As a Cardinals fan, I remember the negative buzz that surrounded this team in Spring Training. Between Adam Wainwright’s injury and Albert Pujols’ contract extension, nothing seemed to be going right. I even seem to recall some suggesting calling the season a lost cause and trading Pujols to start rebuilding.
As a fan, I thought it was all over dramatic. Yes, Adam Wainwright would mean a serious loss, but the Cardinals could expect to pick up a few of the wins in other places. For example, despite finishing five games behind the Reds, the Redbirds had an identical Expected Win-Loss record, meaning they were unlucky. Expected Win-Loss Record is just what it sounds: how a team is expected to do based on their runs scored and allowed. Dave Duncan has worked magic with pitchers before, and some of the offense had to improve or at least have a healthier season.
So far, the team has surpassed my every expectation, with amazing resurgences from Lance Berkman and Kyle Lohse, as well as All-Star starts from Matt Holliday, Colby Rasmus, and Jaime Garcia, among others. The Cardinals currently sit in first place with baseball’s second-best record. However, that brings up new questions, mainly, what should the Cardinals do to hold onto their early lead?
To answer that, we must first ask: how much of the Cardinal’s early success is repeatable? Well, the good news is that the Cardinals Expected Win-Loss record matches their Actual one, with both sitting at 33-23. Furthermore, only the Yankees have a better Expected record, meaning the Cardinals have definitely been one of the league’s strongest teams. Their hitters have been rather lucky on the balls they have put in play: the Cardinals’ team batting average on balls in play (BABIP) sits at .321, well above the mid .280 to mid .290 most of the league sits at. Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman, and David Freese (when he returns) will all likely see their numbers drop as their BABIP grow closer to their career numbers, and there’s a decent chance Jon Jay and Allen Craig will experience similar cases. Meanwhile, Albert Pujols’ BABIP is lower than normal; however, he has been hitting fewer line drives and fly balls than normal too. (My personal theory is that his struggles are related to his hamstring injury and he needs rest, but I don’t really have much hard evidence. Just some suspicions.) In any case, the offense probably won’t finish the year as the best or second best in the league, but will remain close enough to the top to support the Cardinals.
The pitching, meanwhile, remains solid enough-the Cardinals currently rank eleventh in ERA. The pitchers BABIP allowed is .287, which is close enough to league average. Individual pitchers have had bad or good luck; Lohse and Kyle McClellan will likely see their ERAs rise, while Garcia, Chris Carpenter, and Jake Westbrook should see the ERAs fall. The starters will likely just about balance out.
On the contrary, the relievers have been rather pedestrian, even after a rough start. Brian Tallet and Ryan Franklin have both been awful, but should see less time in important innings, which should help. After these two, the most worrisome part of the bull pen is Miguel Batista, who has been quite lucky so far on how few balls in play have become hits. He doesn’t strike out enough batters and walks too many to remain a successful reliever (only a 1.08 K:BB ratio), and the Cardinals would be wise use him less while they can still come out ahead. In house replacements for Batista (or Franklin or Tallet, depending on which they decide to drop first) are present. Recently demoted Mitchell Boggs would likely have the easiest time sliding back into the bullpen, and his numbers suggest he will do a more than adequate job of replacing Batista. Boggs’ K:BB ratio is over 4, he gets more ground balls, and he’s much younger. Both Franklin and Tallet have stronger strikeout to walk ratios, and both have been slightly unlucky this year (in fact, the two are the Cardinal’s only regular relievers with BABIPs over .300). Both should improve slightly, but, like Batista, both should also have a short leash. As stated, Boggs is currently the best option due to his earlier performance in the Major Leagues this season, but the Cardinals should have possible options in their farm system, and should be willing to try them should any of these three continue their struggles.
So, in summary, right now, the Cardinals’ best option would be to try and solve their problems in house through call-ups, primarily in the bullpen. The offense has been strong, and even in the event of injury, the bench (Jon Jay, Nick Punto, and Allen Craig primarily) has proven itself more than capable of stepping in. The pitchers have been solid enough and, with better luck and better use of bullpen management, should see their runs allowed drop. As of right now, it isn’t worth trading away the future (in the form of prospects) to acquire help, as there is no immediate need to improve drastically.
Also seen at bleacherreport.com