At the 100-game-mark, the St. Louis Cardinals are off to one of the hottest starts in recent memory.
The Cardinals' 62 wins are the most in baseball, but it hasn’t been an easy ride. Through early bullpen catastrophes, injuries to the starting rotation and offensive struggles by several key players, the team has both persevered and dominated through the first 100 games.
With more importance than ever placed on winning one’s division due to the second wild card, the Cardinals have a valuable opportunity—particularly in the next week—to create some breathing room in the standings.
Their 22-12 record against NL Central opponents has been a huge factor in their success, and building on those numbers will be the key to winning the division.
The following is a report on the state of the organization through the first 100 games.
State of the Rotation
Through the first two months of the season, the Cardinals' rotation was the best in baseball.
Every starter in the rotation was dominant. Pitchers were going deep into games and keeping the runs to a minimum so the offense could do its job.
But nothing lasts forever.
His replacement, John Gast, suffered a late-May shoulder injury that sidelined him for two months. It was discovered this week that he also suffered a lat tear that will require an operation and end his season.
In June, the young arms that had been a major factor in the Cardinals’ success—Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller—began to experience their own struggles.
While the struggles persisted for several weeks, the rotation has begun to show some of that April dominance once again over the past few starts. The starter has gotten the win in nine of the Cardinals' last 12 victories.
Despite the resurgence of the starting rotation, there could still be a need for an additional arm due to the fifth spot remaining in flux.
The Cardinals do have the luxury of several rookie arms who could fit the bill—Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons and Trevor Rosenthal. The question is whether those young pitchers are capable of making a push for the World Series.
That is possibly the most important question for general manager John Mozeliak leading up to the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
State of the Bullpen
The bullpen has been a creature onto itself this year. In April, it was a series of failing experiments.
The attempt to make right-hander Mitchell Boggs into a closer following the loss of Jason Motte proved to be a disaster—both for Boggs and the Cardinals.
A lack of clearly defined roles showed awkward consequences for the bullpen. Once Boggs was sent to Memphis to find his groove again, things began to fall into place.
Edward Mujica, a struggling reliever prior to being acquired by the Cardinals in July 2012, has become a genuine closer. He’s racked up 30 saves in 32 opportunities.
Many questioned the move when Mujica switched to the ninth inning, but at this point he is tied for the most saves in the NL and has given up only 10 earned runs on the year.
The additions of Seth Maness and Kevin Siegrist helped to solidify middle relief while spelling Rosenthal and Mujica when they needed a day off.
An additional veteran arm could be a nice pickup for the bullpen, but addressing the starter need could solve the bullpen issue by returning Joe Kelly to his long relief role.
In the end, the status quo may be enough to get the Cardinals deep into October baseball.
State of the Offense
The state of the Cardinals offense is good—very good.
The team boasts the second best batting average in MLB (.278) and the second lowest strikeout total (653). St. Louis leads the National League in OBP (.339), RBI (.473), hits (940) and runs scored (.495).
Here's how good the offense has been: The Cardinals are carrying three hitters with averages in excess of .325 past the 100-game-mark—Yadier Molina, Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter . This isn't April or May anymore—it's the real deal.
These high averages have given the Cardinals the highest run differential in baseball by quite a lot.
They're scoring a ridiculous amount of runs and have done so with minimal help from Jon Jay, Pete Kozma and David Freese. While those players appear to be heating up, extended slumps through the first half of the 2013 season could have haunted the Cardinals.
But their situational hitting has carried them through.
Several Cardinals have become vicious with runners in scoring position. Allen Craig is still batting .485 with RISP, and neither Molina (.396) nor Carpenter (.403) is far behind him.
Through the first 100 games, that has made the difference.
Mozeliak has little to address offensively as the trade deadline approaches. An additional right-handed bench bat would be the most likely pickup if Brock Peterson doesn't work out.
Shortstop remains a need, but, at least for the time being, it wouldn't be practical to upgrade the position because of the high midseason cost. That gives Kozma a little more time to show what he can do at the plate.
In the end, the state of the Cardinals at this point is solid.