The Cardinals started the second half of their season sort of like they started the first.
They owned as many wins as losses. Their division remained wide open for the taking. So, where was the buzz?
Other than center fielder Harrison Bader’s new haircut, there wasn’t much.
A nonexistent list of areas the Cardinals plan to improve before baseball’s July 31 trade deadline was lapped by a long line of injury updates.
Hearing manager Mike Shildt note the status of each injured Redbird before the team’s 4-2 loss Friday to the Diamondbacks reminded us a .500 team that is supposed to spend the two-plus weeks before the trade deadline proving it deserves to be treated like a contender probably exited the All-Star break in worse shape than it entered it.
The Cubs and Brewers — and, if we are doing this, the Pirates and the Reds — are big enough threats to hand the Cardinals their longest stretch of postseasons missed since the drought from 1988-1995.
And now, on top of the crammed standings, an injury bug is feeding.
Adam Wainwright, one of the most reliable starters in an up-and-down rotation, was scratched before Friday night’s game because of back spasms. The team is optimistic this won’t be much of a setback. (We’ve heard that before.)
Left fielder Marcell Ozuna, the only regular in the lineup who outperformed his career averages in the first half, has not passed the strength test required to get back into the batter’s box, and it does not sound like he’s all that close.
The thumb strain catcher Yadier Molina played through until he could not is expected to sideline him for about three more weeks.
The news on Alex Reyes, Austin Gomber and Jedd Gyorko did not scream optimism.
If the back strain that gripped Matt Carpenter before the All-Star break is a non-issue after it, his return still will be balanced by the absence of Molina and Ozuna.
And if Carpenter’s dreadful first half follows him into the second, and Shildt continues to plug him into the lineup, then a grim situation could turn untenable.
When right, Carpenter and first baseman Paul Goldschmidt can carry even a healing team. That is needed now more than ever before. And perhaps that’s what the front office has to see before deciding its deadline direction. But neither player looked right very often in the first half. Both looked like examples of why baseball is turning its back on players who are older than 30.
Decent teams can overcome one career-worst season from a key hitter. Two is a tall order. Especially when the one hitter who has picked up the slack — Ozuna — is out because of an injury that could drain his power once he returns.
See the rub?
The Cardinals played .500 ball during the 88 games before the break. Not good enough, everyone including the Cardinals agreed. Yet considering its current circumstances, this current edition of the Cardinals playing .500 ball until the deadline when 11 of those 18 games are played against the Pirates and the Reds might actually be an accomplishment.
The Mets are planning to sell, we learned Friday. The Yankees are shopping for starting pitching. The Cardinals? They are trying to figure out what to do.
A team that started with a tagline of “2019 matters” now wants to see which direction an injury-depleted team trends — and this comes after the club declined to make significant addition(s) from the outside while a long list of Cardinals had their wings clipped by under-performance and injury.
The front office was confident enough to stiff-arm the idea of reinforcements from outside when Carlos Martinez’s inability to stay healthy bounced him from the rotation, when Alex Reyes’ season spiraled, when Jordan Hicks got hurt. But now the Cardinals are not confident they should treat this team like a contender? And it’s on this thinned team to change minds?
The stances don’t mesh.
Shildt’s Cardinals have good characteristics. Their defense is sharp. Their baserunning is strong. They don’t kill themselves with mistakes. They’re not sloppy. They are missing something. Runs, mostly. And they got just four hits Friday.
That some of this team’s problems are hard to fix does not eliminate their existence. The rotation has under-performed. The lineup lacks power in a season soaked with it. The outfield, even with Ozuna, is one of the National League’s most meager at the plate.
It’s asking a lot of the team that started Friday to force the front office toward win-now mode. That was supposed to be the season’s theme, not a July hurdle.
Daniel Ponce de Leon seems up to the challenge as he strengthened his case for the rotation. Matt Wieters, Tommy Edman and Tyler O’Neill are not short on hunger. Time will tell on talent.
It’s important to remember that now is the time for mixed messages. Teams are negotiating. The Cardinals are notorious for holding their cards close.
A reckoning approaches.
Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said his team was built to win the Central. The organization’s actions since have not echoed that goal. The fast-approaching deadline is the easiest time to make that kind of statement.
If one does not come, fans will be owed an explanation on why — and more importantly when — the goal was truly surrendered.
Gordo's midseason grades for position players
TOMMY EDMAN, Infielder
GORDO ON EDMAN: He bypassed more experienced utility men Edmundo Sosa and Drew Robinson to earn fill-in work when injuries hit the Cardinals this summer. And the switch-hitting Edman is making the most of his first look. He is batting .286 with a double, two triples, three homers, nine RBIs, three stolen bases and an .856 on-base PLUS slugging percentage in 58 at bats.
