Bird Watching: Cardinals Who Will Likely Determine the Team’s Direction

With the 2018 All-Star game filed away in history, the Cardinals are ready to play ball again. What kind of baseball? Well, that’s an open-ended question. As the Cards endeavor to push for a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015, they have a new manager, two new batting coaches, renewed optimism and 68 games remaining on the schedule.

At 48-46, and staring at deficits in the NL Central and the NL wild card race, the Cardinals have a helluva lot of work to do. And there is pressure on players, pitchers, the manager and staff, and the front office. The Cardinals’ second-half direction will largely be influenced by the performance of key individuals. They are capable of bringing postseason within reach — or they will fail to do enough to make a meaningful difference as playoff hopes fade.

Here’s a flock of Cardinals to Watch as the season relaunches Thursday night with the Cardinals vs. Cubs at Wrigley Field …

 Manager Mike Schildt: He’s smart, respected, well liked and is the quintessential Cardinals’ lifer. Mentored by George Kissell. Paid more dues than most baseball men who gradually ascend the the career ladder. Knows his history. Knows advanced metrics. He’s waited for this moment to arrive.  Now he must show that he can take a team in disarray and make it calmer, sharper, and better.

Right fielder Dexter Fowler:  Come on, dude. This is it.  A restart with the Cardinals. It’s a big opportunity. The manager who was so oddly uncomfortable with you is no longer employed by the Cardinals. You outlasted him. You’re also batting .176 with a weak .567 OPS. You’re about 32 percent of the way into your five-year, $82.5 million contract. You’re 32. The reflexes have slowed some. But you’re way better than a .270 onbase percentage and a .297 slugging percentage. It’s go time.

Left fielder Marcell Ozuna: At the All-Star break last season, in 372 plate appearances for Miami (only five fewer than he has for the Cardinals right now) Ozuna had 23 homers, 39 extra-base hits and was slugging .566. Well, at the All-Star break this season the Cardinals’ big offseason catch has a lower slugging percentage (.385) than Jordy Mercer and Andrelton Simmons; fewer extra-base hits (20) than Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso; fewer homers (10) than Stephen Piscotty and Nick Ahmed; and a lower OPS (.693) than Jon Jay. But if you love singles, this is your guy. Only seven National League hitters have more singles than Ozuna’s 74 this season.

Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez:  He’ll make the first start after the break, pitching against the Cubs on Thursday (6:05 p.m. CST). I’m never sure what to expect from Martinez these days; in eight starts since coming off the DL he has a 4.87 ERA and drifting control. Trade speculation is out there.

Mark Budaska and George Greer: Both men have spent many years providing excellent guidance for young, developing Cards prospects in the minors. They’re outstanding teachers. And this lineup could use some teaching. Simple teaching at that. (“See strike … hit strike.”)

 President of baseball ops John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch: The MLB non-waiver trade deadline is July 31. Too soon to determine if the Cardinals will be buyers, sellers, clubhouse cleaners or roster bulldozers.  But when the end of the month comes around, the bosses can’t let the deadline pass without doing something … even if it’s a shakeup.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux: He’s really terrific at his job. Deep down Maddux must be excited; he’ll now be working with an intelligent manager who will solicit his advice, value his advice, and implement his advice. That’s good for Maddux and should be good for the state of the bullpen — a longtime area of chaos and confusion under the previous manager.

Center fielder Tommy Pham: Since the first of May, Pham is batting .207 with a .271 OBP and .351 slug. Among the 120 MLB hitters that have a minimum of 240 plate appearances since May 1, only eight have an OPS worse than Pham’s .622.  And his ground-ball rate (54.8%) is the ninth-highest. For the season, Pham is ranked 29th among MLB center fielders with minus 6 Defensive Runs Saved. Pham isn’t this bad. No way. So there is either something is wrong with him physically (including vision) or his confidence is shot.  Or maybe he’s ready to make a huge rebound and raise his offensive numbers to previous levels.

Starting pitcher Miles Mikolas: Excellent first half, All-Star first half, well deserved. He’s sixth among NL starters with a 2.79 ERA and 2.6 WAR, ranks eighth with a 4.15 K-BB ratio, and is tied for fifth with 10 wins. But can Mikolas stay strong to the finish line?

Second baseman Kolten Wong: With 14 Defensive Runs Saved, Wong is the best fielder at his position. But since June 24, Wong is batting .293 with a .517 slug and .881 OPS. If Wong keeps it up, he’ll give the offense a lift. And he should be more relaxed and confident with Matheny gone.

 Starting pitcher Jack Flaherty: In 14 starts, the 22-year-old has the second-best ERA (3.24) among rookie starting pitchers (minimum 10 starts.) And his 28 percent strikeout rate is near the top of the rookie leader list. The team will be careful with his innings load; Flaherty’s innings count reached 75 before the All-Star break. And that’s good; he wasn’t overworked. If Flaherty can stay fresh and effective, the STL rotation will be less vulnerable.

 Starting pitcher Michael Wacha: Recovering from a torn oblique muscle, Wacha hasn’t pitched since June 20. He was having a fine season overall at 8-2 with a 3.29 ERA and seven quality starts in 15 assignments. But stamina is always a question with Wacha, and he wasn’t as crisp (7.43) ERA in his last three starts before suffering the injury. But here’s the tradeoff: If Wacha can get fully healthy and return to the rotation with sometime next month, he should have plenty of fuel in his tank for the closing stretch.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Put That List of Cards’ Manager Candidates Down. This is Mike Shildt’s Job To Lose.