How Did We (St. Louis Cardinals) Get Here?

If you had told me before the season began that, come the beginning of June, the Cardinals would be trailing the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central standings, I’d have smiled and shaken my head.  If you’d told me that in mid-April, when the Cardinals had roared out to a five-game lead in the division, I believe I’d have outright laughed.
Yet, here before games on June 14, the Cardinals reside in second place, a full game and a half behind the Reds.  Exactly what has happened to this team?
Everything started so swimmingly for the Cardinals in 2010.  For the first three series of the year, they fell in a comfortable pattern: win the first two games, lose the last.  In the fourth and fifth series, they altered it a bit by dropping the middle game instead of the last one, but it took until the last full weekend of April for the Cardinals to leave a series a loser.  In that series, the Cardinals went up against a resurgent Barry Zito, the normally dominant Tim Lincecum and the strong Matt Cain and were still able to pull out the finale.  After a four-game sweep of the Braves, the Cardinals hosted Cincinnati to close April and begin May.

The Cards won two out of three games in that series as well before dropping two of three to the Phillies in Philadelphia.  Another series win in Pittsburgh kept the illusion going, but then the wheels fell off.  A sweep at home against Houston.  Losing two of three to the Reds.  Things seemed to get back on track when the team swept a short two-game series against Washington and split another short series against Florida before winning a series with a walk-off rally against Los Angeles of Anaheim.  Yet the sporadic nature of the team continued as they lost a series to the Padres.
Things looked better as the calendar approached and then moved into June.  Series wins against the Cubs, Reds and Brewers seemed to have the club moving in the right direction as they took off for a West Coast swing.  However, the trip was a disaster as they were swept by the Dodgers and lost two of three to the Diamondbacks, including a painful walk-off loss Sunday.
So while the results, for the most part, have seemed positive, what has the team trailing in the standings?  As Joe Morgan might put it, they’ve been consistently inconsistent.

Adam Wainwright Photo by Icon SMI

The reason the Cardinals have won so many games and have not been buried deeper in the division can really be summed up in one word: pitching.  Pitching was not expected to be a problem for St. Louis, not with two of the top three finishers in the 2009 NL Cy Young race on the staff.  Adam Wainwright has continued his career growth, posting a 2.30 ERA while winning eight games so far this season, including his first career shutout.  He’s moved himself into the elite of the National League when the past two years are combined.  Chris Carpenter hasn’t been quite as dominant has he has been in the past, as he’s already given up more home runs than he did all of last season and has had trouble at times commanding his fastball.  That said, he has still put up a line of 7-1 with a 2.66 ERA in 14 games, nothing to complain about.

The surprise of the staff has been rookie Jaime Garcia.  When spring training began, Garcia was ticketed to Memphis due to the fact that he was recently coming off Tommy John surgery, and the fifth starter competition was supposed to be between free agent signing Rich Hill and converted reliever Kyle McClellan.  However, Garcia took command of the competition and, by the end of the spring, Hill was in Memphis and McClellan was back in the bullpen.  While he doesn’t go as deep into games as some would like and can have command issues, the results speak for themselves.  Garcia’s posted a 1.47 ERA and a 6-2 record in 12 starts, keeping him among the league leaders in ERA.
With starting pitching like this, the Cardinals should be running away with things, you’d think.  However, there are a couple of reasons why they haven’t been.  For the first, we don’t have to move out of the pitching realm to discuss Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse.
Lohse never got on track this season.  He would occasionally have a strong outing, but then the next time out would be shelled.  He put up a 1-4, 5.89 mark before being placed on the disabled list with forearm issues.  After consulting with a specialist, he was found to have some inflammation and would require a surgery not done before on a major league pitcher.  The estimate was 6-8 weeks that he would be sidelined, but most everyone expects that he will be out longer than that, with his return this season in severe jeopardy.
Brad Penny was a different problem.  Actually, Penny wasn’t the problem, his absence is.  Signed as a free agent to a one-year deal after salvaging some of his 2009 season in San Francisco, Penny came out of the gate hot, with a 1.56 ERA at the end of April.  He started to slump a bit in May, which was not unexpected, and he was apparently hiding an oblique injury.  Finally, in a game against the Angels in mid-May, he gave up four runs early, then hit a grand slam to put the Cards ahead.  However, that seems to have been the final straw for the oblique and Penny went on the disabled list a few days later, where he still remains.

With those two veterans out of the rotation, St. Louis has had to turn to some of its young talent, talent that might not be quite ready for prime time.  PJ Walters got the first call up and had an outstanding first start in San Diego, then got pummeled by Cincinnati and quickly fell out of favor with the Cardinal mindtrust.  He pitched four mainly ineffective innings in relief against the Dodgers and then was returned to Memphis.
Adam Ottavino was brought up when Lohse went to the disabled list.  Ottavino had a rough first outing, then shined against the Cubs before winding up with a no-decision.  His next outing was against the Diamondbacks, who hit three home runs off of him in less than four innings, forcing another setback.
Dave Duncan made the comment before Walters’ demotion that he, Ottavino and Blake Hawksworth, who has been pitching in the bullpen but has been a starter in the past and was pressed into that service against the Dodgers, were not pitchers that should be in a championship-level rotation.  While he didn’t rule out that they had potential and would improve, Duncan’s comments did seem to indicate that they weren’t ready now.  This forced, or allowed depending on your point of view, the Cardinals to make their most head-scratching move yet.
Jeff Suppan was released from the Milwaukee Brewers after posting three consecutive declining years, including this year’s ERA that approached 8.  Barely had he cleared waivers, however, than the rumor mill started talking about the Cardinals picking him up.  While dismissed as some as just nostalgia talking, it turns out that the old saying of “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” is actually accurate.  Believing that they know what Suppan needs to adjust to be effective, the Cardinals have a deal in place with him, though as of this writing it has not been finalized.
While the signing of Suppan might indicate that, if he’s the answer, that problem is a doozy, the back end of the rotation isn’t the only thing that has been an issue for the Cardinals.  The other side of the game has caused its own problems as well.

