The Cardinals Need the Hardest Thing to Find in Baseball…A Superstar

When the Cardinals fired manager Mike Matheny and replaced him with Mike Schildt, both Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak said they wanted to make the move now to salvage the season.  They also replaced hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller with organizational veterans Mark Budaska and George Greer.  After Sunday’s games, the Cardinals are fourth in their division, and salvaging the season seems like a pipe dream.

While there have been some positive results individually in the early going for the offense, the inconsistency that plagued the Cards in the first half has not subsided under Schildt.  After scoring six runs in each of his first two games and eighteen in his third, the Redbirds had just two hits and two runs in their Saturday loss in the first game at Wrigley, then bounced back with six more in the nightcap and then scored two in the finale in a loss to the Cubs.

Some players have thrived in the first week of the new regime.  Matt Carpenter’s success doesn’t need any elaboration from me.  After going four for his first eight under Schildt, Kolten Wong went 0-for-7.  Tommy Pham has been great…going 10-for-17 with four walks, a double, a homer and eight RBI.  And Dexter Fowler, given a fresh start…so far has failed to cash in, going 5-for-21 with two extra base hits under Schildt.  While that’s much better than his first half production, the Cardinals are going to need more from Fowler.

The real conundrum for Schildt is Marcell Ozuna.  Ozuna has been a shadow of last year’s Silver Slugger/Gold Glove award winner.  General Manager Michael Girsch told us last week that Ozuna indeed does have a shoulder problem.  “Marcell has a shoulder issue that’s limited his throwing for the last eighteen months or so,” Girsch said, “but it’s one of those questions; is he injured?  No.  It doesn’t affect him at the plate.  Is he 100 percent?  Is he perfect?  Very few players that spend (any amount) of time playing the sport don’t have nicks somewhere along the way.  Marcell is healthy.  You’re not going to see him throw like he did four or five years ago.  But he’s ready to go.”

That’s actually more troubling than if he WAS hurt.  For the year, he’s hitting .268 with ten homers and 51 RBI in 95 games.  He had seven of those homers and seventeen RBI in a thirteen-game stretch in early June.  Ozuna was 23-56 (.411) from June 1-June 17.  I’ll do that math for you.  In the 82 games outside of the first half of June, he’s hitting .239 in 314 at bats with three homers and 34 RBI.  When your “impact” hitter doesn’t deliver any impact, your offense is going to suffer.

When last season ended, I thought the Cardinals needed to get a third-place hitter AND a fourth-place hitter.  They still need both.  With the way they’ve performed this season, a team can win with Carpenter, Jose Martinez and Yadier Molina hitting the way they have.  Based on their ceilings, Ozuna, Fowler, Pham and shortstop Paul DeJong can fit into a winning lineup.  Wong can be a solid eighth place hitter in the National League.  One offensive problem is that so many players are underachieving based on what was expected of them.  That’s a job for Budaska and Greer.  The Cardinals need to find a third baseman that’s an impact hitter and need to either get Ozuna going or find a corner outfielder that can hit in the middle of the lineup.

The bullpen is another story.  Again, based on what they’ve done at the major league level the current group should be better.  Bud Norris and Jordan Hicks have performed at a winning level this year.  At their best, John Brebbia and Sam Tuivailala have shown themselves to be solid options to keep a game close or build a bridge from the fifth to the seventh inning.  Tyler Lyons has allowed a career .204 batting average to lefty hitters with a .607 OPS, but those numbers have ballooned this year.  He needs to get healthy.  Mike Mayers has shown flashes of being really solid.

It seems Matheny used Matt Bowman up.  He just isn’t what he was in his first two major league seasons, when he threw a total of 126 1/3 innings.  Obviously, the signing of 2017 NL saves leader Greg Holland has been a disaster, and the Cardinals would be smart to DFA him and swallow the $5.4 million left on his one year, $14 million deal.  The Holland situation was mishandled from the start, and he shows few signs of turning his season around.  The Cards have a lefty reliever named Tommy Layne doing good things at Memphis, and he would need to be added to the 40 man roster if they bring him up.

The Brett Cecil signing is a big negative right now, too…but that’s a little more complicated.  He’s due a total of almost $15 million next year and in 2020.  That’s not a number that the Cardinals are going to admit a mistake on quite yet.  It might be smart to let Cecil take a mental break on the DL.  After four scoreless outings in a row earlier this month, in his last four appearances Cecil has pitched two and a third innings, allowing nine hits, three walks and seven earned runs.  His season WHIP is 1.99.

By the way, we often talk about the quality of the starting rotation.  On the day spring training ended, the Cardinals expected their starting five to be Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha, Luke Weaver and Miles Mikolas.  Martinez, Wainwright and Wacha are now on the disabled list and Weaver is in the minors.  Mikolas is the only member of the rotation to not miss a major league start.  In the last couple of years, Martinez, Wacha and Weaver have shown an ability to pitch winning baseball.  Mikolas clearly can.  And Jack Flaherty and a healthy Alex Reyes are highly regarded…as are Daniel Poncedeleon and Austin Gomber, who will pitch Monday and Tuesday’s games in Cincinnati.

The Cardinals need the hardest thing to find in baseball…a superstar.  They have enough other position players with winning skillsets to compete for a playoff spot.  Those players need to have their talents maximized.  If you look at recent baseball history, bullpens are mercurial animals.  Last year’s Astros bullpen had a 4.27 ERA.  This year it’s 2.71.  Last year the Dodgers were fourth in bullpen ERA.  This year they’re thirteenth.

The reality is that the Cardinals are in fourth place in the NL Central, behind the Pirates, and they probably aren’t going anywhere in 2018.  But a pragmatic look reveals that they do have a lot of good pieces.  Sadly, at the end of last year Mozeliak said they needed an impact hitter and more quality in the bullpen.  This year, despite his efforts in getting guys at the top of their game in 2017, he still needs that same thing.

More: Turnaround: Marcell Ozuna Is Changing His Hitting Patterns, and It’s Working