It is just a week into the St. Louis Cardinals regular season and the preseason's biggest concern — the starting rotation — carries the least amount of scar tissue. Far be it from me to call Carlos Martinez's Sunday start impressive or even decent, but the starters overall are doing their job very well; their work is simply being wasted by chilly hitting and a basic lack of fundamentals. As I sip a cup of evening coffee and listen to the sounds of a quiet Mardel Street tamper down, let's pop the hood and take this team's temperature.
After battling the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in an even-keeled opening series, the Cardinals fell flat against the far lesser Cincinnati Reds over the weekend. Bunched around a Saturday slugfest were two light-hitting, erratic games that raised concerns for the foreseeable future. Chief among them is the lethargic offense that couldn't scratch Amir Garrett or Scott Feldman, who are not television actors, but actually real Major League starting pitchers who managed to shut the Birds down.
Let's take a closer look at that result
Over two starts, Garrett and Feldman held the Cards to zero runs on six hits in 12 innings with 10 strikeouts and five walks. Garrett is the Reds no. 2 pitching prospect and was making his MLB debut Friday, but Feldman is a journeyman starter who couldn't last five innings against Philadelphia Monday. The Cards couldn't crack Feldman or Garrett, and nothing freezes a baseball game faster than a set of cold bats against a bad team.
Take away Thursday's collapse against the Cubs, and here are the hit totals for the Cardinals in the other three losses: two, four and six. Or in other words, crumbs and one dry breadstick left out on the kitchen table overnight. The plate discipline is lacking, with the nine strikeouts Sunday and the inability to get runners past second base.
What about fundamentals that were often missing in 2016? So far in 2017, they haven't shown up. It's more evident on defense, since there have been many stretches where the team hasn't generated enough opportunities to venture to third base. The Cardinals made three errors in one inning Sunday, and it led to the four runs that helped clinch a baseball game. But it's not just errors, because there have been games where zero official errors are made, but so many are recognizable to even the casual fan.
Let's get this out of the way real quick: Matt Adams has zero business starting in left or any other area of the outfield, and any semi-difficult fly ball hit towards him nails that assumption down cold and hard. This isn't a deer trapped in the headlights; it's a scary practice for a team that stressed improvement on defense to take measure of so often. Adams face-planted in Thursday's loss to the Cubs, and continuously resembles a guy who is being hustled to the outfield like his teammate Kolten Wong was last year due to an overcrowded infield. Three different fly balls got over Adams' head that should have been caught, and he doesn't have the arm to satisfy even the weakest outfield spot, as evidenced by his four hop toss from the corner Sunday afternoon. All this to get Adams' .200 batting average into the lineup-please just put him at first and Matt Carpenter at third base if the desire is that strong.
The fundamentals lacking aren't overthrown baseballs off grounders or misread fly balls, because it's not that simple. You can't watch three innings of a baseball game without an opposing baserunner take an extra base on the Cardinals outfield, and those mishaps add up. The outfielders can't hit a cut-off at times, and the aforementioned Adams triple hop toss back into the infield represents the tip of the iceberg. The infielders throwing just wide to first base or letting a ball play them instead of the opposite is frequent. Outside of Yadier Molina, there isn't a single gold glove caliber defender on this team; not even the "gifted" Kolten Wong.
The infield alignment is an interesting one so far, with Jhonny Peralta's inability to make any contact (seven strikeouts to two hits) and Kolten Wong's weird usage. The latter can't start against a left-handed pitcher, but also can't crack the lineup Sunday against a right-handed pitcher, even if Adams somehow can.
What about Jose Martinez?
Why start a career first baseman (Adams) over a guy in who has logged hundreds of innings in the outfield(martinez)? I don't need a diving-catch-machine or an iron, assist-laden arm in left, just a guy who can make plays and not allow a simple fly ball with carry elude him. Martinez did nothing but hit in spring, has reached base more than Peralta in far fewer appearances, and can't even buy a start. What is the narrative this year? What is manager Mike Matheny doing? Is Adams Mike Matheny's new guy? Or is there something else? There's no reason Martinez can't get a look. For people complaining his hot start will burn out — the man needs to start in order to have it be stopped.
The Cardinals are losing games due to their insufficient offense, lack of fundamentals, and a bullpen that is clearly missing Trevor Rosenthal more than it'd like to admit. Brett Cecil gave up majestic blast to Kyle Schwarber — why couldn't he have thrown the questionably sticky baseball to the Cubs slugger? Kevin Siegrist and Sam Tuivailala have given up home runs as well, and Jonathan Broxton is worthless as usual. The only reliable arm so far has been Matt Bowman.
Dexter Fowler may be amazing on social media, but so far only his four walks have been a highlight at the plate. This is an extremely small sample size, but still could relate to a slow-brewing offensive effort.
What about the good things?
Before Martinez's subpar effort Sunday, the team got five quality performances. Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn's less than six inning outings aren't time-capsule worthy, but they were good starts for an older arm and a surgically repaired one. Against the Cubs, I'll take their work. The cake and apple pie go to the methodical Michaels — Mr. Wacha and Mr. Leake each fired gems in their first appearance.
Leake pitched like a marvel on Friday against the Reds — the opposite of his work against his former team in 2016. After resembling a punching bag in previous outings, Leake was dominant over eight innings, striking out six and only allowing a single run on six hits with one measly walk. Leake's command of the inner and outer half of the plate was the key, and his tempo between pitches also struck me as a new flavor to his arsenal. That may be the best Leake looks all year, and it was wasted.
Wacha was nearly as efficient in a win on Saturday, lasting six innings with six strikeouts and a run allowed on three hits. It took the man 83 pitches to collect 18 outs, and he could have went out there for another inning if needed, but the Cards wisely kept him out. Wacha started out 2016 on a bad note, and never fully recovered. He looked better Saturday than he had in nearly all of last season, but his durability remains the biggest question. How long can he last? What can the Cards do to supplement his workload? So far, so good.
Yadier Molina's pop up speed is back in superior order, and his overall catching swagger is looking like a retained gift that once again could hunt for gold glove no. 9. Randal Grichuk can still hit a baseball hard when he gets a hold of it, but his seven strikeouts aren't helping. Aledmys Diaz is showing the pop at the plate and the defense in the field that Fangraphs promised, while Stephen Piscotty's early going has been hampered by an unfortunate path around the bases.
What's all it mean? It's only been a week, and when the Reds return later this month, the performance and sharpness should be better. "Should" and "if" dominate the Cardinals' chances this season, because there are so many unknown variables on this team, such as:
- What role will Wong have, and can he succeed with that slot?
- Do the Cardinals have a legit cleanup hitter?
- Can Fowler be the spark plug at the top of the order, or will Carpenter return there?
- What else can Peralta offer at the plate, because his defense is adequate?
- How many more games will Adams be sent out to left field in search of being the hitter the Cardinals always wanted him to be?
- How long can Wacha last? Can Leake keep it going? When will Waino throw batting practice?
On one hand, this team looked like a 88-90 win team, but on the other, they could very well be a 80-82 win team. 2016 was a struggle from start to finish, but will 2017 be worse? As the fictional wise catcher Jake Taylor once told a mystified young pitcher: there are 156 of these games left, so strap in for a long ride.
How many bumps will that ride include?
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