THE REDBIRD REVIEW

After their three-game brooming of the Padres and a series win at Wrigley Field, the Cardinals had won six of eight. The Redbirds were closing in on the first-place Brewers in the NL Central, and the momentum was with them.

Not anymore. Momentum was lost in a bullpen fire at Tampa Bay during two consecutive losses to the Rays. With the Brewers free falling – now having lost five in a row and seven of their last eight – the Cardinals failed to seize the moment.

The visitors from St. Louis got whomped on Tuesday when Drew VerHagen’s impossibly awful sinker was swatted for the winning, three-run walk-off homer by a dude with a .150 batting average. Final: Rays 4, Cardinals 2.

On Wednesday Packy Naughton made another guest appearance as a starting pitcher and was followed by Johan Oviedo, Nick Wittgren and T.J. McFarland. Naughton made the start only because the Cardinals had to go to an all-bullpen format in this game, and the four pitchers were socked for 11 earned runs in seven innings. It was a good batting-practice session for the Rays. Final: Rays 11, Cardinals 3.

Footnote: Catcher Yadier Molina neutralized the Tampa Bay bats during a scoreless, eighth-inning chillax. It’s probably not a good sign when your best reliever for the evening is an ancient catcher – nearly 40 years old, and a 19-season MLB veteran.

To put it another way: the Cardinals played themselves a little spring-training game on Wednesday. I was hoping to see Gordon Graceffo throw a couple of innings. I wanted to see Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn get some at-bats. But this exercise in Florida wasn’t a meaningless Grapefruit League exhibition; it just looked like one. This stinker counts in the big-league standings.

After the two-loss burn at St. Petersburg, the Cardinals remain stuck at a half-game behind the Brewers. The Rays and Cards will complete their series on Thursday afternoon. If the Cards can carry a lead into the final two or three innings, perhaps manager Oli Marmol will have the opportunity to call on his finest relievers to finish the job.

We can dream, right?

NOTES ON MY SCORECARD

Accounting Department: The Cardinals (32-25) fell below .500 with a 14-15 record in games against winning teams … the Cards are 14-8 vs. NL Central rivals but only 18-17 in games played outside the division … The Redbirds are 16-14 overall on the road this year but have a 6-9 road mark in games against non-division opponents.

Bullpen Affliction: The problem for Marmol is obvious. With rookie Andre Pallante having been plugged into the rotation, at least for now, the Cardinals have only three “plus” relievers who can succeed under pressure: Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley and Gio Gallegos.

But as we’ve already discussed here at our corner table, Marmol doesn’t want to deplete them early in the season and sap their effectiveness due to exhaustion. But with the bullpen having to cover so many innings, Marmol is woefully short on solid relievers who can erect a firewall.

And the Cardinals simply lack adequate late-inning protection when Marmol resists the temptation to overload Helsley, Gallegos and Cabrera. Gallegos and Helsley each worked an inning in Tuesday’s game, but Marmol didn’t want to push them through a second inning. They weren’t back to normal status after strenuous multi-inning appearances at Wrigley Field. And Cabrera was completely off limits after pitching the final four innings of Sunday night’s 7-4 series-clinching win over the Cubs.

Marmol picked his spot to push his three best relievers in Chicago, and they won the series because of it. But that also limited their availability for the matchup with Tampa Bay, and the Cardinals already have lost the series.

Marmol finds himself in the classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario. It’s a tough spot for a manager who has so many weak relievers.

As Marmol told reporters after Wednesday’s defeat: “You give up that homer (Tuesday) and say, ‘Could Helsley have thrown that inning?’ Yes, he could have. But I sleep better at night knowing that we gave up a three-run home run on a bad pitch instead of Helsley walking in today and saying, ‘I need an MRI.’ ”

Marmol added: “At some point, other people need to get outs. That’s the bottom line.”

Unfortunately for Marmol, the Cardinals don’t have other people who can dependably get outs in high-leverage jams. The front office didn’t make a big offseason move to add an upper-tier reliever for 2022, and now we’re seeing the repercussions.

The Cardinals’ bullpen investment consisted of giving a combined $9.2 million in guaranteed money to Wittgren, VerHagen and McFarland.

The three relievers have been clobbered for 44 earned runs in 60.2 combined innings for a grotesque 6.53 ERA. Sure, better results are possible from the three as the season plays out. But here’s the other possibility: they’ll continue to be liabilities.

So far this season Marmol has gone with two sets of relievers in his bullpen:

1. Gallegos, Cabrera, Helsley and Pallante. I’m including Pallante in this group because he’s been a reliever in 18 of his 19 appearances. The fantastic four have combined for a 1.71 ERA in 94.1 innings.

2. All other relievers in the bullpen including Wittgren, McFarland, VerHagen and the disappointing Kodi Whitley. (And excluding Molina and Albert Pujols.) The relievers that aren’t in the “A” group have been torched for a 5.17 ERA in 127 combined innings. Ugh.

The Cardinals could increase membership in the “A” group of relievers if Jordan Hicks has no setbacks in his recovery from a strained right forearm. But there’s a more immediate concern: the Cards trying to get through eight games over the next seven days (including today) with an acute shortage of quality relievers.

Jun 8, 2022; St. Petersburg, Florida, USA; St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher T.J. McFarland (62) pitches in the 8th inning at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

The Bizarre Infatuation With T.J. McFarland: After another dreadful performance the lefty’s ERA mushroomed to 8.18 ERA. That’s the worst ERA in the majors among the 89 relievers that have pitched a minimum 22 innings this season. Opponents have mashed McFarland for a .374 average and 1.002 OPS this season.

In Wednesday’s game McFarland faced 13 Rays over two innings and allowed five hits, two walks and three earned runs. With one out in the sixth inning and the bases loaded for Tampa Bay, Randy Arozarena hit a routine bouncer to McFarland. Instead of throwing home for an easy force-out and a possible double play, McFarland made a casual throw to first to retire Arozarena. A run scored. McFarland had lost track of the outs. Much to his surprise, Arozarena made the second out of the inning – not the third.

The Rays’ three-run sixth inning swelled their lead to 8-3. The Cardinals were making a comeback – down only 5-3 – before McFarland screwed up in a way that’s unacceptable.

After the game, Marmol praised McFarland as a “bright spot” because he got so many groundballs in his appearances.

I’m a man of many words — too many words — but this time I have to say I’m (almost) speechless.

First, McFarland is still pitching for this team That in itself is ridiculous.

And now he’s receiving praise after what he did – and didn’t do – during Wednesday’s 11-3 debacle?

My goodness, how embarrassing.

But hey, at least McFarland had time to do his Harry Caray impersonation on the Bally Sports Midwest pregame show on Friday in Chicago.

As I’ve said many times and will now say again: the Cardinals’ standards aren’t nearly as high as they like to claim.

Welcome Back, Bro: Tyler O’Neill clearly used his time off because of a sore shoulder to clear his head and sharpen his swing. In his first two games since returning from the IL, he’s 4 for 9 at Tampa Bay with a homer and three RBI. O’Neill drove in all three of the team’s runs Wednesday. O’Neill is a hugely important presence in the St. Louis lineup. After his glacial start to the season, O’Neill has plenty of time to make a substantial impact. He can really elevate this lineup. We saw that in 2021 when O’Neill batted .286 with a .560 slugging percentage, 34 homers, 26 doubles and a .912 OPS. He won his second Gold Glove and finished 8th in the voting for National League MVP.

I Like Packy Naughton, But: Enough already with the starting gigs, OK? His ERA in three spot starts is 10.29, and seven of the 12 hits against him have been struck for extra bases. In the three starts Naughton has allowed a .364 average and .697 slugging percentage. He’s done a superb job in his six scoreless relief appearances. Given the problems in the bullpen, Naughton can help. But he isn’t being used as a reliever. He’s being used as a fill-in starter, and he’s a bad fill-in starter who has averaged 2.3 innings per start. This is asinine.

The Defense, Again: It wasn’t a good night for the boys in the field. Sloppy play. Plays not made. And an unhappy manager who said, “there were a lot of things that went on in that game that were not acceptable … there were several things that went on that were uncharacteristic to our style of play.”

I have to disagree. Forget 2021; it’s over. And the Cardinals aren’t nearly as sharp defensively as they were last season. So I’m not surprised by what we’re seeing in 2022. As I pointed out earlier this week the St. Louis defense is slipping this season.

And I have an update: Fielding Bible credits the Cardinals with only nine defensive runs saved this season, which is middle-of-the-pack defense in the majors.

There’s also an update on Tommy Edman and Nolan Gorman: Edman is a minus 1 in defensive runs saved at shortstop, and Gorman is a minus one in runs saved at second base.

Gorman had issues at second base in Wednesday’s loss.

Just a reminder that STL’s left-handed hitters are batting .167 with a .259 slugging percentage and .497 OPS when used at DH against right-handed pitchers.

Fun With Projections: According to the FanGraphs simulations model, the Cardinals are projected to finish with 85.6 wins – behind Milwaukee’s 89.9 projected victories. According to FanGraphs the Cardinals have a 28.4 percent probability of winning the division, and a 52% chance of making the postseason. These projections can change quickly. I just like to check them because they’re interesting.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the day baseball.

–Bernie

Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical 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 “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and 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.