Chances are the Cardinals’ current six-series sprint against teams on the wrong side of .500 will confirm what we already knew.
Manager Mike Shildt’s club, undermined by injuries that have exposed a lack of depth the front office did not address, is good enough to usually beat bad teams. It’s the winning ones that cause the Cardinals to derail. They entered this series against the Braves with a 16-28 record against above-.500 teams. That’s a problem.
This is why many of the coming days and weeks will be spent debating and discussing which moves the front office should pursue as the July 30 trade deadline approaches. Don’t fall for the claim the Cardinals are not fixable. That lets the front office off the hook. The right moves combined with some good news on the health front could reignite the team.
For this exercise, let’s start with numbers instead of names.
Here is an attempt to diagnose what the Cardinals need most followed with some realistic potential solutions who could become available at reasonable trade prices due to their team’s downward trend and current contract situations.
Increase in quality starts: As they prepared to play the Braves, the Cardinals’ 24 quality starts this season — at least six innings pitched by a starter who allows three runs or fewer — ranked in the bottom half of the National League. That’s a problem, because the Cardinals are 17-7 when they get a quality start. They’re 18-26 when they don’t. Recently returned Kwang Hyun Kim has one quality start in 10 tries this season and Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty remain significant question marks on the injured list. The steady drumbeat for a Max Scherzer trade has skipped a bit of a beat since the still-sinking Nationals placed him on the injured list with a groin problem. Same for Matthew Boyd (arm) of Detroit.
If Mad Max rebounds and the Nationals don’t, it’s hard to imagine a better fit. But how about another Mizzou Hall of Famer? Kyle Gibson has a contract with the freefalling Rangers that expires after the 2022 season. The 33-year-old righthander spends his time in the area during the offseason. He attended the St. Louis Players’ Alliance gear-and-supplies giveaway this past summer in downtown St. Louis. More importantly, he has turned in a quality start in 11 of his 13 games. The Rangers are awful, but they are 8-5 when Gibson (4-0, 2.09 ERA) starts. He would not be cheap, but he is good, and having him stick around for 2022 for less than $10 million would make it easier to part with the trade package, if he pitches anywhere close to the level he’s at now.
Boost the on-base percentage: The Cardinals arrived in Atlanta ranked 13th in the National League in on-base percentage (.301). The NL average OBP for a hitter is .313. The Cardinals had five hitters with 50-plus at-bats who are below that mark. They need a little more grit in their offensive mix.
Southpaw-swinging Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon, who has been linked to the Cardinals as a potential trade target as long if not longer than Nolan Arenado, could be on the move for real this trade deadline if the Rockies fear a contract that runs through 2023 will be ended prematurely by Blackmon opting out to find a more competitive club. Sound familiar? Blackmon’s on-base percentage for the season is up to .380 after a sluggish April. I hear he gets along well with the Cardinals’ third baseman.
I didn’t forget Adam Frazier, Joey Gallo or David Peralta. The Cardinals very rarely make in-division trades (Frazier). Gallo’s numbers make no sense since he was an All-Star in 2019; he’s hard to trust. Peralta’s OBP has continued its decline this season.
How about Josh Harrison? The wily, soon-to-be 34-year-old veteran is still playing all over the place (second, third, outfield) for the Nationals. He’s averaging .274 with a .350 OBP, which is nearly identical to what he did last season. And the two-time All-Star is a true rental, only owed whatever it would take to land him along with what is left of his $1 million contract. If the Nationals sell, the team that grabs Harrison will look smart.
More strikeouts, fewer walks in the bullpen: The Cardinals bullpen’s 1.69 strikeout-to-walk ratio was the worst in the majors entering Thursday’s games. More than half of the bullpen’s strikeouts have been provided by the same three relievers: Genesis Cabrera, Giovanny Gallegos and Alex Reyes. Adding a high-strikeout, low-walk reliever would help, if the Cardinals don’t wind up creating a workaround with their recent low-risk, high-reward additions of Wade LeBlanc and Brandon Dickson. Of the performing high-leverage relievers who could be on the move as true rentals, Raisel Iglesias of the Angels is intriguing. The righthander has totaled 26 strikeouts while surrendering only four walks since May, a stretch that includes 11 scoreless appearances in 15 games. He’s not super “splitty” and has been productive as a closer when asked. Adding what is perceived to be “proven” relief help is always risk, as the most proven relievers often tend to be that much closer to falling off the performance cliff. The best bet for the Cardinals would be to boost the rotation and let the benefits trickle down toward the bullpen. That, and find some way to boost the lineup’s lagging ability to get on base.