Here they come again. That’s what the National League has to be saying about the St. Louis Cardinals right now, who are holding a two-game lead in the push for the second wild-card spot as they head into tonight’s key series finale in Pittsburgh. That the Cardinals have played themselves back into position can’t be that big of a surprise given the caliber of this team’s offense and the fact there’s one more playoff spot available than last year. What does have to be considered a surprise is that it’s St. Louis’ starting pitching that’s carrying them…
The Cardinals are sixth in the National League in ERA, just one spot behind the renowned pitching staff of San Francisco. And if we look at starters’ ERA, they jump all the way to third, trailing only the Dodgers and the pitching-rich Nationals. Given the pitching environment that Los Angeles plays in, it’s not too much to suggest that St. Louis’ rotation has been the second-best in the National League.
How can this be? Chris Carpenter hasn’t pitched all year. Adam Wainwright was coming back from elbow surgery and got off to a terrible start. Jaime Garcia got hurt early. Lance Lynn was just yanked from the rotation after getting knocked around in Cincinnati on Friday night. Let’s run through the arms who are making it happen.
Kyle Lohse: The righthander was an unheralded part of this rotation a year ago and this season Lohse is 14-2 with a 2.67 ERA in 27 starters. He’s got to at least be vetted for Cy Young consideration, even if you don’t end up choosing him.
Adam Wainwright: Yes, he had the terrible start we noted above. In August he posted a 1.47 ERA and his season-long mark is 13-10 with a now-respectable 3.66 ERA in 26 starts. Given his recent form it looks safe to say the old Wainwright is back.
Jake Westbrook: I was critical of the Cardinals’ when they acquired him at the 2010 trade deadline and in columns and podcasts afterward made hay over the fact St. Louis fell apart down the stretch in ’10. The last laugh is on me. Westbrook is a steady veteran presence, with the same 13-10 record as Wainwright in the same 26 starts, and the ERA is a consistent 3.94.
Then we move to the three pitchers who have more or less shared the last two spots. Lynn might have worn down in his first year as a starter, but his 13-5 record and 3.89 ERA in 13 starts bought valuable time for Garcia to get healthy. And speaking of which, Garcia posted a 2.57 ERA in the month of August, suggesting he’s on his way back to the form that makes him a good #2 or #3 caliber starter. Finally there’s young Joe Kelly, who’s gotten eight starts and while the record is just 4-5, the ERA is a sharp 3.26.
We know St. Louis has got the offense. Whether they have the bullpen is going to be a big question these next four weeks and possibly longer. But they’ve got the starting pitching and that’s not something to make anyone in the National League real comfortable.
It’s a new era for last year’s World Series champions in St. Louis. The Cardinals have a new manager, as future Hall of Famer Tony LaRussa has retired, and their signature player, Albert Pujols left town for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency. But if there’s one thing this organization has its pride and tradition—over the last 12 seasons, they’ve been on the right side of .500 11 times, won three National League pennants and two World Series titles. In the bigger picture, they’ve won more World Series crowns than anyone outside the Bronx. So how does the 2012 talent match up with the pride and tradition? TheSportsNotebook dives into the Cardinals lineup, with our usual four measuring sticks of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: Jon Jay will be an importance piece of the offensive puzzle. St. Louis committed to him in centerfield when LaRussa and Colby Rasmus couldn’t see eye-to-eye, and Jay hit .297 with a .344 on-base percentage. The OBP needs to climb a little bit, particularly when you consider how good a job Jay did at contact hitting, but it looks safe to say that whatever one thinks of Rasmus—and I like him—that the Cardinals knew what they had in the 27-year-old Jay. Ideally I would like to see him displace Rafael Furcal in the leadoff role. The 34-year-old shortstop as acquired at the trade deadline and based on that, plus the team’s incredible September stretch drive, it would seem easy to say that the Furcal deal was an important piece of the championship puzzle. More likely though, is that Furcal was just along for the ride, with one of the worst seasons of his career. Whomever ends up at second base will also need to be a part of the table-setting crew. Skip Schumaker had been the starter, but he’s first had a sharp dropoff in OBP for two straight years, and now an oblique muscle injury will have him out when the season starts. Options to replace him included untested 28-year-old Tyler Greene, Allen Craig—who delivered several key hits in the postseason last year and was had a solid .362/555 OBP/slugging line in part-time at-bats. Or it could Daniel Descalco, who hit a respectable .264 as a utility man, and at 25 years old is a good bet to improve his plate discipline. If push comes to shove, Craig is the guy that needs to get more at-bats, but he also plays the outfield, so I would prefer to see new manager Mike Matheny go with Descalco here.
