Because they inhabit a playoff position at the moment, the St. Louis Cardinals are postseason contenders. But for most of 2014, the club hasn't played up to preseason hopes and expectations that included visions of a second straight World Series run. The prime culprit? The lineup.
The Cardinals are in good shape at 64-56 and right there with the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates (64-57) and San Francisco Giants (63-57) for the two National League wild cards. They're also 2.0 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central.
So, yes, the Cardinals are in it. But until the offense starts clicking, they're not necessarily in it, at least relative to expectations.
Just how offensive has St. Louis' offense been? Here's a rundown of where the unit ranks in several significant statistics:
That's a far cry from 2013, when the team was third in the majors in runs scored (783, 4.8 R/G) and sported an aggregate triple-slash line of .269/.332/.401.
Things haven't gotten any better since the All-Star break, either. St. Louis has averaged 3.5 runs per game in the second half compared to a better, but still bad, 3.8 in the first.
So where have the Cardinals been coming up empty? Well, for one thing, they're not getting nearly the run production with runners in scoring position (RISP) after their historic 2013 performance in that department. Last year, St. Louis hit a ridiculous—and unrepeatable—.330 with RISP, setting an all-time record by nearly 20 points in batting average.
In 2014? The club is batting just 243, which checks in as the ninth-worst mark in the majors.
There are two other big problems. The first is that, as bad as the overall numbers have been, the Cardinals actually don't have many positions that are in obvious need of an upgrade.
The league-wide weighted on-base average (wOBA) for non-pitchers is .316. Going by that, the Cardinals actually have received solid, above-average production from Matt Holliday in left field (.350 wOBA, 126 wRC+), Matt Adams at first base (.346 wOBA, 123 wRC+), Matt Carpenter at third (.345 wOBA, 122 wRC+), Jhonny Peralta (.342 wOBA, 120 wRC+) at shortstop and Jon Jay (.332 wOBA, 113 wRC+) in center.
Are all of those players performing up to their previous career standards? No. But none has been a flat-out disappointment either.
That leaves catcher, second base and right field as the biggest problem spots. Except, backstop is only an issue for now because Yadier Molina is on the disabled list for another few weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb on July 9.
"[Molina] still hasn't picked up a bat, hasn't gripped a ball without a brace," manager Mike Matheny told Tom Timmerman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We can't get too far ahead."
Second base and right field, though, currently are manned by rookies Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras, two highly regarded youngsters who have been disappointing to various degrees so far.
As Scott Wuerz of the Belleville News-Democrat writes: "It has a negative cumulative effect on the team that it is required to play two inexperienced players in the same lineup almost every day."
Wong has been better since a three-week demotion back to Triple-A in late-April, hitting .261/.297/.454 with 30 runs, nine homers and 14 steals in 57 games from mid-May on. His .307 wOBA and 96 wRC+ are at least on the upswing.
Taveras, however, has had quite the struggle adjusting to the majors since debuting at the end of May, even though he was a better prospect than Wong and one of the very elite ones in the sport entering the year.
Just 22, the lefty hitter is batting .206/.247/.284 in 45 games. Yes, it's a teeny-tiny sample size of 150 plate appearances, but even if it's a lot of pressure to put on a player who has only been in the bigs for a couple of months, Taveras has to do better than a .239 wOBA and 49 wRC+. Especially because he's now getting everyday playing time after general manager John Mozeliak freed up right field for him by trading Allen Craig in what was a risky move, but one that also could pay off in a big way.
What does Matheny have to say about his rookie right fielder? "Just try to get him going, but more importantly get our offense going," as he said via Christina De Nicola of MLB.com. Clearly, the skipper sees a link between the potential Taveras has and the possibility of what that could mean for his sluggish offense.
The other problem St. Louis has? The Cardinals can wait on Molina to make it back and find his rhythm again, and they can hope that Taveras figures it out sooner than later, but both of those are passive routes that could leave them in a too-little-too-late situation.
Time is running out to pull off any kind of trade to address the lineup. Not that it's easy to pull off an impact swap in August when players have to pass through waivers before being traded, but there's at least the possibility.
By the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, the team added some pitching help in right-handers John Lackey and Justin Masterson, but there was no deal to bring in a big bat, or even any bat. In fact, St. Louis traded away Craig, who—despite a terrible 2014—had hit .311/.364/.488 across 2012-13.
Some hitters who could be candidates for a waiver trade include outfielders Marlon Byrd of the Philadelphia Phillies, Alex Rios of the Texas Rangers and the Los Angeles Dodgers' Andre Ethier, as well as Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Aaron Hill. Whether any of those would be a definitive upgrade—and worth the cost of acquisition—is something Mozeliak has to weigh heavily before month's end.
Otherwise, there's not much the Cardinals can do other than get healthy and get better from within. That still could happen, but it needs to start. And soon.
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