St. Louis Cardinals: Starters keep team on fringe of playoff chase

MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 29: Luke Weaver #62 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on August 29, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - AUGUST 29: Luke Weaver #62 of the St. Louis Cardinals pitches in the first inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on August 29, 2017 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

In the CBS Sports MLB power rankings for Wednesday, Sept. 27, the St. Louis Cardinals were ranked twelfth overall. That’s about right, and the inability to leverage its principal strength shows why.

Everyone other than children and unrepentant homers know that this is a flawed St. Louis Cardinals team. Its hitting has been up and down, its baserunning horrid, its fielding somewhat stabilized but hardly high quality, and its bullpen consistently inconsistent.

But one thing has marked this team as a contender, and that is its starting rotation. Mostly healthy through much of the year, the starters have given the Cards an excellent chance in many of its games.

Sixth in MLB in quality starts (in which starters go six or more innings surrendering three or less runs) with 79, the Cards have been able to compete long into games.

The six primary starters — Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, the departed Mike Leake, Adam Wainwright and Luke Weaver — are responsible for all but five of the team’s starts, and all their quality starts. This stability has proven the steady hand that has allowed an otherwise flawed team to stay close.

Despite this highly-credible collective performance by the rotation, it’s not wholly surprising that the weight of the long season has caused our best strength to fail us just as we have needed them most.

It’s unfair to expect otherwise, of course. In this day and age, for a team to have five starters for the whole season is almost unhead of, and only six to answer the bell for 152 out of 157 games (the other five coming from Flaherty’s four and Gant’s one) is pretty darn unusual as well.

That’s why it’s somewhat painful to hear fans gripe about the outings of Lynn and Weaver on Saturday and Monday, respectively, in which they didn’t give their team a chance to compete.

Lynn, other than an elevated home run total, has been mostly the rock-steady starter we’ve come to expect. While his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) has been rocked by the dingers, his ERA+ is second best of his career, and his WHIP has held strong at 1.22. Nothing weird to see here, move along.

And while fans won’t want to hear it given the Monday collapse, Weaver has been nothing short of sensational. Here are the earned runs from his seven previous starts: 2-0-2-2-0-0-2. If that doesn’t entitle him to a clunker, I’m not sure what would. He’s not only ready to start at this level, he’s integral to our 2018 chances.

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Cmart was the latest victim, taking 92 pitches to get through only 4.1 innings Tuesday night, with an almost 2 WHIP for that stretch. True, he gave up only two earned runs and we won the game, but not in any way due to his outing, which was horrid.

On the other hand, while not meeting the high expectations he set for himself in both 2015 and 2016, Martinez has been a more than adequate cog in the team’s collective rotational success.

There is no way of knowing which rotation will show up for the remaining games of the season. With the number of appearances for the crew, arm fatigue, let alone stress on mental acuity, play a part.

And atop that, you add the foibles the rest of the team has experienced, well, consistently.  Beyond Tommy Pham in his overall offensive game and Matt Carpenter in his on-base skills, there’s little predictability of which supporting cast will show up, even if the starters (and relievers) do their part.

It is hard to imagine that the team will be able to repeat such durability from its rotation in 2018, especially when the only three for-sures headed into the offseason are CMart, Wacha and Weaver. And that means the need to fortify an erratic bullpen and a wildly fluctuating lineup becomes even greater.

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We should take a moment to thank and appreciate the great work the starting group has done for the team and the fans this year, and a nod to Derek Lilliquist for his find tutelage and support. It’s entirely possible that any last grasp for a wild card spot this weekend will fall in large part in their capable hands.