The St. Louis Cardinals have just passed the official halfway point of their season, and there are so many things that are unclear for the short-term future of the team. This team is drastically different from last season, and is the start of a slow transition into a new Cardinal generation.
This is the first time in almost a decade that St. Louis Cardinals fans have seen their team struggle like this over the first half of the season, and much of it has to do with the slight breeze of change blowing on the face of new president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and the Cardinal organization.
Here are some things what we have learned about this St. Louis Cardinal team over the course of the year.
The Farm System keeps on churning
One of the few bright spots in a tough first half of the season is the exhibition of young Cardinal talent from throughout their minor league system. Despite the tragic loss of top prospect Oscar Taveras in 2014 and the unfortunate injury of Alex Reyes that has forced him to miss the 2017 season, the St. Louis Cardinals have had no problem injecting fresh, young talent into the lineup.
Five players have already made their debut this season, and this emphasis on giving the younger players experience was most explicitly displayed on July 1 against the Washington Nationals, when Mike Matheny elected to put four rookies into the starting lineup.
Now this wasn’t against some middle of the rotation pitcher, it was against established starter Gio Gonzalez and his 2.77 ERA this season, so it was clear Matheny wanted to test these guys.
They didn’t fail to deliver. It was the 26-year-old rookie Alex Mejia driving in another 26-year-old rookie in Luke Voit on a full count against Gonzalez and a home run by Mejia that proved to be the only runs scored in the game for the Cardinals. Sure, the pitch may have been a mistake down the middle, but at least he capitalized.
The other youngsters played well in their own respect. While he took two floating curveballs for strikes on the at-bat, you can’t fault Paul DeJong for picking up a hard fought walk in the second. Voit had a web gem at first off a liner from Daniel Murphy that had flashes of another big former Cardinals first baseman (no, not Matt Adams).
Jose Martinez and Randal Grichuk didn’t see the ball particularly well that game, but they showed their potential with hard hit balls on pitches outside the strike zone. Grichuk in particular demonstrated some impressive power.
Having opportunities for experience (or in Grichuk’s case, opportunities for consistent playing time) will be invaluable for these guys in the future, and the struggles the Cardinals have dealt with offensively have enabled that to happen. But of course, that’s not the only aspect the team has experienced struggles in this year.
The Pitching staff…not churning so much
Not much needs to be said about the state of the relievers than has already been said. No one in the ‘pen can throw enough strikes to get guys out consistently, much less be a closer on a winning team.
Whether it be embattled ex-closer Trevor Rosenthal taking some speed off his pitches in exchange for control or trading for some bullpen help, the Cardinals need a talented and consistent answer outside of the starting rotation.
These problems are not local to this year, though. For the St. Louis Cardinals, poor relief pitching has been the norm for years. While there are gems like Octavio Dotel and Jason Isringhausen that appear here and there, they have been consistently over-shadowed by the Ryan Franklins, the Marc Rzepczynskis, and the Fernando Salases of the world that have festered in the Cardinal bullpen in recent memory.
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So why is it such a problem now? Well, it starts with the expectation at the top. With Seung-Hwan Oh and Rosenthal both struggling with their location, there is no one with the experience, control, and arm strength to be able to close games consistently for the team. Not only that, other key relievers who were bright spots in last year’s mediocre bullpen, like lefties Kevin Siegrist and Zach Duke, have been unable to contribute.
As a result, guys are making more mistakes and other teams are capitalizing.
In 2016, the bullpen surrendered fifty-nine total home runs. This season, they are on pace to give up seventy-two long balls. This has resulted in tough treading for everyone in the bullpen, with no reliever having a sub-3.50 ERA on the season.
Having a mediocre bullpen is tolerable if you have one or two guys you can count on there, and the Cardinals had done a good job keeping that up. Well, until this season.
The Offense is struggling, but it’s not a lost cause
We can’t place all the blame on the relievers, as the offense has not held up either. The team’s batting average is comparable to last season, and were each ranked ninth in the NL in that category.
However, while the 2016 team made up for it by packing pop and leading the NL in home runs, this year’s team has struggled with their pop as well, currently ranked ninth in the NL in homers. Together, this has resulted in the Cardinals sitting in the bottom third of the MLB in runs.
This inability to create breathing room for relievers through insurance runs has made it tougher for these relievers than it already is. Almost 55 percent of the Cardinals’ games this season have been decided by two or fewer runs, and the team is sub-par 20-24 in those games.
They are not much better in one-run games, currently holding a 12-15 record. And finally, of the twenty-four losses in two-run games, Cardinal relievers received the loss in fifteen of them.
Disappointing years from Stephen Piscotty and Matt Carpenter combined with the departures of established power hitters Matt Holliday and Jhonny Peralta have left the Cardinals depleted both in the power department and of left handed hitters in general.
No player on the St. Louis Cardinals has ever driven in more than ninety runs in a season, and the most reliable hitter this season is a .245/.305/.440 career hitter. Not a recipe for success.
With some shakeups in the lineup and the introduction of new talent, not all hope is lost. We saw that the Cardinals still have the ability to hit and score in bunches like they did against Jeff Locke and the Marlins on Monday. And the 2010 Cardinals showed that you can win with contact hitting (though having two players with 30+ HR’s helps).
Perhaps it is the integration of guys like Voit and Mejia that help bring the Cardinals offense back to the level of success that Cardinal fans are used to seeing from their squads. It might be a trade that brings in power or a go-to reliever who can be both reliable and consistent.
Whatever the change may be, adding players or a reversion from one of the struggling players to benefit the team in any of these areas will help relieve pressure on others, and will be the key towards a postseason run.