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To Make the Playoffs, the Cardinals Have Many Boxes To Check. Here’s a List.

As the Cardinals resume play Friday at Pittsburgh, here are 15 keys to their second-half success — or failure.

1. Two words: Clean fundamentals. The Cardinals can’t continue to wreck their own chances as often as they did in the first half.

2. Road worriers? The Cardinals are 17-21 on the road this season, and they’ll have to reverse that ASAP. Well, now … they have a chance to shoo the road blues away with a three-city, 10-game trip that launches the second half. Before the All-Star break the Cardinals and the Dodgers had the most home games, 50, in the majors. The Cardinals will pay up in the second half, with 43 road games and only 31 at home. Their second-half tour includes four of the three-city road trips that can wear a team down. Beginning Aug. 1 the Cardinals will play 24 of 35 on the road on a journey that makes stops in eight cities. If the Cards flop on the road, forget about making it to the postseason.

3. Pardon my redundancy but … starting pitching: Yes, the Cards rotation had the fifth-best ERA in the majors (3.90) and the third-highest number of quality starts (48) in the first half. But between May 25 and June 24, Cardinals’ starting pitchers had a 5.47 ERA. They crafted only 10 quality starts in 30 games. And the Cards’ record over the 30 games was an abysmal 10-20. The rotation cannot splinter apart.

4. About right fielder Stephen Piscotty and his .378 slugging percentage: that needs to be about 50 points higher. I thought Piscotty had finally settled in during a 17-game stretch in June in which he slugged .542. Guess not; he followed that by slugging .263 over the next 17 games that led into the All-Star break. Can Piscotty get it together?

5. Matt Carpenter, stay just the way you are: I keep hearing folks yammering about Carpenter’s sluggish bat, or his down season, etc. And I’m wondering if these good people have been submerged in a deep sleep for the last month or so. Yeah, it was something of a struggle early on for Carpenter, and his batted-ball luck has been atrocious for much of the season. But in his last 31 games before the All-Star break, Carpenter batted .286 with a .438 OBP and .543 slug for a .981 OPS.  Among NL batters that had at least 100 plate appearances since June 6, Carpenter ranked 5th in OBP, sixth in extra-base hits, first in runs scored, and 13th in OPS. His park-adjusted runs created over those 31 games was 47 percent above league average. Um, I’m thinking this is pretty good. Carpenter has found his stroke, and he’s benefiting from improved batted-ball luck, and now he has to keep the wheels turning in the second half. When Carpenter is locked in, he’s a force. The Cardinals need their No. 1 hitter to keep trucking.

6. In Friday news, the Cardinals have placed outfielder Randal Grichuk on the DL with a back strain. Something has to give when he returns. If he doesn’t hit for power more consistently, if he doesn’t hit much at all, and if he can’t make decent contact, then he’ll have to sit or go to Memphis. If the other outfielders are doing well at the plate, there’s no justification for giving a ton of at-bats to a dude (Grichuk) who has provided park-adjusted offense that’s 27 percent below league average.

7. Which brings us to another familiar topic, and I’ll keep it short: manager Mike Matheny has to play his best players as much as possible. The Cardinals have to take their best shot. They’re 5.5 games out of first place and 7.5 games out of the second wild-card spot. Best lineup = best shot.

8. Do the Cardinals have a dependable closer? I don’t think Seung Hwan Oh has the swing-and-miss dagger to throw at LH batters … LH batters who are ruining his season. I don’t know for sure, but I think this gig will come down to Trevor Rosenthal. Yes, he’s been a little wild. But he also has a 37.3 percent strikeout rate that ranks 8th among all MLB relievers. A jacked-up .343 batting average on balls in play against Rosenthal has pumped his baseball-card ERA to 4.05. But Rosenthal’s fielding independent ERA is 2.28, and he’s still has the nastiest wipeout stuff to send after hitters when you need three outs to ice a win.

