The All-Star break was fine.

No, not really.

So let’s play ball … again.

Even though the Cardinals (50-44) already have played 58 percent of their regular–season games, their “second half” resumes this weekend with three bouts in Cincinnati.

The Cardinals are breathing on the first-place Brewers, hanging a half-game out.

Here’s my list of key questions – and answers – as the Cardinals reboot their pursuit of the NL Central title.

1. What is the most important factor in STL’s second half?

All eyes are on the St. Louis front office to come through with an upgrade for the starting rotation. The team’s starters who are not named Mikolas or Wainwright had a 4.99 ERA in the first half. Moreover, the STL rotation had a 4.78 ERA on the road and a 4.43 ERA against winning teams. And the bullpen could use a high-strikeout arm.

2. Will the front office get it done and strengthen the pitching staff?

Not sure, but they’re long overdue. The Cardinals haven’t gone big for a starting pitcher since acquiring John Lackey from Boston at the July 31 trade deadline in 2014. Perhaps we’ll see John Mozeliak and his auxiliaries try to repeat last summer’s conservative, low-cost pickup that delivered Jon Lester and J.A. Happ. That turned out much better than anyone – including Mozeliak – expected. That may give Mozeliak confidence to hold onto the prospects and shop in the bargain, clearance-sale bin. I don’t know why, but I believe Mozeliak will be more ambitious this time around. Feel free to sneer at me later.

3. Assuming that STL’s first-half stars and most valuable dudes continue to do their thing, who are the primary candidates to make the most positive difference in the second half?

Easy answer. It’s got to be Tyler O’Neill in the lineup and Steven Matz in the starting rotation. Injuries damaged their viability and relevance in the first half, and both must stay healthy over the final 68 regular–season games. If injuries are a factor in the second half, then we can’t expect much from either guy.

But what if they avoid injuries? Excluding the truncated 2020 Covid-19 season, Matz has pitched well after the All-Star break in recent times, posting a 3.52 ERA in 2019 and a 2.91 ERA in 2021. As a big-league slugger, O’Neill has batted .285 with a .351 OBP, .544 slug and .895 OPS in the second half – while homering every 14.2 at-bats. The Cardinals need a replay of 2021 when O’Neill blasted 19 homers in his 66 games after the All-Star break.

4. The Cardinal offense kicked in after the All-Star break in 2021. How can they do it again?

Well, there are JUAN SOTO RUMORS  … I MAY PASS OUT … I CAN’T HANDLE THE SUSPENSE … but for now I’m going to stick with O’Neill and add the rest of the existing outfield into the equation. In 2021 the St. Louis outfielders got healthy in time to lead the team’s second-half charge on offense. After the All-Star break O’Neill, Dylan Carlson and Harrison Bader stayed healthy and triggered the outfield’s offensive production.

In the second half the St. Louis outfield ranked 2nd among MLB outfield groups batting average, second in slugging, 4th in OPS, 4th in homers, 4th in runs scored and 6th in RBI. If anything the Cardinals have more outfield talent at their disposal in 2022, with rookies Juan Yepez and Brendan Donovan performing above-average offensively this season when used in corner OF spots.

5. The Cards offense was surprisingly flat when hitting on the road during the first half. What’s up with that?

I’ll answer the question in a minute … first of all, it’s true, and STL’s mediocre road offense was a significant factor in the Cards 21-24 road record before the All-Star break. As I mentioned earlier this week, the St. Louis offense is 16 percent above league average at home this season, and two percent below average on the road. (I’m using adjusted runs created, or wRC+, as a quick-and-easy barometer). In 2021 the Cardinals struggled offensively at home, performing 6% below league average. And the hitters prospered away from Busch, performing 13% above league average. So the home/road thing has flipped from last season.

During a great conversation with STLtoday baseball beatwriter Derrick Goold on my KFNS radio show, DH mentioned the quality of opponents faced by the Cardinals in road games so far. And so I wanted to follow up on that, and Derrick was correct.

In the first half 29 of the Cardinals’ 45 road games were played against winning teams: Milwaukee, San Francisco, NY Mets, Tampa Bay, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta.

The Cardinals averaged 3.8 runs per game and were 4% below league average in adjusted runs created in their 29 road tests against winning teams.

In their 16 road games against losing teams – Miami, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Chicago – the Cardinals averaged 5.5 runs per game and were 3% above league average in adjusted runs created.

But a larger road-game disparity could be found on the pitching side.

In their 29 first-half road games against winning teams, the Cardinals had an overall ERA of 4.60 and a starting-pitching ERA of 5.63.

In their 16 road games against losing teams, the Cards had a 3.30 ERA overall and a starting-pitcher ERA of 3.29.

Here’s what makes the second half different … at least potentially: the quality of the road opponents. It’s rather extreme.

Starting Friday night at Cincinnati the Cardinals will have 26 road games against losing teams, and only 10 competitions against winning teams.

Given all of that, the Cardinals figure to be a lot more ornery on the road in the season’s second half.

