From the way it looks here in my third-floor home office, I can see two things that threaten the Cardinals' hold on the National League Central:
1. Injury damage to the starting rotation.
2. A dormant offense.
The more immediate concern is an offense that requires a transfusion. And while the awaited return of Matt Holliday is a plus, he's only one bat. The Cardinals need more bang than that.
The Cardinals currently have the advantage of standings math, leading second-place Pittsburgh by 4½ games and third-place Chicago by 7.5 in the NL Central.
After completing a three-game sweep of the Cubs on June 28 at Busch Stadium, the Cardinals led the Pirates by nine games, and the Cubs by 11.5.
Over the past nine days, the NL Central has tightened.
With the Cardinals going 3-6, the Pirates (7-1) and the Cubs (7-2) each made made up four games in the standings.
The Pirates and Cubs swiftly erased part of the standings deficit by taking advantage of the Cards' inertia on offense.
While losing six of nine the Cardinals averaged 2.7 runs per game, scoring no more than three runs in seven games. They batted .209 with a terrible .550 onbase-slugging percentage, struck out in 24 percent of their plate appearances, hit three homers in 301 at-bats, and were a horrid 10 for 65 (.154) with runners in scoring position.
Sure, this represented a brief patch of schedule, but it showed the impact of offense — or more accurately, a missing offense — in a three-team NL Central competition enriched with pitching.
The Cardinals, Pirates and Cubs each rank among the MLB top five in earned-run average, but all three teams have struggled to score runs.
Assuming that all three contenders will continue to pitch well, the NL Central could come down to igniting the offense.
My interest is more local; the writers and Pittsburgh and Chicago can decide what's best for the Pirates and Cubs.
As the St. Louis representative, let me say this: the Cardinals need to make something happen.
Wednesday, to fill a spot on the bench, the Cardinals promoted LH-hitting first baseman Dan Johnson from Triple A Memphis.
I'm not sure this is what I meant by making something happen.
If this is GM John Mozeliak's response to a snoozing offense, then the Cardinals' problem is even more troubling than imagined.
No offense to Johnson, who was having a nice season for the Redbirds. By all accounts, he's a good fellow who has remained steadfast in his desire to keep playing and get another shot in the big-leagues.
But Johnson, 35, hasn't had more than 100 MLB at-bats in a season since 2010. Johnson was released by Cincinnati earlier this season, and the Cardinals became the eighth MLB organization to employ him.
Johnson's career began promisingly enough. He hit 15 homers for the A's in 2005, and added 18 HRs in 2007.
Since the start of the 2008 season, the traveling-man Johnson has logged big-league time with the A's, Rays, White Sox, Orioles and Blue Jays.
In 344 MLB plate appearances since '08, Johnson batted .185 with a .308 onbase percentage and .367 slugging pct.
On the plus side he has walloped HR every 18 ABs since '08. He was 5 for 23 (.217) as pinch-hitter, but two of the five hits were homers.
I'd be surprised if Mozeliak seriously viewed Johnson as a meaningful bench option going forward.
If the GM wants to take a look, OK. And Johnson gave the Cardinals some instant offense in Wednesday's wild win at Wrigley, driving in two of the team's first four runs with RBI singles.
The Cards hope Johnson can continue his recent power surge at Memphis. And Johnson has homered every 24 at-bats during his tour of the majors.
The Cardinals sure could use a pleasant surprise.
And for whatever it's worth, Johnson's LH swing isn't a lost cause against LH pitching. The immediate inclination is to Johnson as a platoon bat to be turned loose only when a RH pitcher is on the mound, but his profile indicates otherwise. As a major-league hitter Johnson actually has a higher OPS (.751) against lefties than he does against righthanders (.743).
But my attempt to be fair to Johnson aside, the Cardinals will have to do something bolder to reactivate this offense and keep it percolating.
The semi-heralded prospect Stephen Piscotty remains lodged in Memphis, and there's no telling when he'll be able to break his apartment lease to move to St. Louis.
Who knows, the RH-hitting Piscotty may be breaking the lease to go to a city other than St. Louis.
After a slow start with a revised swing this season, Piscotty has resumed his line-drive assault. He's batting .270 with a .362 OBP, and his .471 slugging percentage is fortified by 27 doubles and 10 homers.
Of course, the Cardinals have a rather urgent need for a first basemen these days, and Johnson is the next man up. A position that used to be the domain of hitting machine Albert Pujols has been manned by Matt Adams, Mark Reynolds, Xavier Scruggs this season.
Through Tuesday the combination had sputtered to eight homers, a .231 average, .287 OBP and a .363 slugging percentage.
Even though the Cardinals have a surplus of outfielders and have known this for quite some time, they only recently began prepping Piscotty to play first base at Memphis. And he may see some game action there soon.
It's baffling why this took so long. When Adams (torn quad) went down for the season in late May, this should have prompted the organization to recast Piscotty from right field to first base -- or, if nothing else, just get him ready to play the new position in case they wanted to try a more appealing first-base option down the line.
I mean, if the Cardinals could convert a nondescript minor-league catcher, Jason Motte, to reliever and see him emerge as a shutdown closer for the 2011 World Series champion, I'm not sure why relocating Piscotty from the corner OF to 1B was deemed more difficult than moving the Rams to Los Angeles.
But I'm barking too much here; Piscotty is indeed learning a new trade, and may enter the first-base pool later in the season. Unless, of course, Mozeliak makes a trade to bolster the Cards' weakest position offensively.
Of course, if Piscotty had been trained to play first base earlier, he may have provided a solution. And a trade wouldn't have been necessary. But that's hypothetical of me, and not very fair.
So, now what?
As we've mentioned approximately 439 times already, the Cardinals need offense, and the obvious hot spot for immediate improvement is first base.
Who knows, perhaps Mozeliak will trade Piscotty to secure a first baseman that satisfies the team's specifications. But the front office insists that Piscotty has a promising future in STL.
Piscotty is on fire as of late, helping Memphis score 49 runs during the Redbirds' four-game winning streak.
And while that's really swell, I'm thinking it might be smart for Mozeliak to find someone that can help increase the run-production capability for the little baseball team in St. Louis.
Thanks for reading ...