Cardinals GM John Mozeliak won rave reviews for the moves he made this past offseason, and in particular for the trade that sent David Freese and Fernando Salas to the Angels in return for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. In one fell swoop, the thinking went, the Cards had improved defensively at three positions, opened the way for Kolten Wong at second base, and, in Wong and Bourjos, added an element of speed that the club had been missing for years. Its 45 stolen bases in 2013 were by far the fewest in the National League.
A few weeks earlier, the signing of free-agent shortstop Jhonny Peralta hadn’t been quite as universally acclaimed, given his 2013 PED suspension and the $53 million price tag. But with Peralta set to replace the punchless Pete Kozma and Matt Adams ready for a more permanent role at first base, the Redbirds looked to have upgraded in the power department as well, after a season in which the club’s home-run total and ISO ranked fourth- and sixth-worst in baseball, respectively.
Adding both speed and power to an offense that had already led the majors in runs in 2013 had Cardinals fans salivating over what could lie ahead in the new season. “Cardinals will be faster, stronger,” read a Post-Dispatch headline as Opening Day approached, as the incomparable Rick Hummel gave voice to the high hopes of fans everywhere:
"Center fielder Bourjos and second baseman Wong provide a dimension of speed and the ability to steal 30 bases, which hasn’t been seen here since Renteria swiped 34 in 2003. …“Allen can hit 20-plus home runs,” said Carpenter. “Who knows how many (Matt) Adams could hit in a full season? He could hit 25 or 30 and Jhonny will more than likely hit more homers than our shortstops hit last year.”"
Safe to say things haven’t gone quite as well as many of us expected them to.
Though Wong has managed to become the first Cardinal to steal 20 bases since Cesar Izturis in 2008, Bourjos has stolen just eight — even if you adjust for reduced playing time, a far cry from the 40 he said was his goal at January’s Winter Warm-Up. The club’s 54 stolen bases are already more than it stole last year, but still only good for a tie for third-fewest in the majors. What’s more, according to FanGraphs’ Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric, the Cards’ performance on the basepaths ranks 24th overall, after a top-ten finish in 2013.
Of course, the season’s real disappointment has been the club’s continued, and worsening, power shortage. Even with Peralta producing as advertised, the Redbirds’ 95 dingers are the second-fewest in baseball. They’re on pace to hit just 105 home runs on the year, a 16% decrease from last season’s already-dismal number, and to record just 404 extra-base hits, which would be the franchise’s lowest total since 1995.
It’s hard to succeed with such a severe lack of two of the game’s most essential tools. The Orioles have stolen a league-worst 39 bases on the year but have made up for it with a league-best 192 home runs. The Royals, meanwhile, have hit fewer home runs than anyone else but lead the majors in stolen bases. And then there are the Cardinals, who enjoy the worst of both worlds, ranking dead-last in the majors in Bill James’ combined Power/Speed stat.
And yet through it all the Cards have found ways to win, and to keep winning, and with 15 games to play they find themselves in the same place the Orioles and Royals do: first place. Their current ISO of .118 would be lowest of any playoff team since the 1988 Dodgers. They’d be the first playoff team with a sub-.120 ISO and fewer than 70 stolen bases since the 1974 Pirates. That’s probably not the way this club would prefer to be exceptional, but it’s exceptional all the same.