The 2016 St. Louis Cardinals are difficult to love.
Every time it seems that they’re going to get their act together, they seem to go out of their way to let the fans down. Again.
Still, I can’t dismiss the idea that they have much more potential then they’ve showed. And, after a first-half-ending series victory over the Milwaukee Brewers that brought the Redbirds within seven games of the Chicago Cubs, I still believe this team has a significant run in it.
The Cardinals, on paper at least, have the best starting rotation in the National League Central Division. The starting five were supposed to be the core of this team. But they stumbled badly out of the gate and contributed heavily to the team’s poor start.
Over the past three trips through the rotation, it’s been a different story. Ace Adam Wainwright gave up a .327 batting average against in March and April and allowed opposing batsmen to hit .288 against him in May. But in June opponents hit .237 against him and in July they’ve hit .235. While Wainwright carries the ace title, Carlos Martinez may have emerged into the team’s best hurler. Over his last six starts, Martinez has a 1.34 ERA and a .238 batting average against. Michael Wacha has looked better lately, Mike Leake had his best start of the season Sunday and Jaime Garcia is healthy and effective.
The bullpen suffered a rough patch over the last couple of weeks. But deposed closer Trevor Rosenthal has looked better lately as he tries to iron out the wrinkles. Rosey’s injury scare, according to the team, is no big deal. But the Birds have two experienced closers on the roster if things don’t improve enough for Rosenthal to earn the closer role back. Meanwhile, the Birds have the No. 2 prospect in MLB itching to graduate from Class AAA Memphis to the big leagues. Alex Reyes and his high-octane fastball could give the bullpen a nice jolt like Martinez and Rosenthal did in previous seasons.
The offense is hurt by the fact that All-Star second baseman Matt Carpenter hit the disabled list with an oblique strain and won’t be back till early to mid-August. That’s a huge hole in the leadoff spot (and he’s been the Cards’ top RBI man, too). But… slugging outfielder Randal Grichuk seems to have finally sorted out his swing, hitting a home run and driving in another run with a two-out hit Sunday. If Grichuk can hit like he did last year for the rest of 2016, it will be the boost the offense needs to put more runs on the board on a consistent basis.
Second baseman turned outfielder Kolten Wong has also made the most of his return to the major leagues, playing a much smarter and more aggressive form of baseball lately. He had a nice bunt hit Sunday and earlier in the Brewers series seemed more willing to drive outside pitches to the opposite field instead of being obsessed with trying to hit home runs.
Wong’s presence gives the Cardinals a pretty good insurance policy at second base and, when Carpenter comes back, will give the team a chance to get 36-year-old fly chaser Matt Holliday some regular rest.
Wong and Grichuk’s struggles have pressed bench players into regular duty. But, as opposed to the first half of the season when the Birds tried to find productive players to fill all the positions in the batting order, they now will have to make some tough roster calls. Does Tommy Pham, who made a great catch Sunday, deserve to be sent out when Carpenter comes off the DL? Does Greg Garcia? The bright side is that the team could be the most versatile club in the National League. Players that have been over-exposed will be able to concentrate on the roles they were originally expected to play.
Meanwhile, the Cubs have fallen dramatically back to earth, losing 15 of their last 21 games before the All-Star Game break.
The stumble allowed both the Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Pirates — who a couple of weeks ago were rumored to be ready to start selling off talent to rebuild for 2017 and beyond — are now growing larger in the Wee Bears’ rearview mirror.
If Chicago doesn’t get off to a good start in the second half, this is going to become a serious race really fast.
I’ll be shocked if the Redbirds don’t start playing better at home, score more consistently and pitch better at the end of the year than they did in the beginning. And if they do those things, there are plenty of reasons to still have hope that they can not only get into the playoff picture — but win the NL Central. If I’ve learned anything over the past decade, it’s don’t bet against the Cardinals in September and October.