9. The Cardinals’ bullpen shut it down late in the first half, with a reduced ERA of 2.21 and a much lower percentage of allowing inherited runners to score (20.8%) over the final 21 games. Was this just a random case of late-inning enforcement, or will the boys be able to hold opponents down again during the second half? This is important; the Cardinals cannot survive a hazardous bullpen. In the first half the team lost seven games after taking a lead into the seventh inning … and lost eight games when the score was tied going into the seventh inning. Can’t have too many toxic spills from here on out.

10. Tommy Pham is a superior center fielder than Dexter Fowler. Now what? Fowler has made it clear that he came here to play center field … period. To that, Matheny told reporters, “OK.”  Granted this is a sensitive situation, but if winning is the top priority, then at some point you have to go with the more sensible and optimum run-saving outfield alignment. Fowler is a minus 73 in defensive runs saved in in CF during his 10-season his career, and you can’t blame all of that on a sore heel.

11. Speaking of Pham, and also rookie shortstop Paul DeJong, and rookie first baseman Luke Voit: let them eat. The Cardinals’ mediocre offense was jolted to life with the help of these three largely unexpected sources. I don’t know if their high-level production is sustainable, but their recent impact is undeniable. Not that Voit should play every day. Why do I say that? Because Matt Carpenter isn’t much of a second baseman; MC’s best defensive spot is first base (+4 defensive runs saved.) And then there’s this guy; you might remember him…

12. Hello there, Kolten Wong. The Cardinals need his multiple-tool skill set: Wong is back from his second stay on the DL. He’s missed 36 of the last 42 games with the injuries, so his first test is to remain healthy long enough to make a difference. But when he’s active, Wong has been a plus player in 2017. His speed and defense are assets. He’s batting .301 with a .393 OBP and .444 slug (for an .838 OPS) this season. And when Wong starts, he’s hitting .309 with a .399 OBP and .456 slug (.855 OPS.) When Wong has been in the starting lineup this season, the Cardinals’ record is 25-19. Not a coincidence. If Wong regresses, that will open more starting-time opportunities for Voit at first base, with Carpenter at second. But when he’s right, Wong’s all-around game is a plus in several areas. It’s up to Matheny to come up with a way to keep Voit reasonably busy. But scratching Wong for unjustified reasons isn’t the way to go here.

13. Baseball presidente John Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch are on the clock: What will they do to make this a better team through outside acquisitions? Do they go Will Ferrell crazy and remove the button-down shirts and go wild at the trade deadline? Probably not. But I’d probably settle for a little Bing Devine action.

14. I know I touched on the rotation earlier, but let me add this: when Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha are dealing, when and they’re in prime form, this STL rotation goes from solid to formidable. Wacha had a 2.08 ERA and average 10.8 strikeouts per nine innings over his final four first-half starts. Waino has seven quality starts in his last 11. The Cardinals need a lot more of that in the second half — especially the Cubs made a trade to add Jose Quintana to a declining rotation.

15. The Cardinals had better improve, and dramatically so, in their performance against fellow NL Central teams. In the first half of the season, the Cardinals went 15-21 against division rivals; that .417 winning percentage was the worst by a NLC team in division play. The Reds, at 19-17, were much stronger than the Cardinals in division play. In their previous 20 seasons the Cardinals finished below .500 in division conflicts only four times.

The situation turned so hideous this year, the Cardinals were 0-7 in first-half road games at Chicago and Cincinnati. Well, this futility can’t go on. The Cardinals have 74 games left on the schedule, and 40 will be played against NL Central teams — including the final 22. Moreover, 27 of STL’s 40 remaining division games are on the road. And we’ve already discussed the Cardinals’ road woes.

Buckle up, boys.

Thanks for reading and have a wonderful weekend …

–Bernie

More: NL Central Reset: Can the Brewers Hang On? Can the Cubs Wake Up? And What About the Cardinals?