St. Louis Cardinals' 10 Biggest Questions Heading into the Second Half

Will GrapperhausContributor IIIJuly 18, 2012

St. Louis Cardinals' 10 Biggest Questions Heading into the Second Half

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    Major League Baseball added a second Wild Card in each league which will certainly create some late-season excitement in division races across baseball, albeit, somewhat artificially.

    But in the NL Central, it's probably not necessary as no team has been able to generate any momentum to allow them to pull away from the pack. In the end, fans in the Midwest are likely to enjoy a photo finish no matter what.

    The Cardinals started strong, but quickly lost synergy when injuries mounted and the bullpen started crumbling under pressure.

    The Pirates have ridden terrific pitching to a first-half, first-place position despite a weak offense, but it is fair to say that everyone is waiting for the Bucs to fade as they did last year.

    The defending division champ Brewers lost All-Star first baseman Prince Fielder to free agency, but their bigger problem has been the erosion of a starting rotation that was one of the best in baseball in 2011. This season they rank in the bottom-half in ERA as they have dealt with injuries and inconsistency.

    The Reds have All-World players in Johnny Cueto, Alroldis Chapman and Joey Votto, but beyond them the Reds' depth falls off. Seriously, how is Miguel Cairo still getting major league at-bats?

    The bad news for the Cardinals going into the second half is they are in third place.

    The good news is they are still the best team in the division with the most talent and deepest roster. 

    Just like the Yankees who on off-years can struggle despite having veteran depth, the Cardinals usually find their way back into first place.

    No one would be surprised if the Cards did just that in the second half, but there are still question marks standing in the way.

    Here are the top ten.

10. Will Shelby Miller Still Be a Cardinal After the July 31 Trade Deadline?

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    Shelby Miller has been, up until this season, a wildly successful example of why the Cardinals' organization needs to take a chance on a high school flame-thrower from time to time.

    For years the organization has been more comfortable drafting college-age players, especially with regards to hurlers. They went back to this model last month, in fact, when they selected 22-year-old ace Michael Wacha out of Texas A&M.

    Miller has been the crown jewel in the Cardinals farm system rebuilding effort—an untouchable talent who has cruised through the minors without much resistance, at least until reaching Triple-A Memphis.

    The numbers for Miller have been bad this year, but nothing unusual for a 21-year-old one step from the majors, including a 4-8 record and 5.79 ERA. He has had problems with both walks and the long ball, but still has 94 Ks in 82.1 innings.

    While certainly not ready to help the big club yet, might GM John Mozeliak actually pull the trigger on a trade sending Miller in a package to Milwaukee to bring perhaps Zack Greinke?

    That thought is frightening on two levels.

    First, Zack Greinke is about as tough as a bowl of room-temperature vanilla pudding.

    One can imagine John Mozeliak and Greinke at the press conference. Mozeliak helps Zack don the birds-on-the-bat for the first time—that uniform with all its tradition, glory, and expectations—and Greinke promptly crumpling to the floor under its weight.

    A second consideration is the rotation is not the Cards' most pressing need.

    Last year, Mozeliak traded away one phenom whose value to the team couldn't have been lower, which brought much less in return than it should have—the 2011 World Championship notwithstanding.

    Let's not send a struggling Miller packing before he gets a chance to establish himself at Memphis and possibly show himself to be the second coming of Curt Schilling.

    Regardless of the outcome, Cardinal Nation will be watching the trade deadline closely to see which prospects, if any, change hands to bring immediate help.

9. Who Will Grab the Second Base Job?

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    After getting very little production from a timeshare between Daniel Descalso and Tyler Greene at second base, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny may have already put his new second-base plan into place—use the old plan.

    In spring training of 2009, outfielder Skip Schumaker began taking infield fielding practice under the tutelage of Jose Oquendo and went on to play 133 games at second base that year to the surprise of everyone outside the organization and a few within.

    After some injury-induced downtime this year, Schumaker has appeared in the first four games coming off the All-Star break hitting a cool 5-for-9 and sitting at a rather lofty .323 batting mark on the season.

    Throw in four walks for good measure and Schumaker has an eye-opening .560 on-base-percentage in the month of July.

    Surely that kind of production at the plate mitigates a falloff in defense at second. To his credit, though, Schumaker still possesses a great arm and has never shown trouble turning the double play.

    Plus, the Cards really lack that David-Eckstein-Never-Say-Die-Underdog vibe and ever the team player, Schumaker personifies those qualities to a tee.

    Can he stay healthy enough to survive the second half, however?

8. What Will Berkman's Return Do for the Offense?

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    There is such a thing as "Serendipity" in baseball—whether baseball fans were ever dragged to the theater to see that movie or not.

    But after punishing National League pitching for most of the first half, Allen Craig has finally hit a lull in his RBI-per-game pace. He's also getting a steady diet of sliders instead of the fastballs which he had been accustomed to.

    Enter the 2011 National League Comeback Player of the Year.

    There is a reason newcomer Lance Berkman was the team's MVP a year ago on a roster that included Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols.

