For the St. Louis Cardinals, is this as good as it gets?

ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 24: Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after striking out against the Atlanta Braves in the first inning at Busch Stadium on May 24, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - MAY 24: Yadier Molina #4 of the St. Louis Cardinals reacts after striking out against the Atlanta Braves in the first inning at Busch Stadium on May 24, 2019 in St Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images) /

The St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting and the lineup is old and full of holes. Maybe they’re just not that good anymore…

The St. Louis Cardinals half season of mediocrity has fans gnashing their teeth and wondering if and when the Redbirds will pull it together and make a run at the playoffs. That very well could happen thanks to the Brewers and Cubs, who aren’t exactly running away with things. With all their mediocrity, the Cardinals are just a few games out of first place.

Still, after three months of inept offense — the Cardinals are 12th in the NL in runs scored — and poor starting pitching, a skeptic might channel Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall and ask, “What if this is as good as it gets?” The Cardinals have posted winning records in 17 of the last 18 years, but what if that’s over? What if this collection of ballplayers just isn’t that good?

The optimist will tell you that Matt Carpenter (.706 OPS) and Paul Goldschmidt (.741 OPS) are due for a second-half market correction. When they start hitting, look out! Yadier Molina is better than his .265/.292/.375 slash line. Jack Flaherty (4-5, 4.75 ERA) is a gifted pitcher who just needs to cut down on the 18 homers he’s allowed. Miles Mikolas (5-8, 4.34 ERA) proved what he can do when he went 18-4 with a 2.83 ERA a year ago.

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That all may be true but some facts can’t be ignored. First of all, the Cardinals have an old starting lineup. Their normal starting eight, with Dexter Fowler in right, averages 29.9 years of age. The Cubs standard starting outfit, minus the pitchers, average 26.9 years of age. That’s a big and significant difference. We tend to think of hitters peaking at 29 or so but statistician and writer Bill James published a 2017 study titled Aging Patterns that concludes that batters actually peak at 27.

The Cubs, as a unit, are in their hitting prime. The Cardinals, as a unit, are two years past their prime. It’s no surprise that Molina (36) is in decline, but the same appears to be true for Carpenter (33) and might be true for Goldschmidt (31). It’s hard to believe that Goldy won’t improve on his desultory hitting in the second half of the season, but Carpenter’s rising rate of strikeouts and big-time drop in power is alarming. Maybe the years have caught up with him.

There’s also an issue with the youngsters. Paul DeJong has been the team’s best player, but how good is he, really? The shortstop had a 1.010 OPS in April and March that shriveled to .693 in May and .655 in June.

Harrison Bader is a brilliant outfielder but that .206 batting average is unacceptable for an everyday outfielder. Among the starting pitchers, Dakota Hudson has the best ERA but his 1.511 WHIP is atrocious. Maybe he’s really good about pitching with runners on, and maybe he’s just been lucky.

The good news is that as much as the Cardinals have struggled, they’re still just a few games off the NL Central lead. They have individuals, namely Goldschmidt and Flaherty, who can play better. They have youngsters like Tommy Edman and Lane Thomas who could provide a boost. Carlos Martinez appears to be back to his old self, or very close to it.

But manager Mike Shildt won’t turn things around by running out the same old lineup day after day and crossing his fingers. He needs to recognize his team’s limitations and find ways to work around them.

Maybe, just maybe, he’s starting to do that. Shildt has tried Edman in the leadoff spot of late, with decent short-term results. The rookie has a low on-base average (.294) but an excellent OPS (.840). It’s worth the experiment because Carpenter has been a horrible leadoff hitter this year, hitting .208 with a .688 OPS, which is worse than his overall .217 and .709.

Shildt won’t give up on Carp, nor should he. The salsa maker might still win some games for this team. But he’s got to open to alternatives.

Elsewhere, Shildt needs to do something about Bader’s absentee bat. Why not try Lane Thomas in center field? And why does Yairo Munoz sit so much? Sure, sticking Yairo at second and sitting Kolten Wong would hurt the defense, but the kid should be getting occasional starts at second, third, or the outfield. Yairo is hitting .319 this year and hit .276 with a .350 OBP a year ago.

Shildt should also, finally, push Yadi back in the lineup. Molina has hit in the fifth or sixth spot in 63 of his first 65 starts, which is absurd. The catcher’s .292 OBP is the worst among Redbird starters, and it isn’t close — Wong is next at .325. Furthermore, Yadi’s 10 double plays are second to Marcel Ozuna’s 12, and his slow feet make him a base clogger. He should be batting eighth.

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This year’s Cardinals club isn’t great, but neither was the 2006 club that snuck into the playoffs with an 83-78 record and wound up winning it all. For the Redbirds to have success, the manager must recognize the team’s weaknesses. If Shildt keeps overrating his veterans and a certain few youngsters, hoping they’ll just turn it on one day, it could be a long, sad second half of the season.