Before making the stunning trade for third baseman Nolan Arenado, Cardinals management seemed to be taking the easy-rider approach to 2021.
In my words — not theirs — I’d sum it up this way:
The NL Central is mediocre, and could be really bad, so we don’t have to go crazy. If we can stink less than the other teams in the division, we can win the NL Central.
The Cardinals would probably push back on that, which is fine. But the fact is, nothing was done to strengthen the roster before the Arenado trade. And nothing has been done to improve the roster after adding Arenado.
Hey, we just landed the best third baseman in baseball on highly favorable terms. No one else in this division acquired an elite talent such as Arenado this offseason. If we weren’t the best team in the NL Central before the trade, we’re certainly the best now.
I’m not minimizing the Arenado trade, but it fits my narrative. And my narrative, so far, is accurate and solid. The Cardinals didn’t add meaningful talent before getting Arenado. And they haven’t done anything substantive to supplement the Arenado move after he joined the club.
Starting pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina fortunately were re-signed, but that was an inevitable. The proverbial no-brainer. And the two franchise legends were retained for the bargain rate of $17 million, or an average of $8.5 million per player.
Hey, maybe the front office was correct in its low-aspiration assessment.
If the goal was to win the division or snatch a wild-card spot and get into the postseason tournament to have a go at a long-shot bid, the opportunity remains in place. A wild card, however, seems increasingly unlikely. But winning the NL Central is doable, only because the other contenders have their own flaws, vulnerabilities and worries.
In other words, the offseason view still applies now, on June 21: The NL Central is up for grabs, because no one has demonstrated the ability to run away from the competition. That could change, sure. But if the “division stinks so we can win it” strategy was the prevailing sentiment, then the Cardinals are still in the chase.
But definitely pragmatic in that Cardinal sort of way.
Let’s take a little time to scan the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals and Reds. I’ll catch you up on what’s going on with the rivals. No disrespect, Pittsburgh. But you’re 25-45 and 14.5 games out of first. I can’t include you in the group of teams contending for the NL Central title.
Most of the statistics included here are based on the National League rankings. And most of the player/team stats were compiled through Saturday’s action, though I updated each team’s record to reflect Sunday’s results.
The Record: 40-32, tied with Milwaukee for first place in the NL Central. But look closer and you’ll see a 25-12 record at Wrigley Field and a losing ledger (15-20) in road games. And the Cubs are a mediocre 16-13 vs. teams that have a losing record.
The Trend: In April the Cubs went 11-15 for the second-worst record in the NL. But their 29-17 record (.630) since May 1is second to San Francisco in the NL, and fourth overall in MLB. But things have slowed down in the last week, with the Cubs dropping five of their last seven. After losing two of three at home to Miami, the Cubs head into a patch of schedule that has games against Cleveland, at the LA Dodgers, Atlanta, at Milwaukee, and at Cincinnati.
The Good: The bullpen ERA (2.67) is the best in the league, and it’s been even more imposing (1.61 ERA) since the start of May. Since May 1 closer Craig Kimbrel and setup relievers Ryan Tepera and Andrew Chafin have been scratched for only four earned runs in 63.2 combined innings, a preposterous collective ERA of 0.36. Kimbrel has 20 saves and an 0.61 ERA. And o team has a more superior back-end bullpen than the Cubs right now … just like most teams the Cubs have been torn bi injuries, but president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer did an amazing job of signing more than a half-dozen low-cost, good-value free agents to give the Cubs a significant edge in quality depth over the ill-prepared Cardinals and, to a lesser extent, the Brewers and Reds. The bench and the bullpen are a direct result of Hoyer’s adept roster management. Despite being forced to trade No. 1 starter Yu Darvish to fulfill ownership’s payroll-slashing directive, Chicago’s resourceful front office has put the team in contention.
The Bad: The rotation ERA (4.76) ranks 13th in the NL. The situation brightened for a while, with Cubs starters compiling a 3.18 ERA in May. It didn’t last. The Cubs have a 5.52 rotation ERA in June. And while Kyle Hendricks has a fine 2.96 ERA this month, the Cubs other starters have been battered for a combined 6.44 ERA in June. That includes Jake Arrieta’s 8.20 ERA in his last five starts … the Cubs’ offense can go either way, and the inconsistency is drastic. After averaging 4.9 runs per game in May, the Cubs are flopping in June: 3.6 runs per game, .181 batting average, and a droopy .616 OPS through Sunday. This is personified by Kris Bryant; after two monstrous months to open the season, he’s batting .127 so far in June with a .400 OPS, one homer and three RBIs.