    Despite leading the league in runs scored, it is clear the Cardinals offensive attack is starving for a professional hitter like Berkman to solidify the clean-up spot in the order.

    Of all the middle-order bats in the Cardinal lineup, Berkman's approach is the most immune to long slumps. We have seen a cold start from Matt Holliday earlier in the year and nothing from Carlos Beltran on this current road trip.

    Craig has been struggling while David Freese has been hitting very well, but without much power.

    The Big Puma, once he gets regular playing time, will only solidify the Cardinals offense. Now it remains to be seen if Berkman can bring that MVP form to bear in the second half.

7. Will the NL's Best Offense Find Consistency?

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    The Cardinals' impotence in one-run games continues to be an issue.

    The club is 16-9 in "blowout wins" (games where they win by five runs or more), but are now 11-16 in one-run contests after failing to come back in the ninth inning against Francisco Rodriguez last night in Milwaukee.

    Despite having runners at first and third with none out, the Cards could not push the tying run home and suffered the loss.

    Mike Matheny can say the Cards have been good enough to come back and make the games close to begin with. The problem with that logic is that if your club struggles to score two runs to make the game close, that's not a "comeback"—that's just scoring runs your club should be creating in the first place.

    The Redbirds had a much more consistent offense earlier in the year, but lately it has truly been feast or famine. On the year, the club has scored between 4-6 runs in just one more game than when they've scored 7 runs or more, which is telling.

    Runs Per Game Total Games % Games
    0 - 3 runs 38 41.8%
    4 - 6 runs 27 29.7%
    7+ runs 26 28.6%

    If recent trends continue, the club will quickly reach a point where they have scored three runs or less in half their games played.

    Ideally, the vast majority of per game run totals would fall in the 4-6 run range signifying a consistent offense. Instead, the Cardinals produce just the opposite—far too many low-run games with team run totals bolstered by a number of blowouts.

    For a team that continues to flood—or clog—the bases with runners, that is an unacceptable level of production.

    Batting coach Mark McGwire needs to find a way to get his batters refocused on grinding at-bats in all types of games—not just the blowouts—which seems to be the only time we see Cardinal hitters relaxed.

6. How Will the Starting Rotation Hold Up Without Chris Carpenter?

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    There was the faintest hope that Cardinals' ace Chris Carpenter would return in the second half to not just bring his high-end repertoire, but a swagger and attitude to a bland pitching staff that has been quietly effective all year.

    Those hopes were dashed when it was announced Carpenter would have season-ending shoulder surgery to repair nerve weakness.

    But the good news is the starting rotation continues to be all business.

    The Cards were swept in Cincinnati last week. Though, you can't blame the starting rotation, who were good, but unable to overcome their offense that scored just seven runs in the three games.

    On the year, Cardinal starters now carry a 3.65 ERA, good for fifth in the National League, just a few ticks behind Cincinnati's staff (3.62), and far better than the Pirates who have slipped to eighth (3.96).

    After a rough June, Lance Lynn has reasserted himself in July with back-to-back strong outings.

    Kyle Lohse, who is at this point the true leader of the staff, continues to be one of the most consistent hurlers in baseball, walking almost no one while keeping hitters off-balance with pinpoint control and a tantalizing changeup.

    Memphis call-up Joe Kelly has been very effective sporting a mid-90s fastball with good movement and a decent curveball.

    Adam Wainwright has had more good outings than bad but has also been victimized by a lack of run support. Jake Westbrook has been competitive in most of his contests, when his sinker is cooperating.

    And the staff is off to an excellent start in the second half. Will they fade or finish with a flourish?

5. Will the Pirates Fade?

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    Almost no one outside Pittsburgh has noticed, but Andrew McCutchen is the National League MVP.

    Heck, he's the best player in baseball.

    Last night, McCutchen drilled a 440-foot homer—his 22nd of the year—to help lead the Pirates to another win.

    He leads all of baseball with a 5.4 WAR rating according to Fangraphs.com, which also highlights the other-worldy performance of Angels' rookie Mike Trout who is second with 5.2.

    What of his weak Home Run Derby showing? I think McCutchen is more interested in games that count.

    Meanwhile the Cards' own Carlos Beltran is stuck on 20.

    While the Pirates starting pitching is starting to show cracks, their offense has picked up overall and their bullpen continues to be lights-out, which Cardinal fans can only acknowledge with envy.

    Cincinnati continues to have the swagger of a tough division contender, but Pittsburgh is the better team.

    The only question is: will their youth and lack of big-game experience cause their season to get away from them as it did last year or will the Pirates make the leap to true contender to join the ranks of the Reds and Cardinals?

4. Will the Cardinals' Offense Strand a Small Country by the End of 2012?

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    St. Louis fans are blessed to be able to root for such a historically successful franchise.

    Their beloved team owns the most World Series championships in the National League, the second-most Hall-of-Fame inductees in all of baseball, and boasts a long and proud tradition of leaving runners stranded on base.

