Moves Put Cardinals in Position to Win

With last week’s moves that rebuilt the Cardinals’ bullpen and addressed their defensive shortcomings up the middle, the 2011 edition of the Redbirds has enough physical talent to win the NL Central and to play with the big boys in Philadelphia and San Francisco in the playoffs.

Think of the overmatched or worn out players the Cardinals have employed this season: Brian Tallet, Ryan Franklin, Trever Miller, Mikael Cleto, Bryan Augenstein, Miguel Batista, P.J. Walters and Raul Valdez were all, for various reasons, almost completely ineffective for the 2011 Cardinals.

Tyler Greene, Mark Hamilton, Matt Carpenter, Pete Kozma and Andrew Brown were all inexperienced, needed seasoning, and were unable to produce at the big-league level this year. Of those, only Hamilton, at .213, had a batting average above .200. As a group, in 234 plate appearances, those five had just 13 RBI.

In getting Octavio Dotel, Marc Rzepczynski and Edwin Jackson (who pushed Kyle McClellan to the bullpen) the Cardinals have set up a pen that manager Tony La Russa can have full confidence in. A staff is only as strong as its weakest link, and the weak link here is pretty darn strong. If a Cardinals starter goes six innings with a lead, La Russa can use McClellan and Lance Lynn in the seventh, Dotel and Rzepczynski in the eighth and Fernando Salas to close in the ninth. Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte can be mixed and matched, but certainly can be counted on to keep a game where it is.

An up-the-middle defense that left lots to be desired with Ryan Theriot at short and Colby Rasmus in center is suddenly above average. Rafael Furcal is still an above-average defender at age 33, and Skip Schumaker has played well at second this year. Daniel Descalso is dependable whenever and wherever you play him, and Theriot is much better served at second base than first. Jon Jay plays aggressively in center field and makes good throws to the right base, a stark departure from what Rasmus did in his final couple of months in St. Louis.

Amazingly, the Cardinals appear to be offensively challenged at the moment. Furcal arrived on the scene having gone 7-for-18 in the close of his Dodgers career, but is below .200 overall this year. Albert Pujols still hasn’t had a two-week stretch where he carried the club on his back. Matt Holliday has really struggled lately, hitting .245 with just his homer at Milwaukee Monday night and five RBI since the All-Star break. Lance Berkman has continued to carry the team when he’s healthy, but the club needs more that Berkman and the recently hot David Freese.

What the Cardinals need is for the offense to be what it has historically been, and for their started pitching to protect the bullpen. If that happens, then they should win. Furcal is a career .283 hitter with a .349 on-base percentage. If he does that for two months, then the lineup will be off and running. Jay simply needs to sustain his effort so far in 2011. Pujols has been amazing in August and September in his career. His highest batting average (.345), most home runs (81) and most RBI (216) of any month during his career have come in August. He’s been close in September, hitting .338 with 58 homers, 215 RBI and a .439 OBP.

Holliday has had good Augusts, but his September numbers (.327/40/163/.997 OPS) are superb. The last two months traditionally haven’t been Berkman’s best months, but he’s been very productive in August and September too. Freese will play his first healthy stretch run, but he has been a great hitter with RBI opportunities in his career. Those big boys need to carry the offense down the stretch.

The starting pitching needs to pick it up. Jake Westbrook has eight quality starts in 22 games this year, delivering a quality start only 36 percent of the time. Kyle Lohse has made 21 starts, 10 in which he’s gone six innings and allowed three or fewer runs. That’s just a 48 percent quality start rate. Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia both approach 60 percent quality start rates, and as a team the club is below 50 percent. To get on a roll, the Cards must get more quality innings out of their starters; otherwise they’ll burn out their new bullpen just like they did their old one. The quality of starts leaves too much to be desired.

Can the Cardinals overcome a 3½-game deficit in the NL Central? Sure they can. But they need their hitters to be what they’ve always been down the stretch, they need their new bullpen to perform up to what the back of their baseball card says it will, and they need their starters to be better than they have been for the last two months. The chance is there. The Cardinals are set up for it. They simply need to seize it.