As the Cardinals emerge from the All-Star break with 2 ½ months and 74 games between them and a promised postseason berth, here are five members of the organization who will determine how close they come to October — or how far they take the team into it.
1. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B
The perennial MVP candidate who quickly signed an extension to call St. Louis home has yet to find one in the Cardinals’ lineup. He’s hit second, third, and, most recently, cleanup in an attempt to ignite his and the team’s production, and still his OPS this season (.769) is about the National League average — for shortstops (.763).
In the past three seasons, he’s hit .293/.389/.510 after the All-Star break, and last season he slugged his way into the MVP conversation with a .304/.393/.532 second half. Opponents are testing him with more off-speed pitches than ever, and he’s often in defensive counts.
A return to form could carry the Cardinals. For them to be the offense they want to be, Goldschmidt must be the hitter his career says he’s been.
2. John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations
In each of the previous three seasons the Cardinals have made moves at the deadline to reduce redundancies or reshape the bullpen, not to upend the division. They’ve missed the playoffs the past three seasons. This is not a coincidence. The front office has shown that it can deftly turn underperforming players into contributors (2014) and remake a roster through addition by subtraction (2011), but it’s been a decade since the Cardinals had a whopper deadline addition, bringing in Matt Holliday in 2009.
The division is there for the taking, they’ll have options at starter and outfielder, and the pressure to produce is on. Or, face another July 31st of everyone questioning: “What’s their deal?”
3. Carlos Martinez, RHP
Despite the curious difficulty the former All-Star had maintaining his strength and regimen as a starter and the questions his health forced upon the rotation and his future, the Cardinals have found a role for Martinez. They’ve given him certainty. He could respond in kind. Martinez craved a prominent position with the team this season and now has it — as closer.
With Jordan Hicks (elbow) out for the season, Martinez has a starter’s stuff, multi-inning strength, and the ability to bring the stability needed for an aggressively used bullpen. Martinez went 5-for-5 with a 1.50 ERA at closer last September, and found himself relishing the role, revitalized by it.
Closers can be rock stars. They first must be rock solid.
4. Miles Mikolas, RHP
As he made his return to the majors in 2018, Mikolas asserted himself as a relentless strike-thrower and one of the game’s bulwark workhorses. Only eight pitchers had more quality starts than his 20, and not one starter in the National League Central did.
This season, his nine are tied with Dakota Hudson for the third-most in the division, but his start-to-start steadiness has wobbled. Mikolas already has more abbreviated starts of five innings or less than last season, nine to seven. His ERA has ballooned, 2.83 to 4.53.
It’s often the team that gets the greater quantity of quality starts that survives the coming marathon of games. While the rotation turns around him — Hudson growing on the job, Jack Flaherty teasing greatness — Mikolas must be a given. Without an ace, reliability can be a team’s trump card.
5. Leadoff Hitter, TBD
Outside of the pitcher’s spot, the least-productive locale in the Cardinals’ lineup is also the one that comes up most. Leadoff has been a drag on the offense from the start. The spot’s .201 average is the lowest in the majors, its defining .299 on-base percentage last in the NL. Cardinals leadoff hitters have the fewest hits (71), by far. Oh, and only the Cubs, at 100, have more strikeouts from leadoff hitters than the Cardinals’ 98.
Matt Carpenter has had the bulk of the at-bats at No. 1, but as the Cardinals seek a spark (Tommy Edman? Center field?) leadoff is there for the taking. If the Cardinals are going to reanimate the offense and have a different ending, it must start at the beginning.