The 2017 season started with extreme optimism in St. Louis. As Opening Day rolled around, the Cardinals were set to shake off the troubles that plagued the prior year and return to their spot atop the NL Central. With a sleek new leadoff hitter and centerfielder, a new left-handed equalizer out of the bullpen, and a focus on better baserunning and defense to add consistency to a deep roster, things were promising for this team. Or so it seemed.
St. Louis Cardinals Season Hangs in the Balance
In early June the Cardinals sit at 26-29, good enough for third in their crowded division after a sweep at the hands of the rival Chicago Cubs and a fourth heartbreaking loss in a row – this one to the Cincinnati Reds. Despite a terrific starting rotation which leads the MLB in ERA, the Cardinals simply continue to find ways to lose games they should win.
The problems range far and wide for this Cardinals ball club, and leave them on the verge of disaster. After the sweep in Chicago allowed the Cubs to get back on track, it could be only matter of time before the Cardinals are once again left in the rear view mirror in the NL Central and miss out on the postseason for the second year in a row. With a bullpen that has struggled to turn the game over to Trevor Rosenthal and Seung-hwan Oh, continued defensive and baserunning miscues, and an inept offensive attack, this is exactly what will happen unless a this team receives a wakeup call quickly. While a shakeup may not make everyone happy, the Cardinals do have options:
1. Find an Impact Bat
This year’s offense has had struggles all around, and has been downright dreadful as of late. It has been so bad that, as Jesse Rogers of ESPN.com pointed out, despite its starters leading the MLB in ERA over the last 17 games (18 after the loss to Cincinnati), St. Louis has only won five of those games, losing many games they should have won. These losses featured a nine-inning scoreless gem from Carlos Martinez, another nine-inning effort of one-run ball from Lance Lynn, and several quality starts from other starters.
Above all else, the lineup just is not cutting it. Dexter Fowler’s batting average has dropped to .223, and Matt Carpenter’s has plummeted to .213 through the season’s first two months. Stephen Piscotty and Aledmys Diaz are showing signs of life, with each beginning to drive the ball more recently, but the overall season performances from each of them do not give much reason for excitement. Piscotty’s slashline is .241/.377/.375 and Diaz’s is .261/.297/.401, and neither of them are replicating their great 2016 numbers. Jedd Gyorko has been this team’s best hitter this year, but even with his strong performance, this lineup is not scaring anybody. Cardinals starters may continue to dominate, but they cannot win games without some help. Thus, the need for an offensive threat presents itself. So, what can GM John Mozeliak do? He’s got two choices.
Make a Trade
This is the most appealing shakeup the Cardinals can make – just as they did in 2014 when they dealt away Allen Craig and Joe Kelly to bolster the starting staff with John Lackey. The Cardinals have loads of minor league pitching depth, and some other exciting prospects, such as outfielder Harrison Bader, thrown in there as well. In all, they have the pieces to put together a nice package for a hitter on the open market. This could be Marcell Ozuna, or maybe even Josh Donaldson if the Toronto Blue Jays are willing to sell their pieces, but it has to be someone impactful. There are options that would fit this team, and the Cardinals certainly need something to help them score.
Find the Answer Within
The Cardinals may be able to call up a player from their farm system to make a difference. Bader, who had a tremendous Spring Training, could give some life to this team. Even a player like Magneuris Sierra, who has been excellent in his small stints in the majors this year, could provide some much-needed energy to a struggling offense. The Cardinals have minor leaguers such as these two just a call away, with the chance to make a difference at the big league level.
2. Shake Up the Lineup
While this is not quite the major shakeup that a big trade would be, it could still go a long ways in jumpstarting this offense. Kolten Wong is due back from the disabled list soon, and with his strong start to the season, his presence atop the lineup could give the Cardinals some new life if they decide to put him there. Matt Carpenter is a career .395 leadoff hitter with a .485 slugging percentage at that spot, and his numbers steadily decline as he moves down to the middle of the order. Perhaps a shift back to the top of the lineup can help him improve and at the same time give a sputtering Dexter Fowler a fresh opportunity lower in the order.
The Cardinals could also get a boost from playing those who perform, well such as Paul DeJong and Sierra, rather than relegating them to the bench or back to the minor leagues. If this results in Jhonny Peralta losing a roster spot, so be it. It is time to try something new, and Peralta, who has yet to record an extra base-hit or a RBI on the season, is this team’s worst player. The time has come for a change.
3. Fire Mike Matheny
Since the Cardinals hired Matheny in 2012, they own the third-best record in the MLB. However, since 2016, Matheny has been the target of a lot of criticism. His bullpen management has been hammered again and again; he has a tendency to leave starters in too long and rely too heavily on certain pitchers, while occasionally making poor decisions on who to bring into games in key situations. However, looking at this season, his choices have been few when trying to get his team through the sixth and seventh innings to the bullpen’s late-inning strengths.
The lack of production from the offense and the inability bullpen to hold leads later in games cannot be put entirely on Matheny, which makes it difficult to pull the plug on his overall track record of success in the past five-plus seasons. Making this even more unlikely is the fact that he was re-signed this offseason to a new contract, keeping him at the helm in St. Louis for the next several years. Firing him, however, would without a doubt shake up the clubhouse, turn some heads, and wake up the struggling players on this team.
This is a crucial point in the season for the Cardinals. They are teetering on the brink of disaster, and if they do not act soon, they will find themselves sitting at home in October rather than vying for a 12th World Series title. The talent is still present, and the pitching staff provides some hope for success; however, barring a wakeup call to this abysmal offense, things will continue to look how they do now and the Cardinals will fall out of contention very soon, and maybe even turn in to sellers at the trade deadline. The time to act is now.