NL Central Report: St. Louis’ Offensive Machine Keeps Churning

It’s no secret that the St. Louis Cardinals are struggling. They’ve got injuries and the pitching that is healthy just isn’t very good, either in the rotation or the bullpen. Since the middle of May they’ve been plummeting in the standings, now in third place in the NL Central, trailing both the Cincinnati Reds and the Pittsburgh Pirates. But they got a couple wins over Houston the last two nights to get back over .500 at 30-28, they’ll start getting players returning from the disabled list in the next couple weeks and possibly more after the All-Star break. And this offense has been absolutely fearsome, even when not entirely whole.

Of St. Louis’ top nine hitters—the ones with 100 at-bats or more—seven of them are potent threats that can be a leading hitter on any offense. Rafael Furcal leads off and has a .373 on-base percentage. Matt Holliday’s OBP is similarly strong and he’s hit ten home runs. David Freese has some work to do with getting on base regularly, but the power is still there, and he’s gone deep sixteen times. John Jay is one of those who’s been on the DL and is set to come off soon, and he’s got an elite-level .395 on-base percentage and his .438 slugging is respectable by any measure and solid for someone not relied on for power. Matt Carpenter’s gotten his chance to play thanks to Lance Berkman’s injury and even though Carpenter himself had to hit the DL—also to come off soon—he posted a .356/.519 OBP/Slugging line. The only two players not in on the offensive muscle are Tyler Green and Daniel Descalco, who split time at second base.

I left out one player from the litany because he deserves his own special paragraph. That’s Carlos Beltran, who was the de facto replacement for Albert Pujols (the Cards moved Lance Berkman from right field to first base and brought Beltran in to play right). Beltran responded to the pressure by delivering a .367 OBP, hit 16 home runs and has a .561 slugging. A player that’s been up and down in recent years, Beltran looks locked in and his play is a huge reason St. Louis is keeping themselves afloat in difficult times.

It all adds up to a team that leads the National League in runs scored, and is at the top in both OBP/Slugging. There’s a possibility they’ll get Berkman back in late July from his knee injury, although I’m not ready to count on that, and I even wonder how much better an injured Berkman is going to be over a young Carpenter.

There are still problems for manager Mike Matheny to deal with, especially in the bullpen. The medical team still has starting pitchers Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter to get healthy. If they can even get the starting pitching healthy and consistent, it can be enough to win this division, thanks to an offense that’s resembling a modern-day Murderer’s Row.

Around the rest of the NL Central…

Cincinnati (31-25): The depth problems in the Cincinnati offense are going to catch up to them sooner or later. Jay Bruce and Joey Votto are genuinely outstanding. Bruce has hit 13 home runs. While Votto’s only gone deep nine times, he’s ripped 24 doubles and has a .620 slugging. But with rookie shortstop Zack Cozart slumping badly and no one else coming through there’s too much pressure on the two big guns to carry the offense. And Johnny Cueto can only pitch every fifth day.

Pittsburgh (29-27): Setup man Jason Grilli has to be driving Detroit Tigers’ fans crazy right now. After a few years of mediocrity, he comes to Pittsburgh and is lights-out with a 1.64 ERA, as the Tiger bullpen is a mess. The Pirate pen is anything but. Clint Hurdle has any incredibly deep relief corps with four relievers—including Grilli—who have ERAs under 3 and two more with ERAs under 4. And that’s just the middle and setup men. Closer Joel Hanrahan isn’t quite as dominant as last year, but he’s still 15/17 on save chances with a 2.86 ERA. This offense never gives the pitching staff much room for error and the relievers are responding to the challenge.

Milwaukee (26-31): Last week in this space, it was noted that Milwaukee had a nine-game homestand to make a move. They’re 3-3 so far with the Padres coming in this weekend. At this point it’s a missed opportunity, but a series win over the weekend at least keeps them breathing and a sweep turns the homestand into a success. In a year where it seems mostly bad news or underachievement is the norm for this organization, let’s give a thumbs-up to starting pitcher Shaun Marcum. His second-half collapse and subsequent postseason problems are the biggest reason the Brewers fell short of the World Series and I wondered if he could come back. A 4-3 record with a nice 3.39 ERA shows Marcum is back to being a good #3 starter. Now if Yovani Gallardo started being a top-of-the-line arm again Milwaukee might have something.

Houston (24-33): Last week’s report panned the Astros pitching for giving up 40 runs in four games to Colorado. The arms really improved this week. In six games they only gave up 45 runs, holding opposing offenses to a dazzling 7.5 runs per game. Sorry Houston fans, I’m still bitter about this coming immediately after I sung the pitching staff’s praises. I need no help in looking foolish, but this staff certainly y rushed to help me along.

ChiCubs (19-38): A lost season for the Cubs is shaping up well for new GM Theo Epstein. There will be no one to argue when it’s time to dump players and with Chicago getting an unexpected good year from first baseman Bryan LaHair (.390/.598), Theo will have a bonus trade chip. LaHair is 30 years old and the future at the position belongs to Anthony Rizzo. With contenders looking for extra bats and usually getting desperate in July, Epstein could find a taker somewhere like Los Angeles, Pittsburgh or San Francisco. Maybe even Philadelphia might see LaHair as a short-term solution pending Ryan Howard’s injury situation.