has a 0.53 ERA as a reliever! This is nothing more than the usual payroll politics. The front office gave McFarland a one-year, $2.5 million contract to pitch this season, and that’s the end of it. He has the gig. Performance is irrelevant. Sad.
Thanks for reading …
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.