YADIER MOLINA, Catcher
GORDO ON MOLINA: While most of his teammates ran hot and cold at the plate, Molina remained a steady presence in the batting order until he suffered his thumb injury. He is hitting .274 as the No. 6 batter this season. Overall he is batting .308 with runners in scoring position. Molina remains outstanding behind the plate; he allowed just 13 stolen bases in 69 games behind the plate.
MARCELL OZUNA, Left Fielder
GORDO ON OZUNA: He drove home 28 runs in April when the Cardinals offense was clicking, and 22 more in May. Then Ozuna delivered just 12 RBIs in his 87 June at-bats before landing on the injured list with broken fingers. His overall production (20 homers, 62 RBIs, .846 OPS, eight stolen bases) stands out in this sputtering offense. And after shoulder surgery, his throwing arm is decidedly less terrible that it was last season.
JOSE MARTINEZ, Outfielder
GORDO ON J. MARTINEZ: Like many of his teammates, he punished the ball back in April. He hit .400 with 12 runs scored and 13 RBIs. Then Martinez (.285, eight homers, 31 RBIs overall) had nearly as many strikeouts (31) as hits (33) during the next two months before heating up with a recent eight-game hitting streak. Martinez has worked hard to improve in right field, but his lack of range dooms him to poor defensive metrics.
YAIRO MUNOZ, Infielder/Outfielder
GORDO ON MUNOZ: He can play all four infield spots and all three outfield positions. He can hit and he can run. Munoz does not draw walks -- he has just two in 90 plate appearances -- so he needs a bit more plate discipline. It took multiple injuries to get him some playing time, but he is making the most of it by hitting .307 with four stolen bases.
DEXTER FOWLER, Outfielder
GORDO ON FOWLER: He put last season's nightmare (.180 batting average, season-ending foot injury) behind him to approximate his previous form. Fowler (.254, 10 doubles, 10 homers, 32 RBIs) is generally rewarding manager Mike Shildt's confidence. He is hitting .255 from the right side of the plate after hitting just .161 there last season. As an added bonus, Fowler has held up as a center fielder this season and allowed Jose Martinez to play some right field.
KOLTEN WONG, Second Baseman
GORDO ON WONG: As a fielder, he consistently saves runs with his remarkable range. As a baserunner he is 14-for-14 stealing bases this season. As a hitter, though, he runs hot and cold. Wong started fast (8 for 14, double, two homers, 4 RBIs) in March, then hit just .218 in April and .170 (with a terrible .237 on-base percentage) in May. Then he heated up again, hitting .274 in June before going 5 for 15 to start this month.
MATT WIETERS, Catcher
GORDO ON WIETERS: When the Cardinals needed him to step up in June with Yadier Molina injured, Wieters went 3 for 33 with 14 strikeouts. More recently he managed to smack a couple of homers from the right side of the plate On balance the switch-hitting Wieters (.220, five homers, 11 RBIs in 82 at bats) has offered an upgrade over Francisco Pena.
TYLER O'NEILL, Outfielder
GORDO ON O'NEILL: Earlier he got caught in the outfield numbers crunch and the team's need to carry an extra reliever. Now with Marcell Ozuna sidelined and Harrison Bader slumping, he could make his move. But O'Neill has struck out 30 times and hit just one homer in his 66 at-bats, so he must make more consistent impact to earn those fill-in at bats.
PAUL GOLDSCHMIDT, First Baseman
GORDO ON GOLDSCHMIDT: OK, so he is a great fielder and a smart base runner. But the Cardinals gave him a five-year, $130 million contract extension expecting him to produce runs. He smacked nine homers in his first 23 games, then hit just five in his next 62 games. Goldschmidt (.254,, 16 homers, 37 RBIs overall) drove in just four runs during a span of 101 at-bats in June and July. His .769 OPS is well off his career average of .917. Goldschmidt finally got rolling again on the West Coast swing, going 9 for 26 with four walks, two doubles, two homers, six RBIs and four runs scored.
PAUL DEJONG, Shortstop
GORDO ON DEJONG: After hitting .360 in April, he hit just .200 in May, .218 in June and .227 thus far in July. After drawing 20 walks in May. he drew just five in June while posting a dismal .259 on-base percentage. DeJong (.258, 13 homers, 36 RBIs overall) has driven home just 10 runs since May 19. He is hitting .174 with runners in scoring position this season and .138 with RISP and two outs. But he has remained a consistently solid fielder.
