The St. Louis Cardinals saw their season slipping away and fired manager Mike Matheny just before the All-Star break. The Cards are 48-46 and have fallen 7 ½ games off the pace in a NL Central that now has the focus exclusively on the Cubs and Brewers. But St. Louis is still within four games of a wild-card spot. And if anyone in St. Louis has forgotten 2011 (and we doubt anyone has), it can be pointed out that their record on this day of that year was a quite comparable 50-46. This Cardinal team has what it takes to go on a similar late-season run.
St. Louis has exceptionally reliable starting pitching. The emergence of Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty to go along with Carlos Martinez give them three starters with ERAs ranging from 2.79 to 3.24. When Michael Wacha gets back from an oblique injury later this month, he’ll make it four.
They’ve given another young arm, 25-year-old John Gant, six starts and gotten a 3.49 ERA as the result. The Cardinals’ starting rotation ranks second in the National League. There is still no other organization that churns out young pitching like this one and no asset is more likely to key a major August-September surge.
Offensively, St. Louis has struggled, ranking 10th in the National League in runs scored, but the weapons are there. Matt Carpenter is having an outstanding season and seems to lead off most every game with a home run or double. Jose Martinez is emerging as another complete hitter, and 35-year-old catcher Yadier Molina still has power, slugging .474.
Where the Cardinals are falling short is with underachievement from their entire outfield and poor bullpen work. In the outfield, Marcell Ozuna, Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler are all having very poor years and all have shown themselves more than capable of doing much better. The biggest flaw in St. Louis’ offense is an inability to hit doubles (last in the National League) and all of these players should be able to drive the ball in the gaps more consistently.
Finally, we come to the bullpen. There’s no area of a team that a manager can have a quicker impact on, with all the moving parts and matchups to work with in the course of a game. The fact the Cardinal bullpen is one of the worst in the National League is what cost Matheny his job and what they do the next two months will determine the fate of interim manager Mike Shildt.
To be fair to Matheny, there isn’t anything in the pen that excites you. Bud Norris has been functionable as the closer, but I doubt any opponents feel like a game is over the minute they see him emerge from the bullpen. There is no one else having a quietly lights-out year. If the Cardinals are serious about making late summer push—and the firing of Matheny clearly indicates they are—you have to think there’s going to be some trades made to strengthen this area.
On the surface, the firing of Matheny seemed an exercise an impatience—after all, the man never had a losing season, made the playoffs four of six years, won a pennant in 2013 and is only two years removed from a 100-win season in 2015. But I understand why St. Louis did it. The trend has been downward. And there is more than enough talent on this team to at least make the playoffs and be a major threat when they get there.