POWER: One footnote to the above section is that all the hitters we’re about to talk about in the muscle end of the Cardinal Family are also adept at taking their walks and getting on base. The attack is built around Lance Berkman and Matt Holliday. Berkman was thought by many—including me—to be finished coming into last year after a tough season in 2010, the first time he didn’t produce OBPs in the high .300s or over .400, and hit between 25-35 home runs. It was thought by many—including me—that his 36-year-old body would never make it through a season running around in right field. We were all wrong, as he returned to career norms. Now the injury risk is being reduced as he moves to first base to take Pujols’ spot. Holliday is ruthlessly consistent and good for at least a .380/.500 line, and quite probably higher. The Cards went out and added Carlos Beltran to play rightfield, who fits the same profile as Holliday with two exceptions. On the plus side, he’s got more speed on the basepaths. On the negative side he’s not quite as consistent, so a bad year wouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Yadier Molina became one of the game’s top offensive catchers a year ago, with career highs in batting average at .305, home runs with 14 and consistently driving the ball in the alleys. I want to see him walk more, and you do have to be concerned about whether this was just a career year. But his age, 29 years old, suggests that he might just be entering a natural peak period. Finally we come to David Freese, MVP of both the League Championship Series and World Series, the hometown kid who hit the extra-inning home run in Game 6 of the World Series that all but sealed a championship. The biggest thing is that he needs to stay healthy for a full year and make some modest upgrades in power. But I can’t see any reason we shouldn’t pencil him in at third base here for the next seven years until he’s 35 and assume he’ll be in All-Star conversation every one of those years.
STARTING PITCHING: The most amazing thing about last year’s Cardinal team was not the way they chased down Atlanta for the wild-card spot in September, or that they upset the Phillies in the Division Series or that they fought off defeat against the Rangers in the World Series. It’s that they were even in position to do any of these things after Adam Wainwright missed the entire year with an elbow injury. Wainwright was only a Cy Young candidate in 2009-10 and now he’s back and healthy. Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse are in the 2-3 spots. Garcia’s ERA jumped from 2.70 to 3.56, so you have to be a little concerned. And Lohse, while having a solid 14-8, 3.39 ERA year in 30 starts has only had one other year in his career where’s pitched at that level. Since he’s 33, the odds are good that he takes a step back in 2012. Jake Westbrook will put up an ERA in the mid-4s at the back end. From there we come to Chris Carpenter. At minimum you’re talking about a pitcher who’s solid and steady. At maximum you’re talking about a pitcher who gets in the Cy Young conversation and does things like outduel Roy Halladay 1-0 in a decisive playoff game on the road. But he’s got some problems in his neck and his shoulder, will open on the DL and there’s no timetable for his return. Can we state the obvious and say that the outcome of this is kind of important?
RELIEF PITCHING: LaRussa showed you could do closer-by-committee and make it work. Jason Motte and Fernando Salas both performed credibly in the job. Matheny is taking the more traditional approach and naming Motte the closer. Each pitcher had an ERA under 2.30 and they combined to close 33 of 43 save chances. The blown saves do need to be reduced. The rest of the bullpen is adequate—good enough to survive with if the manager knows what he’s doing. Mitchell Boggs, Marc Rzepczynski, Scott Linebrink and former starter Kyle McClellan can handle the 5th-to-7th inning load.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 84.5—It’s teams like the Cardinals that remind a writer why it’s important to do due diligence and research a team, even if you know who’s in the lineup. Had I not done that, all I would have seen was who the Cards were missing –Pujols, LaRussa and for the time being, Carpenter. But the list of names here that are ready to roll looks pretty good and I’m comfortable saying St. Louis will get in the high 80s and cover an Over bet.