It’s been a week of conflicting news for the St. Louis Cardinals. On the one hand, the Cards have held steady on the field and the sudden slump of the NL Central-leading Milwaukee Brewers has allowed St. Louis to move within two games of first place in a division that has four teams tightly packed.
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On the other hand, the Cardinals got word that Yadier Molina is out with a torn thumb, gone to at least mid-September and possibly the rest of the regular season. It’s one more problem to an everyday lineup that has not lived up to expectations.
The reason St. Louis is not in first place right now, and the reason they’re stuck in the middle of a logjam of teams, is that there’s been a serious power outage in the lineup. The Cardinals rank 13th in the National League in runs scored. It’s not because they can’t fill the basepaths—the team is 5th in on-base percentage. But cashing in has been another story. St. Louis is 12th among NL teams in slugging percentage, mainly because they are the worst National League team at hitting home runs.
St. Louis has hit 55 home runs, the worst in their league by nine. Chew on that for a moment—the San Diego Padres, a notoriously weak lineup that has three-quarters of its infield on the disabled list, and plays in one of the deepest pitchers’ parks in existence, has gone deep nine more times than a St. Louis lineup that is usually seen as American League-caliber in terms of its depth and power. Which then begs the question—who’s to blame?
We can start with Allen Craig, though it might not be entirely fair. Craig missed all of last September when his foot was in a boot and he was seriously limited in the postseason because of it. While he’s back playing rightfield, his bat has never really come back and you have to wonder if he’s really got his lower body beneath him. Craig is woefully unproductive in all phases of offensive baseball right now, coming off a stretch where he was one of the game’s more complete, and underrated hitters.
Then we move to Matt Holliday, who is a much purer microcosm of the team as a whole. Holliday isn’t having a lost offensive year—his .371 OBP is solid. But there’s no power to speak off, the slugging percentage a woeful .377. If he were a modestly paid leadoff hitter with good speed, this would be fine. As a well-compensated corner outfielder that doesn’t run well, this won’t cut it.
St. Louis invested heavily in shortstop Jhonny Peralta, a move that was not well-received among the fan base, and for most of the first half, Peralta’s poor play seemed to demonstrate that this is indeed one of the smartest fan bases in the game. The shortstop has started to pick up. A .440 slugging percentage isn’t great, but it’s gaining steam and his 13 home runs lead the team.
On a less surprising level, Matt Carpenter’s slugging percentage has tailed off. Last year, he slugged .481, thanks primarily to driving the ball in the alleys. While it’s not unthinkable he could do that again, Carpenter is more of a pure line-drive hitter and table-setter. His .378 on-base percentage is still very good and it’s gotten him to Minneapolis next week for the All-Star game. Any power from Carpenter is a bonus.
Other regulars—second baseman Kolten Wong, centerfielder Jon Jay and new catcher Tony Cruz don’t hit for power and aren’t expected to. While Molina wasn’t having a dynamic offensive year, he wasn’t doing badly either and there was at least the hope of a hot second half. With Cruz, that really doesn’t exist.
Therefore, an offensive revival in St. Louis really comes down to Craig coming back to life, Holliday finding his power and Peralta continuing to gain steam.
The rest of the team remains good enough to win. Adam Wainwright is having a big year, leading the staff with 11 wins and a 1.79 ERA. Michael Wacha has been out with a shoulder injury, but he is expected to come back and the hero of last year’s run to the National League pennant had a 2.79 ERA in 15 starts. The bullpen is respectable, ranking 7th in the NL in ERA and fifth in the more important category of save percentage. First baseman Matt Adams is the one unequivocal bright spot on the power front, with a .536 slugging percentage.
But without Craig, Holliday and Peralta driving the ball for power, the Cardinals won’t be able to elevate past the logjam of teams hoping to sneak into the playoffs. There’s nothing wrong with that, and a lot of fan bases would love to have it. But St. Louis has established a higher standard in recent years and they have the talent to attain it.
I picked them to win the World Series here on TheSportsNotebook, and off the record in conversation, I’ve said I think they’ll go back-to-back in 2015. It starts with the Underperforming Power Trio getting back on track.