Albert Pujols Photo by Icon SMI

While not the biggest problems necessarily, the discussion of the Cardinal offense usually begins with Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday, and the discussion of the offensive problems can begin there as well.  Pujols is still an amazing athlete and baseball player, but currently is in, for him, a fairly noticeable slump.  The major symptom for Pujols has been strikeouts.  So far this season he has struck out 34 times.  Three times in his career he has struck out less than 60 times for the entire season, including just 52 in 2004.  He is also hitting right at the .300 level, the lowest level ever in his career.  He still has power, as his 14 home runs show, but recently went nine games without an RBI.  The most telling fact might be that Arizona pitched to him this weekend with two outs and runners on second and third.  While he did make them pay with a two-run double, the mere fact that he wasn’t given four wide ones was noteworthy.

Whether it’s the pressure of the big contract he signed in the offseason or a traditionally slow start, Holliday hasn’t quite lived up to the advance billing or the expectations he generated last year during his torrid run with St. Louis.  Holliday’s average is currently sitting at .285, though it has been over the .300 mark.  What is more surprising is that he has only six home runs in 232 at bats.  For comparison, Ryan Ludwick has three more at-bats and four more home runs. Holliday has also had trouble capitalizing on walks to Pujols, at one time hitting around .150 or less in those situations.
Even Tony La Russa has been concerned with the slumps, so much so that, for a few games, he flipped the two, taking Pujols out of his sacrosanct third slot and trying Holliday there.  The team won most of the games in that configuration, but the offense wasn’t noticeably better so TLR put things back to rights.   Per Twitter, however, Monday’s game against the Mariners (at the time of this writing) will feature Holliday batting in the second slot ahead of Pujols, which should be intriguing.
As for the rest of the offense, Ludwick and Colby Rasmus have been as expected or more so.  Rasmus was in a bit of a slump before getting his eyes checked and his contacts adjusted.  After that, he was on fire, winning NL Player of the Week honors by hitting .500 over the span.  Ludwick, as noted, has 10 home runs and more at-bats than anyone on the team.
David Freese has also been a revelation at third base.  Freese was thought to be just a filler prospect when he was acquired for Jim Edmonds after the 2007 season.  However, he quickly showed that GM John Mozeliak had a keen eye, tearing up Memphis in 2009.  Installed as the starting third baseman in St. Louis this year, he has responded with a .308 average and 32 RBI, though he has managed only four home runs.
The real drag on the offense, though, has come in the middle infield.  After a couple of years of hitting .300, Skip Schumaker has slumped to a .237 average and has been moved out of his leadoff slot into the seventh or eighth spot in the order.  That is nothing compared to the tailspin Brendan Ryan has been in.  Expected to hit around .260, Ryan has languished under .200 for most of the season before a recent hot streak finally got him over that mark.  The Cardinals should be thankful that they were able to sign Felipe Lopez during the spring, as he has mitigated some of this by putting up a .260 average with three home runs.
The most debated topic in Cardinal Nation may be the decision making and moves made by Mozeliak in the last month or so (Many would also say that the not-so-invisible hand of La Russa is behind most of these as well). The front office made a surprising move at the end of spring, shipping off veteran Julio Lugo and keeping three rookies/almost rookies on the bench–outfielders Allan Craig, Joe Mather and Nick Stavinoha.  Even after Craig and Mather stumbled, they were sent down for Jon Jay, another rookie.  Jay seemed to fit in well in the bench role, posting an overall average of .302 with a home run.
However, almost unnoticed was the signing of Aaron Miles to a minor league contract after his release from Cincinnati.  Most thought it was a sentimental gesture, a way to have some depth in the system, but no one thought he’d see the big leagues.  They underestimated the power of a veteran.  Miles had a fairly reputable turn in the minors and was called up to the big leagues on June 1, with Mather being sent back to Memphis.
This was followed up days later by the signing of Randy Winn, who had been designated for assignment by the Yankees.  Winn was immediately put on the roster at the expense of Jay, meaning that the “baby bench” was now basically the “AARP bench,” as only Stavinoha remains from the beginning of the year as of now.  When these moves are coupled with the Suppan signing, there is a lot of unrest in Cardinal Nation.
This is not where the Cardinals expected to be when the season began.  However, there’s still plenty of time for them to get there.

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  1. RedFlock

    June 17, 2010 at 11:28 am

    Good recap on the season so far. Even though he had people scratching their heads about his signing, Randy Winn has been an adequate addition having 6 hits in his first 20 AB with the Birds on the Bat. Jeff Suppan looked to be mildly efficient in 4IP on Tuesday. And I think Brad Penny’s injury was a Lat strain not an oblique.

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