If the St. Louis Cardinals haven’t learned already, holding Major League Baseball’s best record isn’t easy. For some fans, having seven players on the disabled list is worse than only holding a 3.5 game division lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Currently without the experience of three former All-Stars and three World Series champions, St. Louis has lost four of their last seven games, also dropping six August contest to subpar .500 record teams. Injuries become inevitable throughout the course of a 162-game season, but recent setbacks have often challenged the Cardinals to organize their best 25-man roster creatively.
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Times certainly could be worse for the Cardinals, who have exceeded most expectations to a Major League best 78-45 record. However, in the dawn of a close pennant race, the Cardinals must ensure that their rehabbing pitchers and position players are fully recovered before they are either unnaturally forced back into action or provoke a series of St. Louis struggles.
St. Louis has been fortunate enough to avoid the Tommy John bug off the rubber, but other physical setbacks have challenged the pitchers to make adjustments and trust themselves in unfamiliar roles. Perhaps the largest blow came from staff ace Adam Wainwright’s Achilles injury in mid April, but it’s surprising to realize that St. Louis’s pitching staff has accounted for the most quality starts (83) and lowest staff ERA (2.68) in his absence. The bullpen has complemented the rotation’s efforts by coping with losses of veteran relief pitchers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle.
Here’s a classic case of where opportunity cost settles in. With rosters set to expand in September, it makes sense to have the extra arms ready on paper. But is it worth pressuring Wainwright into running around on a sensitive tendon, or forcing Walden back into the bullpen when innings eaters can be recalled from Memphis? When looking back at recent postseason results from Chris Carpenter and Michael Wacha after expedited recoveries, it may be wiser for the Cardinals to rest their ailing arms.
Add in the inconsistencies of the offense, then it may become tempting to explore short-term upgrades. The Cardinals have averaged just 3.6 runs per game in August, a total which has declined every month since St. Louis’s 4.38 runs per game mark in April. So it makes perfect sense to bring back the on-base abilities of Matt Holliday, the raw power of Randal Grichuk or even the speed of Jon Jay to shake things up, right?
Not exactly. The Cardinals’ offensive woes are similar to the Domino Theory in the sense that when one player struggles, then the whole lineup tends to struggle at the same time. Conversely, when one rolls, most of the bats are streaking upward. This factor makes it harder to access the potential of young bats such as Grichuk, who was arguably presenting a strong campaign for National League Rookie of the Year before his right elbow strain forced him to his second disabled list stint.
Overall, practically every member of the Cardinals disabled list finds himself a Catch-22 because of the team’s ability to grind out victories with replacements. Without the unforeseen contributions from Jaime Garcia, Stephen Piscotty and several others, St. Louis may not have been able to establish the ‘Next Man Up’ mindset or restore team confidence during some of the team’s largest setbacks.
Barring a major long-term struggle, the Cardinals have no need to rush their injured stars back into everyday action. Nothing comes guaranteed in baseball, but resting up the injured victims for better results in the future may just prove to be St. Louis’s best solution for now and possibly through October.