Four Months Into a Long, Strange Trip for the Cardinals

The 2017 baseball season turns four months old this week, and it’s been a wild ride for the Cardinals.  Their opening day starting eight has been decimated, their bullpen has failed them multiple times, and a healthy rotation has had serious bouts of inconsistency.

With all that, the Cubs aren’t what we expected they would be (although they have turned it on since the All Star break), and the surprising Brewers haven’t been able to put together a streak to get them way over .500.

Miraculously, the Cardinals are still in contention despite their issues.  And those issues are many.

The opening night lineup against the Cubs featured Dexter Fowler in center field, Aledmys Diaz at short, and Matt Carpenter at first.  Jhonny Peralta at third, Yadier Molina behind the plate and Stephen Piscotty in right, Jedd Gyorko at second, Randal Grichuk in left and Carlos Martinez pitching.

Fowler has played in 81 of the club’s 105 games, spending two stints so far on the DL.  After being signed for five years and $82.5 million to play center field and bat leadoff, his defense out there has left plenty to be desired. That may be because he dealt with heel spurs that put in on the DL on June 25. Because of Carpenter’s major struggles in the three hole, he was moved back to the leadoff spot.

It’s not exactly like Fowler was lighting it up at the top, hitting .213 in 49 games there with a .312 OBP.  Manager Mike Matheny tried him in the third spot, but that didn’t work.  Before his latest injury…a sprained wrist…Fowler was doing well hitting second, hitting .300 with a 1.046 OPS in a dozen games in that spot.  Overall, Fowler has been a major disappointment so far.

Diaz was a disaster.  After hitting .300 with an .879 OPS last season, the Cardinals counted on more of the same this year.  Before being sent down, Diaz appeared to be overmatched in hitting .260 with a .688 OPS, picking up just 23 extra base hits in 71 games.  Defensively, Diaz again showed limited range.  Among shortstops that have played at least 48 games, Diaz ranks fifteenth of fifteen in the National League with a range factor (putouts plus assists per game) of 3.35.  For comparison’s sake, Milwaukee’s Orlando Arcia leads at 4.73 and Paul DeJong is at 3.97.  DeJong gets to a lot more balls than Diaz, and has been a much more productive hitter.

Once he returned to the leadoff spot, Carpenter returned to his previous form.  In 44 games as the third-place hitter, he hit .226 with an .801 OPS.  Back at the leadoff spot, he’s hitting .302 with a .932 OPS.  In the all-important on base department, Carpenter is at .360 as the number three hitter this year, and .419 as the number one hitter.

Peralta was sick on opening night, and started the year 3-for-25 with three walks when he was placed on the DL with a respiratory infection.  When he came back, Peralta was 8-29 with no walks.  He was DFA’d on June 9 after collecting no extra base hits in 58 plate appearances.  After he cleared waivers, Peralta signed a minor league contract with Boston, but was subsequently released by them, too.

Molina has rebounded from an un-Yadi like 2016, when he threw out only 21% of opposing base-stealers, six percent below the league average.  This year, Molina is throwing out 32%, four percent above the league average and a little bit closer to his career 41%.  Molina’s offense isn’t what it was in 2012, but he’s still efficient enough that he’s one of the better offensive catchers in the NL.  He’s fourth in OPS among qualified catchers at .710 and is tied for second with 44 RBI.

Piscotty signed a long-term contract in the first week of the season, but has been plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, hitting just .236 with a .719 OPS.  For the second year in a row, the third-year outfielder has seen his average and his OPS decline.  A strained hamstring placed him on the DL from May 4-May 20, and then a strained groin has kept him out since July 15.

Gyorko started at second base on opening night, but when Peralta was disabled he took over at third and took off.  Gyorko has been a terrific player offensively and defensively, hitting .283 with a team leading fourteen homers and a career best .829 OPS.  Fangraphs.com regards Gyorko as the fifth best defensive third baseman in the NL, behind only Anthony Rendon, Nolan Arenado, Eugenio Suarez and Justin Turner.

At the end of May, Grichuk was hitting .222 with four home runs and a .653 OPS.  The club sent him out to Florida and then to Memphis.  He came back on June 25 and has hit .264 with nine homers and 19 RBI since.  His OPS since his return in .895.

To summarize, of the opening night starting eight, it’s reasonable to say that only Molina and Gyorko haven’t disappointed.  Kolten Wong, the regular second baseman, has been effective when healthy, but has only played 63 games.

On May 20, as Piscotty was making his initial return from the DL, the Cardinals traded Matt Adams to Atlanta for a minor league infielder.  Adams has hit .283 for the Braves with fifteen homers and 43 RBI and a .900 OPS.

The rotation has been remarkably healthy, but each of the five starters has had at least one bad month.  The bullpen, considered a strength before the season, is fourth in blown saves and fourth in allowing inherited runners to score. Brett Cecil started the season horribly.  Closer Seung-Hwan Oh got blown up and removed from his role.  Kevin Siegrist spent significant time on the DL.  Overall, the club has used fourteen different relievers.  They’ve converted 28 of 43 save opportunities.  The opening night roster contained Jonathon Broxton and Miguel Socolovich, who both have been DFA’d, and fourteen different relievers have been utilized.

The Cardinals also relieved third base coach Chris Maloney of his duties on the same day they designated Peralta for assignment, moving Mike Shildt to third base and promoting Pop Warner.  Assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller was out for a time with a family emergency, and Mark Budaska was brought up from Memphis to serve during Mueller’s leave.

Last week, Matheny intimated that Molina was tired, and Molina responded with an Instagram post insisting that he trains to play every game, and isn’t tired.

The Cardinals spent the weekend trying to put out that fire.

With all those problems, Tommy Pham, Magneuris Sierra, DeJong, Luke Voit, John Brebbia, Alex Mejia, Harrison Bader and Jose Martinez have all stepped up at different points.  The base running has improved a bit since the coaching moves, and the offense shows occasional signs of quality, if not consistency.

This season has been a roller coaster ride.  We mentioned it last week in The Fast Lane, it’s like the line from the movie Gladiator, “Are you not entertained?”  You never know what you’re going to get from this team.  It’s been a crazy season so far, and we still have two months to go.  Stay tuned.