The St. Louis Cardinals keep churning out wins with a machine-like efficiency. The franchise with two World Series titles in the past eight years to go with another NLCS appearance last season, is off to the best record in the National League, with an 18-11 mark coming into Saturday’s games. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will look at what they’re doing well and where the potential pitfalls might come from.
St. Louis would be summed up as follows…
- The starting pitching has been insanely good
- The lineup is its usual strong self and has room to get better
- On the negative side there have been significant injuries and the bullpen lacks depth
Any conversation about the 2013 Cardinals has to begin with the starting pitching. The quintet of Adam Wainwright, Shelby Miller, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook has been dominant. Two of them—Miller and Westbrook—have ERAs under 2.00, with Westbrook being a ridiculous 1.07 after five starts. None have an ERA higher than 2.75. That would belong to Lynn and he happens to be 5-0.
When you add up the cumulative stats for the St. Louis pitching staff, they have a combined ERA of 2.07. Needless to say, that’s the best starters’ ERA in the National League. And related to the strong performance, the starters are going deep into games. The St. Louis starters average 6-plus innings per start, also the best in the National League.
The workload can’t be underestimated, because for as good as this rotation has been, the bullpen has been problematic. The Cardinals got a big blow with the loss of closer Jason Motte for the season with an injury. Edward Mujica has ably stepped in to handle the ninth inning, closing all seven save chances with an ERA of 2.25. But Mujica’s promotion means fewer arms in front of him, and here’s where the problems come in.
Mitchell Boggs, last year’s eighth-inning man, has been awful. Joe Kelly, a young pitcher, who showed a lot of promise last year as a starter, isn’t handling the relief role. He was beaten out by Miller for a rotation spot and after the numbers I quoted above, you know a starting job isn’t opening up for Kelly anytime soon. He’s going to have to figure out how to handle relief if he wants to stay in the major leagues, at least for the short-term.
Over the long haul, it’s hard to ask the St. Louis starters to continue to pitch deep into games. Manager Mike Matheny will likely need four or five relievers he can trust if this team is going to continue playing at the level they’re accustomed to. There could be some help on an unexpected front—veteran starter Chris Carpenter, thought to be lost for the season, and his career, with a neck injury, is making noises about trying to come back in relief. We’ll likely know by the All-Star break if that’s going to work out, which would be in time for the Cards to assess their needs for the trade deadline.
However St. Louis works out their pitching, we know this team can hit. They’re doing it again this year, tied for third in the National League in runs scored. Although they rank 8th in on-base percentage and 10th in slugging percentage so there’s clearly a lot of timely hitting going on.
The Cardinals are getting a great year from Yadier Molina, the catcher who might be ready to supplant positional rival Buster Posey as the National League MVP. Molina has a .360 on-base percentage, a .459 slugging percentage and a reputation as a fabulous handler of pitchers. If he keeps his offensive production even close to its current level, he’ll deserve to be in MVP talks come September.
Carlos Beltran is also rolling, with eight home runs and a generally consistent offensive game. Second baseman Matt Carpenter was put in the lineup for his bat, and with a .353/.472 slugging-OBP stat line, he’s delivering. Matt Holliday is hitting well, though at .379/.444, you can reasonably expect a power surge to come as the year rolls on.
Where St. Louis’ attack is lagging starts with David Freese. The third baseman is really struggling in the early going, and his slow start is joined by centerfielder Jon Jay, the man Matheny needs to set the tone for the run producers. Shortstop Pete Kozma was called up late last year and hit like Cal Ripken for a few weeks, but now he’s back down to earth. On balance though, there’s every reason to think this St. Louis team will be in the top three in runs scored throughout the year.
I picked the Cardinals to reach the World Series this year, and obviously have no reason to change my mind. But they are in a tough race. In spite of the strong record, they’re only a game up in Pittsburgh coming into Saturday, with Cincinnati and Milwaukee in hot pursuit. It promises to be a fun year in the National League Central, but when push comes to shove, hasn’t St. Louis earned every benefit of the doubt?
PITTSBURGH STOCK IS UP; WASHINGTON DOWN
I mentioned the Pirates are playing well and hanging with the Cardinals. Pittsburgh has gotten a big lift from previously unknown starter Jeff Locke, who has a 2.83 ERA in five starts. Pirate catcher Russell Martin has followed in the footsteps of pitcher A.J. Burnett, and that’s to leave the Bronx and find career rejuvenation on the banks of the Allegheny River. Martin has a .357/.547 stat line and provides a solid veteran presence behind the plate. The big negative for the Pirates right now is the poor pitching of James McDonald. Instead of a year where he took it to the next level, McDonald is getting hit hard and has a 5.76 ERA. That needs to change.
Washington’s 15-15 start is getting them some negative attention after a spring training that was heavy on hype. Between the slow start of the team, the poor showing of Gio Gonzalez and the recent incident of Stephen Strasburg clutching his elbow in Atlanta, you might think it would be the starting pitching. You’d be wrong—the Nats are 3rd in the NL in starters’ ERAs and it looks like Strasburg is fine. Jordan Zimmerman has been lights-out and carrying the load while Gonzalez works out his early problems. What Washington needs is offense in general and runners to get on base in particular. We can point a finger at Jayson Werth, who continues to drastically underperform his $126 million contract.