ST. LOUIS - In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals weren't having a great season. After an exciting if bittersweet finish to the 1996 season (here's looking at you Donovan Osborne), the Cards just crashed out of the gate the following season. Tony La Russa was still settling into the dugout, and the lineup lacked a true potent bat. Then Mark McGwire showed up and launched 24 home runs in 57 games for the Birds.
The 2017 team is on pace for 74 wins, and there won't be a Big Mac landing this summer at Busch Stadium. The days of 70 home run solo artists have come and gone, and fundamentals is powering the game these days. Knowing how to play the game, especially in the later innings when every pitch and play seems to matter.
Cardinals on pace for 74-88. *sigh* #stlcards— cigarmike (@cigarmike) June 8, 2017
I could sit here and bore you with Matt Carpenter batting average updates, calls to the wild for the power production of Aledmys Diaz to return, and for Jhonny Peralta to get into a time machine and take us back to 2014, where he was a 6 WAR player, but that's been beaten to the floor.
The truth is there is no easy fix for this team, because their problems are so internal that an external change won't reboot their chances fast enough. In the game of baseball, the grind of the season starts to take place in June. Two months have gone by, and your team is what it is. You can hope for 2006 and 2011, but those are bright looking outliers in a treacherous landscape of disappointment.
On Wednesday night, the Cardinals lost a game they led 4-1 after six innings due to bad managing, poor bullpen work, and a lack of late game hitting. Breaking it down is like trying to explain to a kid why firecrackers are bad for their skin.
Lance Lynn had thrown 78 pitches through five innings, and he looked good. In the top of the sixth, the Cardinals had a scoring opportunity, and Dexter Fowler pinch hit for Lynn. Bad move. I didn't say this in the moment, so forgive my 20/20 hindsight flavored comment here.
It's a bad move, because the Cardinals bullpen has blown leads left and right. Their 4.73 ERA ranks thirteenth in the National League, and that is due to a lack of innings from the starters. While Fowler drove in a run to make it 4-1, leaving in Lynn to pitch another inning or two would have benefit this team more in the long run. There's no reason to pull a starting pitcher throwing well after 78 pitches. I don't care if he had Tommy John surgery, hip surgery, or a shoulder replacement in the offseason.
As good as the starting pitching has been, the Cards need more innings from them, because Matt Bowman can't pitch in 145 games. Lynn goes out there and struggles, and then you think about pulling him. With Michael Wacha already declining and Mike Leake showing his true colors, Lynn needs to be able to go at least six innings. That move falls directly on Mike Matheny's shoulders.
Brett Cecil came out and did his thing, allowing a game changing three run home run that turned everyone's mood like a cold cheeseburger from McDonalds does to a hard working parent's stomach. Cecil is cold Chinese food bad this season, allowing .500+ slugging percentage to opposing hitters along with a .300+ batting average. Shaved head or curly locks, Cecil can't pitch in close games, but with the tired arms, who else can go out there? And you thought deleting Jonathan Broxton would help things.
The offense lost a game that they scored four runs or more in for the fourth time in the team's last 16 games. For a team that relies on 2-3 hitters to be otherworldly good, wasting four runs warrants a bad record.
Carpenter moved back to the leadoff spot Wednesday, but don't expect him to raise his batting average too high. His problems this year are unique, and aren't easy to fix. When you think every close pitch should go your way, good things won't come near you.
I am convinced Fowler isn't even near 100 percent healthy, which makes me wonder if a cup of coffee with Harrison Bader is on the docket. The Cardinals would have to make a 40 man roster move, but I am sure when they delete Jhonny Peralta from that list tomorrow, Bader can potentially be added and called up. Fowler is going to be here for a long time, so getting his shoulder right is vital to this team's success. Seeing what Bader has in store could spark the team like Magneuris Sierra did last month.
If not Bader, go with an outfield of J. Martinez/Tommy Pham/Stephen Piscotty until it does you no justice. The Cardinals have to do something to shake this team up, and infusing it with youth is one way to do it.
They could go wild, and design a trade for a big bat like Josh Donaldson. He's an MVP caliber type player who is entering the last year of his contract for a team currently sitting in last place in the AL East. The Blue Jays may ask for a haul, but a bat like Donaldson could change things. A regular season WAR average of Donaldson comes out to around seven wins above replacement, so a partial season would toss maybe 3-4 wins the Cards way.
However, if the Cards are still middling by July 15, I don't expect a big trade. Donaldson enters arbitration eligibility this winter as well, so a trade partner would want to lock the 31 year old up long term to make the juice worth the squeeze. Viva El Birdos' Ben Markham broke down the potential price of a Donaldson deal here. I happen to agree that a barely above water Cards team doesn't make a serious push for the Blue Jays slugger, but dreaming is good for a hurting baseball soul.
The Cardinals struggles are different than last season's 86 win group. That team could hit home runs like no other, and often covered up flawed play with the long ball. Their starting pitching and bullpen were suspect, but the offense did enough. And that team never tasted the feeling of being five games under the .500 mark though. This team may be tasting ten games under .500 for the first time in a long time soon.
Don't expect Matheny, Lilloquist, or John Mabry to lose their jobs. Chris Maloney can go any time he wants, but coaching changes midseason is a rarity in St. Louis. I don't think the Cards gain a full level of traction by replacing Matheny in season. I don't expect him to lose his job if the Cardinals lose more than 80 games, but I do think his seat will get warmer. John Mozeliak won't pull the plug on his golden child until it's absolutely necessary.
Just remember that Jose Oquendo was appointed assistant general manager in the offseason, and the last time a former player was assistant G.M., that guy eventually became the manager, and his name was Mike.
The ultimate realization could be that the Cardinals just aren't that good of a baseball team. It is harsh, but as true as it gets right now. Maybe Stephen Piscotty isn't as good as the team thinks he was projected to be. Diaz may just be a decent player, and not a great shortstop. Carpenter may trend down into being a .250 hitting power guy with 150+ strikeouts. Did Mozeliak gamble too heavily on those internal options?
What about Kolten Wong's shoulder causing him to leave a Peoria game on Wednesday night? I wouldn't expect him to rush back this weekend, which may delay the Peralta DFA paperwork. Nothing is going well for this team, and it goes up and down the roster.
Matheny isn't a good enough manager to switch the fate of his baseball team, and the roster isn't talented enough to orchestrate a large turnaround. One trade may not be enough to help a poor fundamental laden team.
What I am saying is plan for a long painful summer. The Cardinals will win again; just don't expect it to happen as often as recent seasons.
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