When presented a good news-bad news scenario, I like receiving the bad news first. Take the punch, then find salve (or an ice bag). This week and next, I’ll share my take on the current baseball season, particularly as it’s unfolding here in Memphis (for our Triple-A Redbirds) and up the river in St. Louis (for the Cardinals, the Redbirds’ parent club). In sticking with my preferred method for good and bad news, this week’s column will focus on the rather gray skies — metaphorically speaking — over Busch Stadium.
What’s gone wrong for the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals? Everything. Literally, by every measurable component — roster composition, positional performance, hitting, fielding, pitching, and base running — the Cardinals have graded below average (at best). Areas in which they were supposed to be strong (top of the batting order, starting rotation) have at times sabotaged the team. Areas in which they needed to improve from 2016 (fielding competency, base-running decisions) have, if anything, regressed. What not so long ago was called “The Cardinal Way” in a nose-up, self-reverential tone has turned into a confused, often sloppy approach to nine innings on the diamond.
The most memorable play this season by one of the team’s core players — first baseman Matt Carpenter — was the veteran getting thrown out at third base as the potential game-winning run in the ninth inning . . . for the first out of the inning. It was reckless and embarrassing (particularly for Carpenter, one would assume), but a precise microcosm for a team that has had but one losing season this century. How have the Cardinals collapsed so quickly? Let’s explore three reasons.
• Roster “gains.” St. Louis let longtime centerpiece Matt Holliday fly via free agency (he’s now clubbing baseballs as a DH for the New Yankees), while also parting ways with Brandon Moss (28 homers in 2016) and Jeremy Hazelbaker (12 homers in a reserve role). The Cardinals finally moved Matt Adams (at one time considered a fixture in the team’s heart of the order) last month after giving the first base position to Carpenter.
Filling these roster spots are the likes of Jose Martinez, Tommy Pham, and Paul DeJong, each recent stand-outs here in Memphis and, perhaps, future difference-makers in St. Louis. But the most important roster addition last winter — centerfielder Dexter Fowler, last season a Chicago Cub — has been under-performing, and dramatically. Through Sunday, Fowler was hitting .230 with an on-base percentage of .323. These are well below Fowler’s career figures (.266 and .364) and not the kind of numbers for which a team typically invests $16.5 million (Fowler’s salary this season).
• Core four? How about a core one? Catcher Yadier Molina may well be bound for the Hall of Fame. Now in his 13th season as the Cardinals’ everyday catcher, Molina has earned a waiver of sorts when it comes to measuring his relative value. (Cardinal ownership considers that value worthy of a $60 million contract extension that will keep Molina in St. Louis through the 2020 season.) But the other position players general manager John Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny have expected to steer this team have all stumbled: Carpenter, outfielder Randal Grichuk (currently retooling his hitting stroke here in Memphis), second-baseman Kolten Wong, and outfielder Stephen Piscotty. If one or two of these players slump, St. Louis should find its way. When all four have down years? You land in fourth place (if not fifth) in a five-team division.
• Scoring scarcity. The Cardinals have blown leads with regularity, including all three games of a recent sweep at the hands of the world-champion Cubs. Brett Cecil — another big-ticket free-agent acquisition last winter — has essentially been throwing batting practice for Cardinal foes, posting a 5.66 ERA. Jonathon Broxton (6.89 ERA) was finally released last week, making room for John Brebbia (1.69 ERA over the season’s first two months with Memphis).
But the shaky bullpen must be forgiven, to some degree, as the Cardinals simply don’t score runs. Through Sunday, they ranked 26th out of 30 MLB teams with an average of 4.1 runs per game. Since May 25th, St. Louis has scored more than three runs in but six of 18 games, and as many as five in only three games. With no Matt Holliday, to say nothing of no Albert Pujols (remember him?), the Cardinals are lacking “The Guy,” a hitter capable of cleaning the bases of runners or driving himself in when no better scenario presents. This will be a hard fix for Mozeliak. Unless such a slugger can be groomed from the farm, multiple prospects will be required to add him to the Cardinals’ roster. It’s been eight years now since the St. Louis GM actually pulled off such a move. (The acquisition was Matt Holliday.)
Check back next week for the good news. Because the Cardinals’ farm system — particularly the first-place Memphis Redbirds — has climbed its way back.