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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

  • Jim Parisi

    The Card need to follow your suggestion and give Cecil a break. Putting him on the 10 day DL would give you the option of keeping Sierra on the club. Peralta needs to be traded or released. Why waste a precious roster spot on a guy whose best days are clearly behind him. There’s a reason why Mo structured his contract with less money on the back end and now is the time to act upon it.

    Many will say Sierra is too young and needs to play but I look back at former championship teams that blossomed when players like McGee and Coleman added that needed spark. How can any sane GM pick Peralta over Sierra?

    I’m not totally sold on Pham. He provided a great lift but he also failed to play exceptional defense. A major league player can’t drop a can of corn. You just can’t. I would look at packaging him with Peralta for some pitching help.

    Lyons might be the answer to the shut down lefty in the pen and as you noted Bowman has great stats. The great thing about the 10 day DL is the player gets to rehab in the minors, let Cecil figure it out there as opposed to continually blowing games up here.

    • maryville

      I do not wish to ever see a Card’s uniform on Peralta again and I, too, am not sold on Pham. However, I don’t see the packaging of Peralta and Pham to produce anything of value in a trade.

      • George Belt

        In trading Peralta the value is in addition by subtraction. Even if they have to pay 90% of his salary they are better off.

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  • RealityStinks1

    Need to sign Luis Robert!!!

    • Big T

      I hope they do even though the cost will be high(given their excise penalty will be dollar for dollar.) I watched tape on him and he is truly a young beast. Looks like a young McCutcheon with Griffey Jr. qualities. He will be that good. The rumor mill has his signing down to us or the White Sox. With him in the fold it will certainly open up all kind of trade possibilities throughout every level. Go Cards!! Wacha Wacha!!

      • Brian White

        Wow, comparing him to Griffey. Talk about high expectations!!

        • Big T

          “Griffey like qualities”. Watch tape on him and remember he is 19..Limitless upside.

  • Paul Mock

    Grichuk is a goner by trade deadline…

  • Brian White

    I am not quite ready to give up on Peralta just yet, even though it seems like everyone else is. I think he has value he can contribute to this team. I know everyone is in love with Sierra, and he is a very dynamic player that has no doubt brought a spark to this team, but he needs to go back down and get everyday regular at bats to continue his maturation.

  • MosesZD

    Well maybe Matt Carpenter should have read point #3. Because his unforced base-running error when he stupidly (with no outs!) tried to stretch a double into a triple in LF in the bottom of the 9th was a killer move. Not that I minded as I’m a mid-50s, transplanted Northern Californian who has been a Giants fan since I can remember.

    Also, too bad about Sierra I was happy he was sent down before the Giants came to town as he’s probably your best outfielder. Grichuk has the worst defensive metrics (FanGraphs) on the Cardinals though Piscotty is giving him a solid run for his defensive ineptitude. And on the Cardinals only Peralta has a worse WAR than his -0.2 (FanGraphs).

    But its baseball and big contract players get a lot of slack a guy with options or a rookie contract just will not get. Just look at Cain for the Giants. Four years of absolute horror until he finally got back this year. And we had the same thing with Lincecum for two. So I’m not chest thumping.