Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Too Soon to Count Out Slow-Starting Cardinals

The Saint Louis Cardinals, perennial National League contenders, are off to an uncharacteristically slow start this season. 
The team is currently sitting at the bottom of the overall National League standings with a 4-9 record.
Saint Louis has won an NL-record 11 World Series championships. In addition, the franchise has won 19 National League pennants. 
The club has captured 13 division crowns, including 10 in the NL Central, and has been an NL Wildcard playoff team on three occasions.
In recent years, Saint Louis has finished in either first or second place in the NL Central for eight straight seasons. They won the division four times in that span, reached the Fall Classic twice, and won the 2011 World Series.
While the longtime arch-rival Chicago Cubs ran away with the division a year ago, finishing 17.5 games in front of the Cards, that was more a reflection on the Cubbies dominant year.
The Cardinals went a solid 86-76 in the 2016 season, and fell just one game shy of both the New York Mets and San Francisco Giants in the race for another postseason berth.

SLOW START TO THE 2017 SEASON

Before last night’s victory over the division-rival Pittsburgh Pirates at Busch Stadium, the team’s 3-9 record represented the worst start to a season by a Cardinals team since 1988.
Cardinals
Manager Mike Matheny was quoted by Derrick Goold for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the slow start as compared to what his club is used to:
“When you have a good start, it’s something you go back to — ‘Hey this is what we do,’” Matheny said. “We haven’t seen it yet. That’s concerning. We will see it, and I think we will see it for long periods of time. They need to sense that winning expectation every time we go out there. It’s amazing how powerful that is. The opposite can happen, too. What we’re fighting is to make sure that doesn’t creep in.”
This team has not suddenly fallen apart. I firmly believe that the Cardinals are simply off to a slow start, and will bounce back to once again make a playoff push.
The Cubs, overwhelming divisional faves once again, are just 6-7 at this point, just two games in front of the Cards. In fact, just three National League teams are more than two games above the .500 mark. None is a traditional contender, or a clear favorite to maintain their current pace.

CARDS OFFENSE STRUGGLING THUS FAR

The biggest culprit has been the offensive attack, such as it is right now. Saint Louis is just 28th in baseball in runs scored, 29th in OPS, and 17th in stolen bases. The statistics don’t lie: they’re not hitting the ball particularly hard, running very well, or scoring many runs.
This is not likely to continue, given health. Yadier Molina is hitting for just a .229/.310/.343 slash line. The 34-year old team leader was signed this off-season to a contract extension that will pay him $20 million per year over each of the three seasons after this one.
Jhonny Peralta is at just a .120/.185/.120 slash. Matt Carpenter has a .222/.362/.306 mark. Big free agent signee Dexter Fowler has a .132/.207/.151 slash line.
These are just the biggest violators in a lineup full of unproductive bats. None of the Cardinals primary starting or bench players is younger than 25 years old. This is not a bunch of bats with no track record. These numbers are not likely to continue so low for much longer.
On the mound, the biggest problem is the bullpen. Closer Seung-hwan Oh, so effective after arriving from Korea a year ago, has a 9.53 ERA after five games. He has allowed two homers among the nine hits that he has surrendered over his first 5.2 innings.

BULLPEN AND WAINWRIGHT STRUGGLING

Jonathan BroxtonKevin SiegristBrett Cecil, and Miguel Socolovich all have ERA’s at least at the 9.00 mark. As a group, the Cardinals bullpen has allowed 30 earned runs on 43 hits over 36.1 innings with a 29/20 K:BB ratio.
Again, these are not a group of arms without a track record. This bullpen is more than likely to begin achieving success as well.
The rotation has been the one solid force thus far in Saint Louis. Now at age 35, Adam Wainwright is no longer the leader, but instead is simply an innings contributor. He has been the least effective of the group by far, allowing 24 hits in 13.2 innings over his first three starts.
Cardinals
Wainwright was quoted as blaming himself for much of the slow start in Goold’s piece:
“I know that Cardinal Nation is ready for me to get my act together. I am, too,” Wainwright said. “Don’t know what to tell you. I wish I had a lot of excuses. … It all starts with the starting pitching. I’ve got three of our losses. You can put three of them on me. I’ll take the blame as much as I can.”

REST OF ROTATION HAS BEEN SOLID

Mike Leake (29) and Lance Lynn (30) have each started off solidly, and can be counted on for consistent outings on most nights. They have combined to allow just 23 hits over 32.1 innings, with a combined 26/7 K:BB over their six combined starts thus far.
A pair of 25-year olds may now be the most talented in the rotation. Michael Wacha has looked good thus far, with a 14/3 K:BB ratio over his first dozen innings.
The biggest talent may be the other 25-year old, righty Carlos Martinez. The Dominican hurler has allowed 16 hits in 17.2 innings with a 24/9 K:BB over his first three starts.

CARDS MAY BE ABOUT TO TURN IT AROUND

The early schedule hasn’t been a friend to the Cardinals. They have thus far faced the Cubs, Nationals, and Yankees in nine of the first 13 games. Those are two of the top NL teams, and the Yanks are one of the hottest starting teams in baseball this year.
Last night’s win began a stretch in which the Cardinals will play 13 of 17 and 21 of their next 29 games in front of some of the best fans in baseball at home in Saint Louis.
It would not surprise me at all if the Cardinals win last night was the beginning of a turnaround. I am looking for Saint Louis to be closer to the top of the division than the bottom by the time those 29 games are over a month from now. There is simply too much talent for the struggles to continue.

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