After being swept out of town this week by the New York Yankees, the St. Louis Cardinals are left still struggling and searching for answers to what has been a simply dreadful start to the 2017 season. At 3-9, they trail only the Toronto Blue Jays (2-10) for MLB’s worst record, and have looked alarmingly bad along the way. Because the season is young, and St. Louis has 150 games left to play, there is still opportunity to turn things around. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, however, life in the NL Central is not easy in any way. The bigger the hole they dig themselves into now only means the climb back out will be tougher later in the season.
Examining the St. Louis Cardinals Struggles
As ESPN’s broadcast crew pointed out during Sunday’s game in New York, the Cardinals are failing in all three main aspects of the game: offense, pitching (specifically, the bullpen), and defense.
The Cardinals offense has struggled out of the gates. High strikeout rates, failure to drive in runners in scoring position, and overall inability to get on base have plagued the first two weeks of the season. Dexter Fowler has sputtered to a .143 batting average and a .222 on-base percentage, with 16 strikeouts and only seven hits (six singles). Matt Carpenter has not been much better, hitting .222 with nine strikeouts and eight hits, but to his credit, has also drawn nine walks. Aledmys Diaz and Stephen Piscotty have been fine thus far, but after Piscotty’s spot in the order comes Yadier Molina and Randal Grichuk, and then some mix of Matt Adams, Jhonny Peralta, Jedd Gyorko, and Kolten Wong, all of whom have struggled mightily to get anything going.
It is hard to believe that guys like Fowler, Carpenter, and Molina will continue to hit this poorly. As the season goes along, Fowler will get on base ahead of the Diaz-Carpenter-Piscotty-Molina middle of the order, which can only mean good things for this club. Ideally, Grichuk will get hot and add some power to the mix, and Wong will put things together at the plate as well. Playing Gyorko over Peralta at third base is the best move, and Greg Garcia’s consistently smart hitting makes him a strong fill-in option. Offense is not the biggest concern for the Cardinals, as things will fall into place once guys get comfortable. The best thing that could happen here is for Fowler to start getting on and making things happen – something that will happen over time.
Pitching and Defense
Here lies the biggest concern for St. Louis. The narrative of the Cardinals offseason was all about improving the defense, which put up very poor numbers a season ago. A better defense would lead to a better pitching staff, which is full of guys who generally pitch to contact. So far, this has not been the case at all. Aside from Mike Leake, who has been terrific in his first two starts, the rotation has floundered early on and the bullpen has been the stuff of nightmares.
The defense continues to miss opportunities for key double plays, let pop-ups fall in behind the infield, and make errors on what should be routine plays. More runners on base means pitchers are working around runners each inning, which just opens the door for more and more mistakes. Every starter in the Cardinals rotation tends to pitch to contact, inducing ground balls to get hitters out efficiently – a system that does not work well if the defense cannot convert routine plays into outs.
#STLCards current defensive rankings:
29th in defensive runs saved
28th in fielding percentage
28th in converting balls in play into outs
Not all of the blame can be placed on the defense, though. The pitching has been a problem as well. Since his gem on Opening Night, Carlos Martinez has been erratic and inconsistent, as shown by his eight walks against the Yankees on Saturday. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have looked solid so far, but Adam Wainwright has not. His curveball is still not the same as it once was, his fastball does not have as much life, and things just are not breaking his way as the effects of age and injury continue to hit him hard. All around, however, this still is a good rotation with good pitchers. Martinez is still one of the game’s best young pitchers, and Lynn and Wacha should continue to build off of good starts. If Leake can keep up his great work and Wainwright can break the spell he is in now, things will improve.
The bullpen is much of the same. It has had a very frustrating start, but there is hope. With a lot of bad losses, the best arms in the bullpen, such as Seung-hwan Oh and Trevor Rosenthal, have not had much opportunity to pitch. This will hopefully change going forward. Matthew Bowman has turned into the most reliable reliever on the team, while others struggle. If Brett Cecil can live up to the money he is earning now and Kevin Siegrist can find a way to throw strikes again, the bullpen should be fine. Much like the offense and starting staff, the pieces are there – they just need to get going.
Two weeks into the season, the Cardinals look flat out lost. That being said, things should get better. All it may take is one big win or a couple things to go their way, but until that happens, the anxiety will continue. It is still hard to believe this is a team that will not contend this year, as the offense and pitching should start returning to normalcy soon. The real issue is with the defense. If it cannot improve, the pitching will not get much better either, and this season will likely look like it did last year, or even worse, which could mean a lot of disappointment in St. Louis.