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As the Cardinals Near the Season’s Quarter Pole, Here Are 5 Key Questions

As the Cardinals begin a three-game weekend series against the San Francisco Giants at Busch Stadium, they’re 21-17 on the season, and hanging near the top of an NL Central division. It has been a year of streaks, with an ominous 3-9 start, followed by an 18-6 run, and then two straight home losses to Boston.

It’s been a little confusing so far. This is a team that cannot reestablish a home-field advantage. A team that has a losing record against opponents with winning records. But it is a team that can rise up and go off on a startlingly entertaining winning streak.

The Cardinals still haven’t figured it out, so we can be excused for not really knowing what’s in store for the remainder of the 2017 season. After doing business with the Giants the Cardinals will be 41 games — roughly 25 percent — into their schedule.

With the Cardinals at the quarter pole, here’s my look at five key questions that could shape or determine their fate in 2017:

1. Will the Starting Pitching Hold Up?

There’s a challenge for  every rotation member: Michael Wacha sustaining his endurance, Adam Wainwright effectively modifying his pitching approach, Lance Lynn being more consistent, Carlos Martinez becoming more dominant and going deeper into starts, and Mike Leake continuing to craft a career year. Cardinals starting pitchers lead the NL with a 3.38 ERA, and are second in the league with 24 quality starts. The rotation is their stanchion. It is a strength that makes the team weaknesses less damaging. And if this rotation collapses? Better luck next year.

1a. Of course, if the Cardinals can play more consistent defense, that will help their pitchers.

The STL defense has improved overall, but inconsistency is the problem. And the outfield defense is a major disappointment so far. With injuries and/or substandard play, the Cardinals are a minus 6 in Defensive Runs Saved in left field, and a minus 5 DRS in center.

2. Can Brett Cecil Get It Together? 

This is a significant, open-ended concern. After signing a four-year, $30.5 million deal the lefty reliever has billowed more smoke than an exploding gas tank … a 5.79 ERA … allowing a staggering 53 percent of inherited runners to score … getting pummeled for a .929 slugging percentage and 1.456 OPS by LH batters. For the Cardinals bullpen to fall into place and function seamlessly, Cecil will have to get it fixed. Otherwise, the balance of this ‘pen will tilt. This pitching staff already has a problem suppressing LH batters. Cecil was recruited and purchased to put LH batters away. If he can’t do that, the void is huge and harmful. In a related note: as a group the Cardinals’ relievers have allowed 41.3 percent of inherited runners to score this season … that’s the worst percentage among the 30 teams. And the third worst by a Cardinals’ bullpen over the last 44 seasons. (STATS LLC began tracking the IRS stat in 1974.)

3. Is it Possible For the Cardinals To Be Smartly Aggressive on the Bases Without Being Stupidly Aggressive On the Bases? 

Overall, the team’s base-running has improved from last season, ranking 10th in the majors with a +1.8 Base Running Runs according to the metrics at Baseball Prospectus.  That’s positive, but I can’t help but think how much capable the STL offense would be if the runners stopped giving away so many outs with foolish decisions or avoidable carelessness. Going into the weekend the Cardinals have lost 35 runners through unforced errors on the base paths this season — the most in the majors. Please cut down on the mental base-running errors. That’s all we’re asking.

4. Can Cardinals’ Hitters Do a Better Job With Runners On Base? 

Despite being one of the best teams in the majors at getting on base — ranking 7th overall with a .335 onbase percentage — the Cardinals are 18th in the majors and 11th in the National League in runs per game at 4.53. They should be scoring more often. There are reasons for this, including bad “cluster” luck. (Look, I’ll be honest here: it would take me too long to explain the whole cluster-luck thing, but it’s a factor and it’s real. If interested in learning more, click this link.) With no runners on base, the Cardinals are No. 2 in the majors and tops in the NL with a .779 OPS. But with runners on base, they’re 24th in MLB with a .726 OPS. With runners in scoring position, they’re batting  .235 and rank 24th overall (13th in the NL) with a .711 OPS.  Situational hitting is an issue.

5. Will Mike Matheny Utilize His Best Players? 

With left-side infielder Jhonny Peralta and right fielder Stephen Piscotty returning from the DL, it will be interesting to see how the manager uses his 25-man roster. Continuity on the infield in recent weeks has led to an enhanced performance in Defensive Runs Saved. So where does Peralta fit in? What happens if Peralta does nothing to help this team in a measurable way? And if Piscotty isn’t playing as well as, say, Tommy Pham … will Pham get a chance to stay in the lineup, or sit behind Piscotty and Randal Grichuk? That’s just a partial listing. There’s the bullpen machinations; Matheny loves having eight relievers but that weakens the team’s position-player depth  … there’s the challenge of finding at-bats for Matt Adams … keeping infielder Grag Garcia in the mix … and not overreacting to a slump here, or a slump there, by players such as second baseman Kolten Wong… and understanding that RH reliever Matthew Bowman is excellent against LH batters, so you don’t have to force a LH reliever in the game in accordance with outdated, old-school notions.

5a. Will GM John Mozeliak Make a Major Trade, or Minor Upgrade? 

This one is too difficult to answer; it all depends where the Cardinals are in the middle of July. It depends on record, standing, quality of play in each of the important areas, and new injury concerns.It depends on the size of the hole or holes that must be filled. But if Mozeliak wants to go large, he can do it because the Cardinals’ prospect supply has come along nicely.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Mike Leake May Be Having A Career Year, But Cardinals Aren’t Taking Advantage