NOW, ONTO THE GOOD STUFF 

Will the Cardinals make a serious run at Washington outfielder Juan Soto? After speaking to MLB team executives, USA Today’s Bob Nightengale placed the Cardinals on a list of teams that are engaging in “active talks” with the Nationals. The others are Seattle, San Diego, San Francisco, LA Dodgers, NY Yankees and NY Mets.

Nightengale wrote this about the Cardinals:

“The Cardinals’ reputation is that they hang onto their prospects as if they’re automatic future All-Stars. Well, if you take a look back, it certainly didn’t stop them from trading Cy Young favorite Sandy Alcantara of the Miami Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zac Gallen for a one-year rental of Marcell Ozuna. Soto is a whole lot better than Ozuna, and you get him for 2 ½ years. Can you imagine an outfielder mix of Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Harrison Bader and Soto? You toss him in with All-Star infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, and you have an automatic ticket to the NL Central title and a dangerous threat to win the pennant.”

Reaction to the Soto-STL rumors: I’d be surprised. But if STL has genuine interest the Cardinals could sweeten their chance to land Soto by agreeing to take lefty starter Patrick Corbin as part of the deal. They’d have to eat all or most of the $70 million that Washington owes Corbin through 2024. And Corbin has been awful over the last three seasons, pitching to a 5.61 ERA in 61 starts. But by absorbing Corbin’s money to give the Nationals financial relief, the Cardinals could trade a lesser package of prospects to D.C.

Does it make sense to give up (presumably) a large part of the future to bring Soto to St. Louis? Not knowing what the Cardinals would have to give up, I can only offer a generality … If the Cardinals can sign him to a lengthy contract extension, yes. But no extension, no deal. I know there’s a lot of jacked-up Soto admirers out there who would give up Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn and Nolan Gorman and Dylan Carlson and Alec Burleson and Juan Yepez and Michael McGreevy and Ivan Herrera and Gordon Graceffo — to have Soto play here for only two or three weeks — I’m being sarcastic, sorry — but I just disagree.

It’s OK if we disagree.

As I always say whenever trade rumors make Cardinal Nation go full tilt: I don’t own the team or make the personnel decisions or control the money or determine prospect value … and so if chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and John Mozeliak want to break character and go for Soto in a mad gamble … I’m here for it because it would be fun to have Soto here…

He’s a generational talent.

At age 23, Soto would be the foundational, benchmark successor to Albert Pujols. He would be the most illustrious long-term franchise piece since Pujols played here for 11 seasons, 2001 through 2011.

So sure, yeah, all of this is tantalizing.

And to repeat, it would be an amazing amount of fun to have Soto in the Birds on the Bat.

It would also be a ton of fun for the Cardinals to have much better starting pitching to take into the postseason. Unless Soto has decided to become Shohei Ohtani – I may have missed the news – I don’t think he can upgrade the St. Louis rotation.

If the Cardinals are willing to gladly part with prospects … well, shouldn’t they be targeting a major pitching acquisition right around now? Or did we forget about the urgent need for pitching while struggling to maintain sanity during a bad case of the Soto Fever?

What would it cost the Cardinals to extend Soto’s contract beyond 2024? Well, Soto and his agent recently rejected Washington’s 15-year, $440 million offer. Scott Boras is his agent, and Boras almost always takes his prominent clients into the free-agent market instead of signing to stay where they are. In this fantasy scenario that so many are hyperventilating over, do you think Bill DeWitt Jr. would pony up $500 million, or $600 million to keep Soto from leaving after 2024?

It doesn’t matter what you would do or what I would do … all that matters is what DeWitt and Soto and Boras would do. And just a pleasant reminder: we don’t spend DeWItt’s money. Only one guy — BDJ — gets to decide how much he’s willing to spend. So these “DeWitt has the money so get this done!” declarations are funny as hell. Just because the owner has the revenue flow to do gigantic things, it doesn’t mean he wants to do gigantic things. He isn’t a let-it-rip, what-the-hell guy.

DeWitt stuns us now and again with big-ticket contracts: Don’t forget that he offered Jason Heyward $200 million to stay here after the 2015 season. Heyward – fortunately for the Cardinals – chose the Cubbie offer instead. The Nolan Arenado trade and the Paul Goldschmidt trade were totally different than a potential Soto trade. The Cardinals knew that Goldy would sign an extension to stay here. They  didn’t need young catcher Carson Kelly because Yadier Molina was nowhere close to the finish line of his career.

Bottom line, the Cardinals didn’t have to give up much to Arizona. Likewise, the Cardinals didn’t have to send an overwhelming package of talent to Colorado for Arenado, and the Rockies were willing to partially defray the cost of Arenado’s massive contract. This was a steal. A Soto trade would likely be a lot more complicated … and expensive. It works for me if DeWitt is willing to pay whatever it takes to get Soto’s signature on a contract extension  … a contract extension so humongous that it’s guaranteed to set a major-league record.

