To explain his view of the Cardinals’ lackluster start to their defense of the National League pennant, general manager John Mozeliak borrowed from another spot and not the standings.
It is, he suggested, like manager Mike Matheny is playing chess — moving to regain a position of strength, but limited in his ability to do so. That’s because, Mozeliak added, he’s playing with only pawns.
No knight has emerged to leap over obstacles. No rook has arrived to bulldoze straight ahead. The Cardinals’ offense overall has been so inconsistent, has made such a disappointing first impression that the pieces all feel the same, plodding ahead one square at a time.
“At no point does he have a king or a queen to move,” Mozeliak explained. “When you have only one or two who are on a consistent basis contributing to your offense, your flexibility is limited. At some point, the players have to help. In baseball, you’re the sum of your parts.”
Through the first quarter of 2014, the sum of the Cardinals has been decidedly ... meh. Stale, mate. They’ve loitered around .500 far past curfew and were 21-20 through their first 41 games of the regular season. Matheny even suggested recently that the record was better than they deserved.
His club has been a team out of synch – gears grinding more often than they are meeting. When the pitching was dominant, the offense was absent. When the offense stirred early, it didn’t add on and the starters didn’t pitch as deep. And so on.
Strong starts early in the season were forsaken by an offense that has mostly struggled. The lineup that strung hits all the way to leading the league in runs last season has had difficulty generating that same kind of timeliness. That chain-link attack is only as strong as all its hitters, and the Cardinals’ lineup has been freckled with underperformance.
'WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOU GUYS?'
The question Matheny said baseball is asking is, “What’s wrong with you guys?”
“I think we’re in the middle of a trial right now, and we are experiencing adversity,” Matheny said last week. “Adversity is simplified down to things not going the way you want them to go, right? That’s a great definition of where we are right now. I’ve learned and I’m learning to see this as a great opportunity more than anything else for all of us to step up and do something instead of sit back and keep getting punched.”
The phrase “panic button” has been used several times by Cardinals in the past week only as way to shoot down the opinion it needs to be pressed. In reality these first 42 games have been more a clash of impatience and patience — the fickle movement within the lineup and the demotion of Kolten Wong vs. the willingness to stick with several struggling but established players. Mozeliak said the lineup, now gaining some stability, deserves a chance to define itself now and that he’s comfortable waiting until mid-June or later to decree what changes the team needs to make. As long, he said, as there’s “positive movement” in the near future.
After a road slog to start the season, they see this current 10-game home stand and the stand that follows after a weekend trip to Cincinnati as a chance to gain traction, to find their swings, and to get right with the expectations.
“We need to really know what this club looks like before we get to July,” Mozeliak said. “At some point you need to give opportunity to certain players to find out if they can or can’t. The longer you play with that throttle in terms of not giving some of the people we thought a shot — I’ll say the name, Wong, for example — we need to know if this is someone we can count on for the future. Give him some opportunities now moving forward to find out.
There could be upside if you (stay) with it.”
THE BOTTOM LINE
Mozeliak wants to give the Cardinals a chance to see what they become.
Some of what they’ve been so far:
• Their 154 runs entering the weekend ranked 25th in baseball. Their plus-six run differential, a solid measure of true contenders, was the third-best in the division.
• The Cardinals’ .359 slugging percentage is the third-lowest in baseball, their 23 home runs the lowest in the NL.
Post-Dispatch sports columnist Bernie Miklasz’s research revealed the homer pace is akin to the Cardinals’ of the 1980s, when Whiteyball thrived on speed.
• The Cardinals’ rotation has a 3.09 ERA (sixth-best in baseball), and ace Adam Wainwright has started a Cy Young Award-caliber campaign.
But the ERA hides a trend — starters have covered fewer innings. A Cardinals starter has pitched at least seven innings 10 times in the first 41 games, tied for the lowest total at this point in the past three decades.
• The Cardinals overcame a lack of home runs last season with an otherworldly .330 average with runners in scoring position. They needed a parade of hits to produce runs and got it. This year, the same band hasn’t found the tune. The Cards’ .240 average with runners in scoring position ranks 19th. Without the extra-base damage they need bunched hits to spark and sustain rallies.
• Shortstop Jhonny Peralta leads the Cardinals’ with eight home runs, twice the total his position produced the past two seasons. But Cardinals cornermen — traditional power plants — have combined for nine home runs. Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, and Allen Craig combined for a .489 slugging percentage the past two seasons.
They’re slugging .385 as a trio so far this season.
The search for more and more consistent offense has led Matheny to use 32 different lineups in the first 41 games and try a variety of approaches depending on the player.
Craig has hit in five spots in the order. Matt Carpenter has been allowed to remain in the leadoff spot to find his swing on the job. Peter Bourjos was out of the lineup after his first slump, while Jon Jay played center through his. Wong was demoted. The Cardinals did that to assure that he would get everyday playing time, but it also became apparent that Matheny was going to play veteran Mark Ellis more often.
As the offensive struggles deepened, Matheny increasingly sought the players who had track records or familiarity over the ones who were young or new.
“I think every situation and every guy is different,” Matheny said. “We have to be flexible. None of them liked the consequences, except for maybe ‘Carp’ who we just let continue to go. But he wasn’t enjoying the ride.”
Is the team’s record a fair measure whether his moves worked.
“That question is completely loaded,” he said. “Some of what might work later just might not be working now. … I’m not so arrogant to think what I do produces wins. I believe that what I don’t do creates losses.”
He added later: “This is where the buck stops.”
To that end, Matheny and his staff have sifted through the first 41 games for things to improve now and later. He said a favorite question asked is, “Am I missing something here?” Some of the answers have led the staff to rethink how they will approach spring training with individuals, how they will prepare them for a season. The Cardinals have reintroduced some situational-hitting emphasis into batting practice. He has suggested that instead of focusing on personal struggles, reach out to help others.And, most of all, Matheny has said it is up to him and his staff to create a better atmosphere around the team.
He quoted Colin Powell: “Perpetual optimism is a force multiplier.”
“It’s energy. It’s life. It’s being vocal. It’s being – the word that was just used was demonstrative,” Matheny explained. “That is something that we’ve all talked about and we need to hold each other accountable if we don’t see it or we don’t do it. They need to hear it. There are going to be days when guys are going to be flat for whatever reason. We don’t have that option as a staff.”
Matheny stressed that this was not the first stretch of his young career that has been laced with adversity. In his first season at manager (2012), the Cardinals were 22-19 at this point. Last year, on their way to a third consecutive appearance in the National League championship series, they started August in the middle of a 4-13 spiral. They have weathered this same fog before.
“I see this as a fighting club,” he said.
“I feel right now,” Mozeliak said, “it’s a pressing club.”
Whatever the Cardinals are, they still have time to show it or prove differently.
As in competitive chess, there is a clock.
And it is counting down with every move.
“I can’t imagine us doing nothing all season and just saying this is our strategy – that you’re going to regress to your mean or rise up to your mean,” Mozeliak said. “The month of July is an opportunity to change the look of your club if you have to. I think the clock’s ticking. It’s not a panic mode or reactionary place. (But) I think people have to be aware this is not acceptable baseball at this point.”