WELCOME TO THE REDBIRD REVIEW

Good afternoon, friends.

The Cardinals were off Monday, which gave the fellers a little time to recover from the dizziness of losing three in a row at San Diego over the weekend. But even after stalling out the Cards lead the NL Central with a 23-18 balance sheet, two games ahead of second-place Milwaukee. The Cubs, who will be in town this weekend, are in third place, 2 and ½ out.

With about 25 percent of the 162-game season in the logbook, let’s take a look back to the late offseason. Even after making the ginormous trade for Colorado third baseman Nolan Arenado, the Cardinals were left with multiple uncertainties.

None were more significant than their plans to go with an inexperienced outfield, and the depth and quality of the starting pitching and the choice of a closer.

Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch deflected the criticism and stayed with the preferred course.

Let’s do a checkup.

THE YEAR OF OPPORTUNITY FOR YOUNG OUTFIELDERS:

How’s it going? After a bumpy start and some injury issues, the planned Cardinals outfield has settled in. Since CF Harrison Bader returned from the IL in late April to join LF Tyler O’Neill and RF Dylan Carlson, the Cardinals rate among the more productive outfields in the majors.

The STL outfield since April 30:

  • 5th in batting average, .275
  • 8th in onbase percentage, .350
  • 9th in slugging, .450
  • 7th in OPS, .801
  • T-6th with 8 homers
  • T-15th with 23 RBIs
  • 9th with a 117 wRC+.
  • (Note: 100 is average.)

Thing is, even if we use the stats for the entire season to date, the overall outfield numbers are looking good — despite O’Neill’s poor start, his injuries, Bader’s injury absence and the ups and downs of rookie Justin Williams.

For the season the STL outfield is 7th in MLB in homers (19), 10th in RBIs (58), 8th in batting average, 7th in slugging, 13th in OBP and 8th in OPS (.747.) That includes Tommy Edman’s stats when playing right field.

Williams has poor overall numbers on the season including a .177 average, .592 OPS and 33% strikeout rate. But since Williams moved into a fourth-outfielder role on April 30, he’s turned in a .389 OBP, .429 slug and .817 OPS. (This includes pinch-hitting during that time.) With all the pieces in place, you can see how everything fits and works — and the outlook is encouraging.

In 2020 the St. Louis outfield had a wRC+ of 85; that’s 15 percent below league average. This season that number is slightly above league average at 104. And the production is 17 percent above league average since the three starters took their places on April 30.

Defensively Bader is plus 3 in defensive runs saved, O’Neill is plus 2, and Carlson is minus 2 in right. All three have upgraded the team speed, especially O’Neill and Bader.

Bernie’s Opinion: Mo’s plan is looking good right now. And definitely better than many expected. But there are many games to go. O’Neill is extreme in his cold spells and hot streaks. Carlson’s power numbers have gone down in May (.300 slug.) Bader’s early form against RH pitching is terrific — .805 OPS, 15% strikeout rate — but it’s fair to point out his previous malfunctions against them. Coming into the season Bader had a .669 OPS and 31% strikeout rate against right-handers.

And O’Neill can’t stay healthy. We cannot ignore this issue. He was placed on the IL Tuesday with a fractured finger that will keep him out for two, three weeks. So just when you think the Cardinals’ starting outfield is in place and can remain intact without disruption, O’Neill must leave again. This will lead to more playing time and responsibility for Williams, and perhaps a chance for a restart by Lane Thomas. And manager Mike Shildt can get Matt Carpenter in the lineup at second base by giving some RF starts to Edman.

THE STATE OF THE ROTATION: 

There’s a lot going on here. Through 13 games the Cardinals had the worst rotation ERA (6.33) in the national pastime. Over their last 28 games, the rotation ERA (2.85) ranks second to San Francisco’s 2.74. Put the two pieces together and you have a 3.80 starter ERA that ranks 11th in the majors.

Jack Flaherty is rolling. Adam Wainwright mostly has been solid. Carlos Martinez is as puzzling as ever. John Gant has great stuff but obviously doesn’t trust it and wastes pitches on walks. Kwang Hyun Kim is a low-innings, low-strikeout lefty who relies on deception. He’s been really good — until his rapid unraveling in San Diego Sunday.

Rookie Johan Oviedo provides depth and is a talented prospect, but let’s not gloss over his 5.74 ERA, low strikeout rate and inflated walk rate in his three starts. He’ll get better. Not down on him. Just pointing to the challenge of developing a young pitcher at the major-league level.

Miles Mikolas soon will return. If he stays healthy and is sharp, he will give the Cardinals a steadier hand, upgrade the depth and bolster the bullpen by pushing a current starter into a relied role.

You’d like to see this group deliver more innings on a consistent basis. But I’ve come to recognize that this desire is a lost cause in modern baseball, at least in 2021. The Cardinals are averaging 5.2 innings per start — which, believe it or not, is 11th best in the majors and not far from the top average of 5.7 (Dodgers, Giants.)

The Cards starters walk too many hitters (third-worst rate in MLB) and are No. 27 in strikeout rate (19.8%). Their first-strike percentage is the worst among the 30 teams. They draw fewer swings from opponents than the other 29 rotations.

This rotation’s hesitancy to be aggressive, attack the strike zone and trust the defense to make plays could blow up. The starters have done a fine job of squirming out of men-on-base trouble and limiting home runs. But the dangerously bad mix of excess walks + low strikeouts will eventually lead to trouble if it remains as is. To state the obvious, all of these walks tire the starters and reduce their innings. And a tired bullpen endures more innings and stress.

Bernie’s Opinion: The starters are playing with fire. Here’s why: based on the walk-strikeout imbalance, FanGraphs lists the Cardinals with an expected fielding independent ERA of 4.68. The highest (worst) in the majors. Pitching coach Mike Maddux, catcher Yadier Molina and the starters must Tweak the formula, make adjustments and reduce the risk. I like this rotation … I just want to like it more. Throw some strikes.

THREE OTHER THINGS THAT WE TALKED ABOUT LAST OFFSEASON: 

1–Who will be the closer? Answer: Alex Reyes is the closer. The demand to put him in the rotation was silly. Mozeliak was right on this one. Not because of a 100-inning limit; Reyes walks too many hitters. Always has. As a starter he wouldn’t be an innings-eating ace; not even close. He wouldn’t pitch deep into games. As a closer — and he’s fearsome — Reyes is a high-leverage, instant impact guy.

2–The Cardinals aren’t hurting because of the decision to cut ties with second baseman Kolten Wong. Tommy Edman is slumping, and Wong (in Milwaukee) is doing a slightly better job offensively. Both second basemen have saved four runs defensively. But Edman is more versatile (can play just about any position), he switch hits, and he makes a helluva lot less money than Wong. Kolten signed a two-year deal for $18 million. Edman is playing for less than a million this season.

3–The Matt Carpenter situation? So much talk about one player. It is what it is. Awkward. But he isn’t going anywhere, and I like him as a pinch-hitter.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Please 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.