Go crazy, Bill. Go crazy: And if y’all acquire Soto and fail to give him 500 million or 600 million reasons to play here beyond 2024, the same people that are campaigning so hard for Soto – and are willing to give up anything and everything – will savage ownership and management criticism for making the trade and seeing him take that free-agent stroll to another team. And then we’ll all get back to wailing about the front office failure to make moves to give the Cardinals a more formidable rotation.

Good times.

MANY NOTES ON MY SCORECARD

More on STL starting pitching on the road: In the 29 first-half road games against winning teams, Miles Mikolas had a very good ERA in seven starts. But the other starters had a combined 7.01 ERA in the 22 road assignments against winning teams – including Adam Wainwright’s 6.86 ERA in four starts, Matz’s 7.11 ERA in three starts, Dakota Hudson’s 6.61 ERA in seven starts, Matthew Liberatore’s 6.75 ERA in two starts, and Andre Pallante’s 8.68 ERA in two starts. Yikes.

The best STL road hitters in the 1st half: The Cards’ top five road performers based on OPS were Nolan Arenado (.904), Nolan Gorman (.898), Paul Goldschmidt (.872), Tyler O’Neill (.790) and Juan Yepez (.764.) I point that out because the Cardinals will play 36 on the road and 32 at home during the second half. The team did well (29-20) at Busch during the first half, but it’s imperative for the Cardinals to have a strong road record during the remainder of the season.

Follow-up on Nolan Gorman: The sample size is small, so there’s no reason for alarm. But there is a difference in Gorman’s home-road splits during his relatively brief time (51 games) in the majors:

Road: 80 plate appearances, 5 homers, 3 doubles, .282 average, .363 OBP, .535 slug, .898 OPS, 30.6% strikeout rate.

Home: 101 plate appearances, 4 homers, 3 doubles, .209 average, .287 OBP, .374 slug, .661 OPS, 30.1% strikeout rate.

Waino in Cincinnati: The Great American Small Park has been a tough yard for the future Cardinals Hall of Famer. In seven starts there since the start of 2017, Wainwright has a 10.09 ERA and has been hit for a .346 average and a 1.004 OPS … Wainwright has a 2.01 ERA in nine home starts this season; in nine road starts his ERA is a much higher 4.10. That includes a 6.48 ERA in his last three starts. In the last three road outings Wainwright has been hammered for a .319 average and .609 slug … Wainwright will start against the Reds on Friday night, followed by Matz on Saturday and Mikolas on Sunday.

Strong quotes from manager Oli Marmol, dished to Goold at STLtoday: “There’s an expectation here where a winning season isn’t above .500; that means nothing to me,” Marmol said. “Making the playoffs is great. It’s not the expectation. The expectation is what happened in 2011. That’s it. There’s nothing underneath that. You’re one or zero. You either win the whole thing or you don’t. In my eyes, above .500 means nothing. You either win or you don’t. There are 29 losers. There’s one winner. That’s it.”

I like it.

That’s the right attitude.

Next up for Oli: let the front office know about this. But it will be tough to nudge the bosses away from the “win 90 and grab a wild-card” mentality.

And don’t get fired, Oli.

Brewers Notes: MLB.com writes, “president of baseball operations David Stearns has a multitude of areas to explore as he looks to improve the team before the trade deadline, and prioritizing those will be critical. This team will probably look a little different come the first week of August.”

– The Crew has better top-two rotation pieces than St. Louis in reigning Cy Young Corbin Burnes plus Brandon Woodruff, and No. 2 starter Freddy Peralta (strained lat) is making excellent progress and the Brewers are confident about his return, most likely in early-mid August.

– The Brewers played 13 more games on the road than they did at home during the first half. It flips in the second half, with 41 home games and only 28 away from Wisconsin. But the Crew is only 21-19 at home so far. Of their remaining games, 42 percent will be played against teams with a winning record. The Cardinals have it easier in that area, with only 31 percent of their remaining games coming against winning opponents.

– – The Brewers will finish the regular season with nine consecutive home games. And they will play 15 of their final 19 games in Milwaukee. To stretch this out even more, 20 of Milwaukee’s last 26 games will be at American Family Field.

– A verbatim note from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Since 2018, the Brewers have a .607 winning percentage in the second half, the equivalent of a 98-win pace over 162 games. Their worst second half during that time was a mark of 42-29 in 2019.

– The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel points out how the Brewers have gotten a boost offensively by playing so many games against the Reds and Pirates. In the first half Crew had an OPS of .986 and averaged 8.1 runs per game against the Reds and posted a .790 OPS and 6.0 runs per game against the Pirates. The Brewers played a total of 22 against the Reds and Pirates in the first half and will play those teams 16 times in the second half. The Cardinals have 20 games remaining against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.

– Against opponents with a record of .500 or better, the Brewers have a poor .639 OPS this season; that ranks 26th among the 30 teams. And when competing against anyone but the Reds or Pirates, the Brewers average 3.7 runs per game.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend!

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated 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 by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app which is available in your preferred app store.

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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.

Bernie Miklasz
Bernie Miklasz

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.