I'll be honest when I tell you that nobody suspected that these Cardinals would be in this position at this point when the season started this March. Not me, not Tony La Russa, and not John Mozeliak.
Did I think this team would suck, finishing in fifth or sixth place in the NL Central? No. But not this either. While I thought it was possible, I wouldn't have guessed the Cardinals would have the second best record in the NL on July 18.
As the unofficial second half of the season begins, I'd love to see the Cardinals continue their tough play and hold off the Brewers for the Wild Card, or maybe even surpass the Cubs as division leader. Here are a few things I think the Cardinals must have, or do, to seal a playoff spot in the National League.
Another starter or two
I really don't think that Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter will both come back to the Cardinals at full strength this year.
It's kinda like the Cubs winning it all. I'll have to see it to believe it. Just like the Cubs for the last century, the Cards have been plagued by terrible luck, and their rotation is a shell of what it could and should be.
That being said, the rotation definitely needs some help if it's going to be a playoff unit. Frankly, I don't want Braden Looper in my playoff rotation, and the Birds don't even have a real fifth starter right now.
Kyle Lohse cannot be expected to pitch like an All-Star forever. It might happen, but don't count on it. The team needs a better stopper.
If Wainwright can come back to being a No. 1, that would make the rotation decent. If Carpenter comes back, or the Birds can get some help from elsewhere, the starters would even be a weapon. Would you want to face Carpenter, Wainwright, and Lohse in a five-game series?
Find a power source, or continue the hot streaks
In the last 10 days or so, Rick Ankiel, Troy Glaus, and Ryan Ludwick have all been on absolute tears, especially Ankiel and Glaus. But don't be fooled. The Cardinals do not have a playoff-caliber offense. Unless, Ankiel and Glaus have truly evolved, instead of merely getting hot.
Glaus has claimed that he'll get better as the year goes on, and well...he has. Glaus is hitting .680 in his current seven-game hit streak. Yes, you read that right. SIX-EIGHTY. If he can hit .280 and finish with over 30 HR, you can't ask for anything more. But that's a big if.
Ankiel is another perfect example of a hot streak that might be a sign of better things to come. In his last five games, he's 12-for-18, and for a broader perspective, he's got 12 HR in his last 25 games. Cards' coaches apparently caught a flaw in his swing, and he's been torrid ever since.
Is Glaus going to continue his hot hitting for the remainder of the season? Is Ankiel, who is incredibly young as an OF, still growing into a beast of a hitter?
The answers to these questions better be yes, if the Cards hope to continue contending. Otherwise, they'll need help through the trading market. If they can't get Matt Holliday, how about upgrading at a position that isn't usually a run-driving spot? Orlando Hudson, anybody?
The ideal situation would be acquiring a power threat, AND having the hitters I've named continue hitting like crazy, but the truth is, neither is guaranteed to happen.
Find a closer. Or at least a lefty.
If the Birds think that Ryan Franklin and Jason Isringhausen can close by committee, I'll take that. They're respectable, if Izzy doesn't blow up like he's been prone to doing. But if that happens, they MUST upgrade at the left-handed relief position.
Tyler Johnson isn't coming back this year, and Jaime Garcia cannot be counted on. Randy Flores has also sucked, if anybody hasn't noticed. I actually don't mind Ron Villone as the second option so much, but Brian Fuentes, Damaso Marte, or some other option MUST be acquired.
Preferably, Fuentes is traded for a decent but not crucial prospect or two, and he can close AND face lefties in the St. Louis 'pen.
I'm not sure how realistic any of the trades that I've suggested are, and quite frankly, that doesn't anger me. I don't think that this season is the best chance for the Cardinals to contend, and I don't want to see anybody go from the farm system that will help in the future.
But mark my words, there will be no playoff talk for the Cardinals come September if a least a couple of these moves aren't made to catch the Cubs or hold off the Brewers.