HARRISON BADER, Center Fielder
GORDO ON BADER: He has remained an elite center fielder with tremendous range and a strong arm. But Bader died at the plate this summer, hitting .155 in June and .200 (3 for 15) thus far in July. He is batting .205 overall, .145 with runners in scoring position and .059 (1 for 17) with RISP and two outs. After hitting .292 against left-handed pitching last season, he is batting just .167 against them this season. He desperately needs to hit the reset button.
JEDD GYORKO, Infielder
GORDO ON GYORKO: Had he stayed healthy, he could have earned some starts at third base when Matt Carpenter got hurt. After all, Gyorko hit 50 home runs here in 2016-17 and he's a reliable fielder. But he has managed just 56 at-bats (while hitting just .196) between his various injuries or re-injuries. So Munoz and Edman are getting that work instead.
MATT CARPENTER, Third Baseman
GORDO ON CARPENTER: After batting .170 last September, he hit .193 in April, .237 in May and .208 in June before landing on the injured list with a sore back. That's an unsettling long-term trend, given the two-year, $39 million contract extension he received even as the free-agent marketplace crashed on older players. Unlike last season, Carpenter has not overcome his slow start with a summer power surge. He hit just two homers in his last 81 at bats before going on the IL.
LANE THOMAS, Outfielder
GORDO ON THOMAS: He has performed well during his very limited duty hopping off the Memphis shuttle to fill in. Thomas is 4 for 13 with a walk, a homer, four RBIs and a stolen base. He can go get a fly ball too, so he could work his way into the outfield competition.
RANGEL RAVELO, First Baseman
GORDO ON RAVELO: The man has stuck it out through 3,009 minor league at-bats. So it's great to see Ravelo, 27, finally get a taste of the big leagues. His primary job is providing the Memphis Redbirds some veteran presence to take pressure off the prospect. As a Cardinal, he has one hit in his first eight at-bats.
DREW ROBINSON, Infielder/Outfielder
GORDO ON ROBINSON: Like Munoz, he can play everywhere. Unlike Munoz, he hits from the left side — and that gives him more value as a depth player. Robinson went 1 for 5 earlier this season for the Cardinals.
ANDREW KNIZNER, Catcher
GORDO ON KNIZNER: He was hitless in seven at-bats earlier this season filling in when Molina was injured. But Knizner is hitting .277 for Memphis this season and he is a career .304 hitter in the minors, so he remains on track to replace Molina some day.
MANAGER AND COACHING STAFF
GORDO ON THE FIELD STAFF: Manager Mike Shildt correctly noted that the Cardinals are a better fielding team this season. Putting Goldschmidt's glove at first base cured many infield ills. Credit Carpenter for working to improve at the third base. Also, the diligent field staff has spent a lot of time working with the outfielders on positioning and technique. On offense, Shildt deserves credit for putting the Cardinals in motion. When this team sees a favorable matchup, it's one of the few MLB teams that looks to steal bases.
But new hitting guru Jeff Albert has not been able to help key hitters (Goldschmidt, Carpenter, Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Harrison Bader) avoid months-long hitting slumps. And try as he might, well-respected pitching coach Mike Maddux has not been able to coax more consistency from Mikolas, Michael Wacha and Jack Flaherty in the starting rotation. An expected team strength has been a team issue instead.
It's ultimately up to the players to succeed or fail, but so far this has been a frustrating season for the field staff.
GORDO ON MANAGEMENT: The Cardinals' stated organizational goal is to contend every season. And, sure enough, this team is just two games back of the division-leading Chicago Cubs despite suffering some massive injury hits. But the Cardinals did not expect to be limping along at .500 past the halfway point of the season. Given the rampant mediocrity in the National League, there's no excuse for it.
Bill DeWitt Jr.'s game plan has remained static over the years: rely heavily on player development, invest in player retention and use free agency and trades to fill gaps. Trouble is, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak isn't executing that plan as well as he did in the past. Most of his recent trades brought middling returns or worse. This year's big contract commitments (Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas and Matt Carpenter) look dubious. Brett Cecil and Dexter Fowler have yielded poor dividends on their free-agent deals and former players (Mike Leake and Luke Gregerson) are collecting nice coin, too. Not only are the Cardinals stuck with several bad contracts, the franchise has little near-term help in its farm system. So this team doesn't have proven help to offer bailing teams before the trade deadline.
Last year, manager Mike Matheny and hitting coach John Mabry took the fall for the team's erosion. So what happens if this team keeps sputtering this year?
HOW DID THE PITCHERS GRADE OUT?
Check out Jeff Gordon's grades for the 2019 pitching staff, which has three starters with losing records, another with one of the league's worst ERAs among starters, and a dynamic young closer who's out for the season.
REPORT CARD: Grading the Cardinals pitchers at midseason