By Rob Rains
If you have spent the last two months devoting your attention to the Blues’ run to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, it’s now time to catch up on what has been happening with the Cardinals.
Here are 10 things to know about why the Cardinals went into the start of a four-game series in New York on Thursday night with a 33-33 record. All statistics mentioned are through Wednesday night’s game.
1. The leadoff spot has been a black hole.
Through the first 66 games of the season, the team has compiled a .195 average out of the leadoff spot. That ranks last in the National League. They also rank last in RBIs, 13th in the league in runs, 11th in on-base percentage and next to last, 14th, in OPS.
Matt Carpenter has hit in the leadoff spot in 52 games and posted a .208 average. The other four leadoff hitters the Cardinals have tried – Dexter Fowler (6 games), Kolten Wong (4 games), Harrison Bader (2 games) and Yairo Munoz (2 games) have a combined average in that spot of .172 (10 of 58). The two most frequent replacements for Carpenter have struggled in the spot, Fowler going 1-of-23 (and he was picked off first after that hit) and Wong 2-of-16. The four hitters other than Carpenter have combined to draw only three walks in their 14 games in the top spot and have driven in just one run.
Only three times this season has the Cardinals leadoff hitter produced two hits and scored two or more runs in a game. Carpenter did it twice and Bader once.
2. The second spot in the lineup hasn’t been much better.
In his second game with the Cardinals Paul Goldschmidt hit three homers and drove in five runs. In his other 52 games before he switched places with third-place hitter Paul DeJong, he posted a .259 average with eight homers and 21 RBIs. Perhaps more concerning was that he hit only four doubles in those games and has only six total so far this season. For comparison, over the last six years Goldschmidt has averaged 37 doubles a season.
DeJong has gone 7-of-42 hitting second since the lineup was changed. That is part of a bigger slide that began after a very good April. Since May 1, DeJong has hit an even .200 (25-of-125) with five homers and 16 RBIs in 35 games.
Combined, the Cardinals rank 11th in the NL in batting average out of the second spot (.251), 11th in runs, 13th in RBIs and 11th in both on-base percentage and OPS.
3. As a whole, the lineup has struggled to produce timely hits.
With two outs and a runner in scoring position the Cardinals have compiled a .220 average, which ranks 14th in the National League, ahead of only the Marlins.
Wong, Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina are a combined 21-of-63 with two outs and a runner in scoring position, a .333 average, that has produced 30 runs. The rest of the team combined has a .185 average in those situations (32-of-173) with 39 RBIs.
The worst hitters in those spots have been Ozuna (8-of-38), DeJong (3-of-18), Fowler (3-of-16) Carpenter (5-of-25), Bader (1-of-12) and Matt Wieters (0-of-11).
4. The rotation has been inconsistent and has especially struggled on the road
The combined record of the five starters the Cardinals had in their rotation when the season began (Miles Mikolas, Jack Flaherty, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Dakota Hudson) is 22-21. Friday night’s game will only be the fourth not started by one of these five pitchers, none of whom has an ERA under 3.50 (by Hudson, who has been their best starter since May 1.)
On the road the five regular starters have a combined ERA of 5.45 and a record of 8-14. The best pitcher has been Wacha, who coming off his six scoreless innings in Miami on Monday night, has allowed just 11 earned runs in 33 innings. The worst starter has been Mikolas, who has allowed 27 earned runs in 31 1/3 innings, an ERA of 7.76.
Wainwright is 1-5 and has allowed 26 earned runs in 35 2/3 innings away from Busch Stadium, an ERA of 6.56. Flaherty’s road ERA is even higher, 6.67, having allowed 21 earned runs in 28 2/3 innings. Hudson’s road ERA is 3.74, having allowed 14 earned runs in 33 2/3 innings.
Overall the Cardinals are 13-20 on the road. The wins from Wacha and Hudson on Monday and Tuesday night were the first consecutive road games won by the Cardinals since April 30-May 1.
What the team needs is a stopper, an ace, and so far this season none of these pitchers has stepped up to fill that role. In starts following loses this season, Mikolas is 2-2, Flaherty 1-3, Wacha 1-1, Hudson 1-0 and Wainwright 0-4.