The Unknown: With four key members of the lineup slumping terribly in June — Bryant, Javvy Baez, Willson Contreras, and Ian Happ — it raises questions going forward. Can the Cubs reignite offensively? If so, how soon? There is an obvious need for a starting pitcher, and Hoyer has said he’s been assured there will be room in the payroll to make it happen … it’s hard to imagine the Cubs being in the seller mode at this point. But it’s a unique situation, with Baez, Bryant, Kimbrel, first baseman Anthony Rizzo and many others eligible for free agency after the season … Will the bullpen continue to dominate? Key question. While excellent right now, the bullpen is being pushed hard because of a flimsy rotation. The depth can’t weaken.
The Record: 40-32, tied with Chicago for first in the division. In another example of the NL Central quirkiness, the Brewers are 21-14 against winning teams but only 19-18 vs. opponents under .500. Next up for the Crew: three games at Arizona, then three at home vs. Colorado.
The Trend: The Brewers have surged and slumped all season. A 4-13 skid starting May 2, was followed by a 17-4 run through June 13. And then came a five-game losing streak that ended with two straight wins to close the four-game weekend series at Colorado.
The Good: A rotation headed by Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes and Freddy Peralta ranks 5th in the NL with a 3.38 ERA, and the Brewers have the highest quality-start percentage in the division at 44 percent. No other NL Central team was higher than 34% through Saturday … Wicked closer Josh Hader (0.61 ERA) is perfect in his save opportunities (18 for 18) … Catcher Omar Narvaez is having an underrated, overlooked season offensively … Shortstop Willy Adames has provided a boost (.521 slug, .873 OPS) after being acquired from Tampa Bay on May 21 … the Brewers remain among the NL’s best teams at playing defense, with 17 defensive runs saved according to Fielding Bible. And they’re the most efficient team, defensively, in the division … second baseman Kolten Wong has returned from the IL after his second pause due an oblique injury; he’s batting .285 with a .344 OBP and can do his part to spark the offense.
The Bad: A lethargic offense that ranked 11th in the NL runs per game (3.99) through Saturday. And the Crew is last in batting average (.211) and 14th in slugging and OPS. And the team has the worst batting average (.199) in the majors with runners in scoring position … The Brewers have received dreadful production from the first base position and the outfield … After signing a two-year, $24 million free-agent contract early in spring training outfielder Jackie Bradley is batting .151 with a hideous .500 OPS … Left fielder Christian Yelich has only three homers, but his opportunities have been limited because opponents have pitched around him — walking Yelich 23.6% of the time.
The Unknown: The Brewers desperately need a transfusion for a languid offense, and the bullpen must add a piece in the setup-relief operation that leads to Hader. The third base spot is unsettled after the recent loss of Travis Shaw to a dislocated left shoulder, but Luis Urias (age 24) has jumped on the opportunity with impressive early results. But can Urias keep it up? … President of baseball operations David Stearns is aggressive and resourceful, and franchise owner Mark Atanasio is usually willing to add to the payroll if there’s a move to upgrade the team in a meaningful way. But realistically, how bold can Milwaukee go with a thinned-out farm system?
The Record: 35-35, tied with St. Louis for third in the NL Central, 4 games behind the Cubs and Brewers.
The Trend: After enduring an extreme funk (16-27) the Reds suddenly turned white hot there for a while, winning 13 of 16 in a streak that included a four-game sweep of the Cardinals at Busch Stadium. But the momentum was halted over the weekend with four consecutive losses at San Diego. Keep an eye on this one: later this month the Reds play six straight at home against the Padres and Cubs.
The Good: A lengthy lineup led by Jesse Winker and Nicholas Castellanos ranks 2nd in the NL with an average of 4.99 runs per game. The Reds are 1st in batting average, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in slugging and 4th in OPS … Outfielder Tyler Naquin (11 homers, 43 RBI) was one of the best-value signings of the offseason … We should note this: The Reds aren’t nearly as formidable away from Great American Ball Park, averaging 4.2 runs on the road compared to 6.2 runs at home … RH reliever Tejay Antone (1.41 ERA) has been a strong presence in a weak bullpen.
The Bad: A wretched bullpen has the worst ERA (5.71) and save percentage (62%) in the NL and has allowed 42 percent of inherited runners to score (14th.) The defense is awful, having cost the pitching staff 22 runs this season according to Fielding Bible; that ranks 14th in the NL. And the problems on defense are a factor in Cincinnati’s looseness in preventing runs; the team is allowing 5.13 runs per game, which ranks 13th in the NL … and while the home setting is a happy place for Cincinnati’s hitters, it isn’t as pleasant for Reds pitchers. Only Arizona has a poorer home ERA than Cincinnati’s 5.34 this season.
The Unknown: The starting pitching has shown improvement as of late, posting a 3.13 ERA this month through Saturday. But is it just a phase? The Reds rank 12 in the NL with a quality start percentage of 29%. The continued improvement of No. 1 starter Luis Castillo is a must, as is sturdier pitching health for Sonny Gray. He’s on the IL again (groin) but is expected to return soon … Will payroll limitations prevent the Reds from adding impact talent at the trade deadline to reinforce the pitching?
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
The Record: 36-36, tied for 3rd in the NL Central, 4 in back of the Brewers and Cubs.
The Trend: Um, discouraging. Since May 14 the Cardinals are 13-21; their .382 winning percentage over that time is 13th in the NL, ahead of only Pittsburgh (.303) and Arizona (.086.) Unlike the Cubs, Brewers and Reds the Cardinals have an overall losing record (13-14) within the division. They’re 5-0 vs. the Pirates but 8-14 against the Cubs, Brewers and Reds. And the Cardinals are a supine 13-24 against teams over .500.
The Good: The last line of defense in the bullpen — Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes — is outstanding … Adam Wainwright is having a fine season, with a 3.74 ERA in 14 starts and a quality-start percentage of 57% … Left fielder Tyler O’Neill has emerged as a legit power source with 15 homers and a .591 slug … according to Fielding Bible the Cardinals have the highest number of defensive runs saved (15) of any team in the division … you’d like to see more power, but rookie Dylan Carlson has done a nice job with a .351 OBP and .756 OPS … Paul Goldschmidt has heated up in June … and even though Nolan Arenado struggled through a lengthy slump he has an .821 OPS with 21 doubles, 13 homers and 47 RBIs — and after a slow start, at least by his standards, NA has saved four runs defensively at third base.
The Bad: The obvious lapses in offseason planning has clearly been exposed, with the Cardinals proving to be largely incapable of filling in with solid replacements after being hit by injuries … Forget the constant spin from the manager’s office; the St. Louis offense has no excuses for being this sickly. Since May 5, only Pittsburgh (141) has scored fewer runs in the majors than St. Louis (149). That covers a span of 43 games, or just under 60 percent of the Cardinals’ total games played so far … The rotation was already vulnerable before Jack Flaherty went down with a torn oblique. Now it’s a mess, with the STL rotation ranking 14th in June with a 6.10 ERA … the middle-relief section of the bullpen remains a weak spot, though Ryan Helsley has pitched well over the last couple of weeks … the Cardinals pitching staff has the worst overall walk rate (11.3%) in the majors, the worst starting-pitching walk rate (9.7%) in the NL, and the worst bullpen walk rate (13.7%) in MLB.
The Unknown: Mozeliak, the president of baseball ops, is making a targeted messaging effort to lower expectations for the Cardinals as MLB moves closer to the July 30 trade deadline. Is it a head fake? We’ll see. We can talk about some aspects of the team’s performance and injury-related consequences that obviously will influence the rest of the season. But just about each one of those questions leads to the most important question of all: Can, and will, Mozeliak make moves to help recharge and replenish this team and do without tapping into his best-prospects list? If you say “No,” the pessimism is understandable.
(Note: Unless otherwise noted, statistics used here were culled from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference/Stathead and Bill James Online.)
Thanks for reading …
I will have another post ready for you this afternoon, hopefully around 2 p.m. or so.
Check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.
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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.