Cardinals Not Looking Like Champions
by Trevor Whenham - 07/20/2006
Any discussion of the St. Louis Cardinals has to start by talking about Albert Pujols. If you think for a second that anyone but him deserves to be NL MVP, especially since he has posted his numbers despite taking three weeks off, hasn't been watching enough baseball this year. The guy is an absolute freak who does things that we may never see someone do again in our lifetimes.
Beyond him, though, the team has been surprisingly lackluster. Sure, they are the second best team in the National League behind the Mets and they are solidly in front of their division (especially since their main challenger, the Reds, made such an odd trade), but the Red Birds certainly aren't as dominating and scary as it has been in the past. They're the team to beat in the division because the Astros are so far back and not making a charge and the Reds are, well, the Reds, but they are a long way away from being a World Series contender.
Betting on this team has been a particular challenge, too. Take June, for example. The team went a dismal 9-16. That, by itself, would be a betting joy, because a blind man could make money on that kind of record. The problem, though, is that the team should be better than that, so you would often be hesitant to keep choosing them to lose. That's a dangerous kind of situation.
The Cards have been a solid team for a lot of years now, and Tony La Russa is an all-time great, but I find it hard to be positive about this team right now. Actually, I hope that they make it to the playoffs because, as it stands now, they would be very easy (and profitable) to bet against. That situation won't improve, and the team won't be a real contender, unless they address these five issues which are dragging them down:
1) Starting pitching - You know that it's a bad situation if Jeff Weaver seems like the answer.
After dumping the troubled Sidney Ponson, they looked to the chronically underachieving Weaver to solve their pitching problems. He hasn't. On paper the rotation should be in great shape. Last year they led the majors with a 3.49 staff ERA, but that has ballooned up to an ugly 4.61 despite returning pretty much the same staff as last year. Chris Carpenter is just as good as always, but everyone else has problems, led by Mark Mulder who looked decidedly averaging before going out to a shoulder injury. He's due back in August and will need to be much better. Only the incredible offense, led by Pujols and Rolen, and the impressive leadoff work of David Eckstein, has kept them in as many games as they have been in.
2) Bullpen - A sub-par starting rotation can be saved by a good bullpen. St. Louis doesn't have that luxury. There are decent arms, like Adam Wainwright, but it is still a crapshoot every time La Russa takes the ball from a starter and gives it to a reliever. Jason Isringhausen has 26 saves, but he isn't exactly a door slammer - he has 7 blown saves as well. It doesn't help that workhorse Ricardo Rincon has missed most of the season because of shoulder surgery that will keep him sidelined until the spring.
3) Left field - Here's a quiz - which one of these players is the Cardinals left fielder - John Rodriguez, Hector Luna, Chris Duncan or Skip Schumaker? The correct answer is all of them. The fact that you probably haven't heard of any of them is a real problem. None of them will be making a trip to Cooperstown in the future, and the team really needs a reliable bat out there to compete, especially if Rolen or Pujols were to go down again.
4) Catcher - I know that we are supposed to expect bad offensive performance from catchers who aren't named Joe Mauer, but Yadier Molina takes it to an extreme. His on-base percentage (.270) wouldn't be a great batting average, and his .223 average is ridiculous. Add to that the fact that he obviously isn't handling the pitching staff as well as he did last year, and it may be time for a change behind the plate. He's known as a defensive dynamo, but that may not be enough.
5) No minor league depth - The Cards are one of few teams in the league that have to admit that they have no players in Triple A who are ready to move up to the bigs next year. That's bad both for the future and for trade bait to make a difference for this season.