Bernie: Familiar questions surround Cardinals

2014-07-16T23:15:00Z 2014-07-23T20:17:49Z Bernie: Familiar questions surround CardinalsBernie Miklasz • bjmiklasz@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

The Cardinals’ regular-season schedule is down to only 66 games. Goodness, what happened? This season is going by with the speed of a Trevor Rosenthal fastball and threatening to get out of here faster than a Matt Adams home run.

With the All-Star Game and the Derek Jeter Festival of Love out of the way, the next milepost is the non-waiver trade deadline July 31. It’s a time when the 30 general managers reassess their rosters and explore ways to enhance their team’s chances for October baseball.

For the Cardinals, the best news can be spotted in the NL Central standings. Despite all of their first-half problems, they trail the first-place Brewers by one game, having trimmed 5.5 games off the Brew Crew’s lead since July 1.

To this stage the Cardinals’ No. 1 concern — to the point of maddening redundancy — has been an offense that’s 12th in the league in slugging, 14th in runs per game and last in homers.

For the optimists, there’s hope to be found in small-sample slices. In their last 11 games before the All-Star break, the Cardinals popped 12 homers, averaged 4.6 runs and slugged .447 while winning seven of 11 games. Was this a true awakening or just another tease?

The pitching staff is the bedrock of the 2014 Cardinals, but there’s reason for alarm, with an injury to Michael Wacha causing rotation erosion and potential trickle-down trouble for an overworked bullpen.

It’s a hopeful time; the standings tell us that.

It’s also a perilous, anxious time. That can’t be ignored.

Unless backup catcher Tony Cruz has the best two months of his life, the extended loss of catcher Yadier Molina could bring everything cascading down: the pitching, the defense and the offense. The Cardinals managed to go 2-2 in their first four games after Molina tore the ligaments in his right thumb, but now the boys will settle into the reality of a substantial absence of a vital presence. Life without Yadi begins in earnest this weekend.

In my view, there are three primary questions.

First, can the Cardinals overcome Molina’s injury? To a point, yes. No, they can’t really replace him. In 406 big-league career plate appearances, Cruz is a .231 hitter with a .327 slugging percentage. And since Molina went in for repairs, opponents have been successful on all five stolen-base attempts against Cruz.

Let’s not put all of this on Cruz. The post-Molina void can only be approached and addressed by multiple Cardinals doing better in the second half to exceed expectations. Which leads to the second area ...

Can the offense generate enough production to turn a first-half liability into a second-half strength? I suppose it’s possible — but that possibility took a major hit when Molina went in for surgery.

Manager Mike Matheny can make more of what he has by giving as many at-bats as possible to his hottest hitters — and to his hitters who have the most potential.

Adams and rookie second baseman Kolten Wong are doing their part to rewire the offense. Matt Holliday’s slugging percentage is creeping upward. Matt Carpenter has been rolling for the last two months and must continue building on that. Jhonny Peralta is among the most productive shortstops in the majors, but he’s capable of coming through more often with runners in scoring position. And at some point rookie Oscar Taveras will lock in and begin to deliver on the hype.

Allen Craig looks fried. And if Craig doesn’t start hitting soon, how long will Matheny stay with him? Can GM John Mozeliak deal for help without chopping the prospect tree to the ground?

Third question: Where is the starting pitching headed? I see this as the biggest concern going forward. In the first half we saw pitching prop up the Cardinals, keep the team in the race and forge a 52-44 record. It was proof that effective pitching can cover a team’s weaknesses. But if the Cardinals’ starting pitching breaks down, the levee will break.

Things have changed since Wacha last pitched June 17, just before he went on the DL with a stressed muscle near his right shoulder. It wasn’t just Wacha; the Cardinals soon lost lefty Jaime Garcia (nerve damage) for the rest of the season. Unlike Wacha, Garcia wasn’t a driving force in this rotation. But Garcia’s loss was harmful in reducing the depth.

In the 25 games since Wacha’s exit from the rotation, the Cardinals have turned in only nine quality starts, and Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn have combined for all nine. The overall rotation ERA over the last 25 games is 4.43, and the Cardinals rank 12th in the league in starting-pitcher innings over that time.

Wainwright has been outstanding, and the underrated Lynn has been plenty good. But in the 15 games started by pitchers other than Waino and Lynn since June 18, Cardinals starters have a 6.97 ERA. And they’ve failed to make it through six innings in 13 of the 15 starts.

This cannot continue. Joe Kelly, Carlos Martinez and Shelby Miller must reverse the trend, or the team will be smacked by the consequences. Until now the St. Louis bullpen has remained firm, handling a heavy load of work in response to the rotation’s innings shortfall. But that won’t last.

Before Wacha’s injury the Cardinals led the NL in run prevention. During his absence, they rank 10th in the NL in run prevention.

In the first half, the Cardinals’ pitching saved the team from plunging into a deep deficit position. It would be nice for the offense to spring to life and return the favor. It would be splendid to see Mozeliak acquire a big bat. We can’t count on either thing happening.

In the words of the late, great, Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver: “Nobody likes to hear it, because it’s dull, but the reason you win or lose is darn near always the same — pitching.”

Yes. And in the second half, it’s probably going to be left to the Cardinals’ arms to come through again.

Bernie Miklasz has been covering St. Louis sports since 1989. 

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Bernie Miklasz

You've read Bernie Miklasz in the Post-Dispatch since 1989. Now check out a new video "Breakfast with Bernie" every weekday morning. You'll also see more "Bernie Bytes" around the clock as he posts quick-hit commentaries on a variety of topics.

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