Major League Baseball has reached the All-Star Break and thus, Cardinal fans will have a short reprieve from riding the hellish roller coaster the club has subjected them to every week since the season’s start.
Will the Cards make a serious run in the second half and catch the Cubs or, at the very least, can they remain in the mix for one of the two National League Wild Card spots?
With that top of mind, here are five Cardinal questions I have with Friday marking the season’s second act.
How do they fix the bullpen?
After he broke Twitter for about 20 minutes Sunday with his overpowering stuff in the Futures Game, many Cardinal fans would love to see Alex Reyes promoted to repair a fractured bullpen.
That said, as Bernie noted in his excellent in-depth piece Monday, Reyes dazzled but also needed 38 pitches to record five outs on Sunday.
His Memphis walk rate is currently 4.35, which isn’t as high as Trevor Rosenthal’s mark of 6.90, but it’s high nonetheless.
The 100-mph fastball plays. The curveball plays. The changeup plays. The Cards have a serious need in the bullpen with Rosenthal shaky, Kevin Siegrist battling mono, and Seth Maness resembling nothing like the double play machine he was the past two years.
Why not promote Reyes and roll the dice that his walk rate could be marginalized by the fact he’d be a reliever and not a starter?
Because it’s neither realistic nor fair to ask a 21-year-old prospect to be the big-league pen’s savior when he has minor-league level command issues. It makes more sense for John Mozeliak to acquire a deadline veteran reliever, hope Rosenthal hasn’t forgotten how to pitch (and thus, rediscovers his form), and then bring up Reyes in August or September. At least then Reyes would be a luxury under that scenario, and viewed as the answer.
No matter which direction Mozeliak takes to address the issue, the pen needs a facelift. With the starting pitching rounding into shape over the last 30-plus days (plus the offense taking a hit with the injuries to Matt Carpenter and Brandon Moss), this team can’t give away winnable games to late-inning relief issues.
Can the club lean on its starting pitching?
Whether you rely on standard numbers or advanced metrics, the Cardinals’ starting pitching has been solid the past month. The Cards’ starters rank 8th in ERA (3.97), fifth in Fielding Independent Pitching (3.72), and 8th in Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (3.90) over the past 30 days.
The turnaround’s two biggest catalysts are Carlos Martinez and Adam Wainwright. In his first eight starts, Wainwright had a 6.80 ERA, a 4.40 FIP, and a 4.86 xFIP. In his last 10 starts (and since making the necessarily adjustments while rebounding from an Achilles tendon rupture), his ERA is 2.89, his FIP is 2.81, and his xFIP is 3.50. That’s remarkable.
So if the past month’s starting pitching has been solid, why is it a question for the second half? Because of Matt Carpenter’s injury.
Whether he’s out a month with the oblique injury suffered last week, or he’s out the rest of the season, the Cards can’t replace Carpenter’s production. And with Carpenter out, it’s not reasonable to believe that the club’s strength will be its offense.
Thus, run prevention once again needs to become a focal point if this team is finally going to get on a hot streak. The pitching needs to be as good as it has been over the past month, but even if the starting pitching is steady…
Will the defense significantly improve?
This is probably the biggest question I have when discussing whether or not the Cards can stay in the postseason mix. The team ranks 24th in Ultimate Zone Rating, which attempts to quantify how many runs a player saved or gave up.
The league average this season is 0.8.
The Cards’ UZR is -17.7.
Only the Padres, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Tigers, Twins and A’s have a worse UZR rating. Five of those six teams are in either fourth or fifth place in their division, while the second-place Tigers are in a division where only the Indians have a positive run differential at the break.
The Cardinals’ rotation pitches to contact. Even Martinez, who has electric stuff, relies on getting a lot out ground ball outs in order to work deep into games. Cardinal defenders whiffed on way too many plays over the season’s first half. How many times was a potential double play thwarted because of a bobbled ball?
The good news is shortstop, Aledmys Diaz is improving each week. If Kolten Wong can play with confidence at second and Randal Grichuk’s bat keeps him in the lineup, then at least the Cards should be steady up the middle (or at least steadier than they were in the first half).
This Cardinal team has struggled to gain traction this season. This hasn’t been a fundamentally sound team. If the same customary play on display in previous years returns, then maybe the Cards will stay afloat until Carpenter comes back and take off down the stretch.
Can Diaz hold up over 162?
Kolten Wong and Jhonny Peralta faded down the stretch last year and Carlos Martinez never reached the postseason due to an injury at the end of the regular season. After winning 100 games in the regular season, the Cards were gassed in the postseason.
Aledmys Diaz has been an offensive revelation, but the fact remains he’s in his first full big league season. Will Mike Matheny utilize Greg Garcia in the second half to get Diaz some much needed rest during the dog days of summer?
If not, then Diaz could lose his legs like Wong and Peralta did a year ago. That’s a scary proposition given Diaz’s offensive output in the first half.
Did Grichuk find something in Memphis?
Since being recalled from the minors after being sent down in late June to rebuild confidence and fix his swing, Randal Grichuk is 9-for-22 (.409) with three runs scored, three extra base hits, two home runs and four runs batted in.
He didn’t take one walk in those 22 at bats, but he also only struck out twice, which has been an issue for the young outfielder over the past year.
Small sample size? Or did Grichuk rediscover what made him an intriguing player a year ago?
As my radio partner Chris Duncan has noted, Grichuk’s hands are looser, his bat isn’t flat like it was at the season’s start, and the home run he hit Sunday in Milwaukee was an example of him staying through the ball and getting great extension.
There is tangible evidence that he’s fixed some of the issues that plagued him before his demotion, but time will tell if he has significantly better pitch recognition than he did in April and May.
Grichuk isn’t a cleanup hitter and never should have been put in that role, but the Cards will live with the strikeouts if he displays the same pop he did a year ago.
His first half didn’t go as he or the team expected, but this is far from a lost season.