    Hey, you have to take the good with the bad.

    And at this rate, the Cards are on pace to roughly strand the population of Luxembourg.

    While that may be a slight exaggeration, the Cards are ranked dead last in baseball in leaving the most runners stranded per game.

    On one hand, the team has a very high on-base percentage which will create more opportunities for them to be left on base.

    But on the other hand, it's a good thing the team hits into so many double plays which helps keep the stranded runner totals lower than they would be otherwise.

    Regardless, this highlights the club's fairly unimpressive clutch-hitting stats on the year and why we are eager to see how Berkman will help in the clutch, batting between Holliday and Beltran in the lineup.

3. How Will GM John Mozeliak Fix the Bullpen This Year?

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    The Cardinals bullpen is a dead horse and I'm Michael Jackson.

    Yes, let's beat it—again.

    It may take time for the bullpen to find traction, but the sooner it does, the sooner the Cardinals can start clawing their way back up the standings.

    The Reds don't appear to be a very imposing team— especially now that Joey Votto is taking a one-month surgery-induced hiatus. But instead of Votto, perhaps it would be more appropriate to think of a large, un-hittable Cuban when we think of the Reds.

    Ah, now we're feeling a little more respect aren't we.

    The Reds may not be pulling away in the standings just yet, but their bullpen certainly is. They lead the NL with a 2.60 ERA with the lowest batting average allowed at .216.

    The Reds don't need a four-run lead to secure a win, unlike St. Louis.

    The Cards have not been shy about shuffling the bullpen, almost from day one, which is better than sticking with Ryan Franklin two-weeks too long, of course. But it is still indicative of a long-standing problem.

    So far, however, the internal moves have been mostly positive.

    Lefty Barret Browning has been terrific in the short time he's been with the big club and far more effective in leverage situations than Marc Rzepczynski.

    Mitchell Boggs, though still a bit wild, has really started to come into his own this season as a pitcher rather than a thrower.

    And in a somewhat surprising move, the Cardinals have brought up top prospect Trevor Rosenthal from Double-A Springfield who has yet to make his big league debut.

    The bullpen is still in flux and the most interesting subplot to the Cards' season is how the young bullpen will handle newly-given major league pressure.

2. Will All-Stars Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal Continue to Produce?

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    The Cardinals more or less hit the jackpot last year when they signed Lance Berkman and received 24 first-half home runs from the veteran outfielder, which is more than many thought Berkman would hit all year, even if he stayed healthy.

    The same is true with Carlos Beltran and Rafael Furcal this year—both have given the Cardinals All-Star productivity in the first half, exceeding expectations and experts' predictions.

    Unfortunately, we may already know the answer to the question above. These aging veterans have nowhere to go but down and both have done so for nearly a month.

    The dreaded post-Home Run Derby slump (or is it a pre-Derby slump?) has felled another All-Star Cardinal.

    Whatever the reason, Beltran has been a black hole in the lineup in July, toting a .163/.186/.224/.411 slash line and has not homered since June 24 in Kansas City.

    The veteran outfielder looks due for a long rest, especially if Mike Matheny is really going to give Beltran regular time in center to make room for both Allen Craig and Berkman in the lineup. In that case the Cardinals already spotty defense will become even more porous.

    Furcal's batting average continues to fall and he seems to have resurrected the bad habits at the plate that plagued him all of last year. He is unleashing fiercer and fiercer swings that are producing less and less contact.

    Mike Matheny and the Cardinals' trainers will need to work some magic to get useful second half performances from these two because both will be critical to the club's stretch-run.

1. Will the Cardinals Become Matheny's Team This Year?

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    In the modern game of baseball, a major league manager is not just a tactician who writes the lineup, makes substitutions and decides when to attempt a hit-and-run. They are also the face of the franchise—a brand representative if you will.

    You watch TV, right?

    There's Flo from Progressive, the "Can-you-hear-me-now?" guy from Verizon, and Bobby Valentine with the bumbling Boston Red Sox just to name three examples.

    And as such, the manager brings the embodiment, personality, and attitude of what a team is about as they grind through the 162-game season.

    First-year manager Mike Matheny has received mixed reviews so far in 2012 from fans and media in St. Louis and he has certainly made some head-scratching decisions this year.

    Matheny brought in a wild Eduardo Sanchez to intentionally walk his first batter rather than have the previous pitcher issue the pass.

    He has pulled starting pitchers with apparently much left in the tank while sticking with flailing relievers too long until the damage has already been done.

    These are just small-scale opportunities for fans to call sports talk shows and spew vitriol on Internet chat forums.

    On a grander scale we must wonder if Mike Matheny will find his managerial style and set the tone for a team that hasn't displayed any kind of personality this year.

    Offensive leaders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran are not fiery or vocal leaders. The affable Lance Berkman has been missing in action all season. Allen Craig and David Freese, while core players, have yet to even play an entire season.

    It is up to Matheny to set the bar and lead the Cardinals' charge into the second half. We will be watching with great interest.