5. Jordan Hicks has spent more time sitting than he has pitching
Coming into the season the Cardinals said they expected to mix and match their relievers at the back end of the bullpen depending on late inning matchups and situations. That has happened in part, but not for Jordan Hicks, who has almost exclusively appeared only in save situations.
That has created a lack of usage for Hicks, especially during a stretch in May when the Cardinals played 23 consecutive games without a save.
Hicks has earned 13 saves but has only pitched a total of 22 1/3 innings through the first 66 games of the season. Are the Cardinals wasting perhaps their best arm by not using him more often?
Using Hicks in the seventh or eighth innings, when the game is on the line, might be more beneficial for the Cardinals then hoping they have a lead going into the ninth. Having Andrew Miller pitching better, and John Gant and Carlos Martinez also available as late-inning options, could change the Cardinals thinking.
6. Ozuna has been the team’s best player
Playing in his walk year, Ozuna leads the team in home runs and RBIs and is on pace for the best season of his career in both categories. His 18 homers in the first 66 games are the most by a Cardinal since Albert Pujols had 23 in 2009.
Despite his success, there has been no indication that the Cardinals have approached Ozuna or his new agent about working on a new contract. The Cardinals have an abundance of young outfielders nearing the major leagues and perhaps the organization already has decided to let Ozuna leave as a free agent after the season.
What bears watching over the next month is if the Cardinals should drop out of the race, Ozuna could become one of their best trading chips before the July 31 deadline.
7. The wait for Alex Reyes to arrive continues
The Cardinals tried to rush Reyes back to the majors at the start of this season and he was not ready. It turned out the nearly two full years of inactivity left him needing more time to develop his fastball command. He is now getting that work done in Memphis.
It’s possible that after one more start in Memphis Reyes will be ready, but then the Cardinals have to find a spot for him. It seems they have made the decision that he needs to be a starter, and who’s spot he would take in the rotation is something that will be determined in the coming weeks.
If the current starters are pitching well, however, it is possible the Cardinals would try Reyes in the bullpen again this season, knowing they likely will have two spots in the rotation to fill next year.
8. Ryan Helsley has been the only passenger on the 1-55 shuttle this year but he has been a frequent traveler
Since April 16, when he was first called up from Memphis, Helsley has gone back and forth from the Triple A club seven times. The longest he has stayed in the majors was two weeks, from April 16-April 30. The right-handed Helsley has appeared in seven games with the Cardinals, covering a total of 10 1/3 innings in which he has allowed only five hits, issued four unintentional walks and struck out 12.
One of his strikeouts came last weekend in Chicago, when he fanned Kris Bryant with the bases loaded on a 100 mph fastball.
It would seem that Helsley has earned a chance to stick around longer in the majors, and be used more frequently, but having options usually has made him the easy choice when the team needs to make a roster spot. He had to come out of Wednesday night’s game after just 1/3 of an inning because of an apparent injury.
Helsley’s status also has been affected by the success of reliever Giovanny Gallegos, who has recorded 43 strikeouts and issued only six walks in 29 2/3 innings.
9. The team was good in April, bad in May. What should be expected the rest of the season?
Probably something in between the performance of those two months. Counting the first few games of the season in March, the Cardinals were 19-10 in April and then had one of the worst May’s in franchise history, going 9-18. So far in June they are 5-5.
The reason their May performance did not cost them as badly in the race in the NL Central as it could have was because neither the Cubs or Brewers had a great month either. The Cubs, after going 15-13 before the end of April, were 16-12 in May. The Brewers were 17-14 at the end of April and had a 15-12 record in May.
With three and a half months of the season to go, there are plenty of games to be played and the Cardinals still believe they have enough talent on the roster to make a run at both the division title or a wild-card spot but there is no doubt for that to happen some of the players they expected to be key performers are going to have to start playing better than they have to this point in the season.
10. Is there any internal help on the way?
It would seem that other than Reyes, most of the players the Cardinals could promote from the minor leagues the rest of this season would be used in a support role, barring any significant injuries.
The top two prospects in the organization are third baseman Nolan Gorman, who just turned 19, and 20-year-old outfielder Dylan Carlson. Gorman is playing at Class A Peoria and Carlson at Double A Springfield. Both are being counted on heavily in the Cardinals plans for the future, but not this season.
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains