The St. Louis Cardinals have underperformed and don’t have a standout aspect of their ballclub, yet they’re 81-62 and hold a four and a half-game lead on the Chicago Cubs for first place in the National League Central. This is the most dangerous team in the NL playoff race.
The Cardinals began the regular season 20-10, and despite some inconsistently, they looked poised to be a force in the NL. Instead, they became a shaky team from all parts of the game, lost flamethrowing closer Jordan Hicks for the year to Tommy John surgery, and were severely underperforming. After a July 12 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Cardinals were 44-45. They couldn’t sustain a high level of play and looked dead in the water. Then they righted the ship.
Since their July 12 loss, the Cardinals are 37-17. But no part of their roster has wowed anybody.
The featured aspect of the Cardinals in spring training was their offense. Headlined by the acquisition of perennial All-Star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, as well as Marcell Ozuna, Matt Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Jose Martinez, and Paul DeJong, among others, the Cardinals had one of the most lethal depth charts in Major League Baseball.
Folks, this offense went into Sunday just 19th in MLB in batting average (.248), 20th in runs (667), 22nd in OPS (.735), 24th in hits (1,180) and home runs (177), and 25th in total bases (1,967).
Goldschmidt sports a career-worse batting average (.259) and OPS (.804); Ozuna is hitting just .255; Carpenter sports a career-worse batting average (.226) and OPS (.716); while inconsistent playing time has played a role, Martinez is still hitting a career-worse 268.
Manager Mike Shildt’s pitching staff has played an enormous role in the Cardinals righting the ship this season, their bullpen in particular — even in Hicks’ absence and Andrew Miller struggling mightily; John Brebbia, John Gant, and Giovanny Gallegos, among others, have held down the fort and been effective when called upon.
Meanwhile, right-handers Jack Flaherty and Dakota Hudson have become a potent rotation duo. The only question is whether the two of them can get the job done in October, as they’ve never pitched in a postseason game in their respective careers. There’s also the element of Miles Mikolas, Michael Wacha, and Adam Wainwright being inconsistent forces. How sturdy is this rotation?
Reminder, despite their offensive woes and pitching concerns, the Cardinals have found a way to be 19 games above .500. How the heck is that possible? Well, one thing you don’t want to do is allow them to turn a corner because in a five, or seven-game series, their veterans could perform up to their career standards and give opposing pitching staffs headaches. That goes for both their offense and starting pitching.
They’re too talented around the diamond, especially offensively, to not have a huge week at the plate, or go on a home-run hitting barrage. Goldschmidt has been the best first baseman in the game this decade, Ozuna is a power machine, Carpenter is a balanced hitter, and Dexter Fowler is a clutch postseason hitter.
Concurrently, their struggling starters have pitched in high-leverage situations in the past and have a multitude of postseason experience under their belts.
Now let’s remove the statistics from the equation and compare the Cardinals roster to some of the more highly regarded NL teams. Is their offense not as talented, or full of proven commodities as the Los Angeles Dodgers? Is their starting rotation any different, if not better than that of the Atlanta Braves? What NL contender has a better bullpen than the Cardinals?
This team is full of veterans in their prime who, in most cases, have individually underachieved. In October that means nothing. It comes down to execution, and that’s when you want proven players unfazed by the big moment. Yes, the Cardinals haven’t made the playoffs since 2015, but Carpenter and Molina are the only starting position players left from that team — and they’ve a lot of postseason experience.
The Cardinals aren’t guaranteed to go on a magical run in October, or even win a playoff team. They don’t produce runs like the Braves, or execute on the hill like the Dodgers. But every team has their potential kryptonite, and the Cardinals have the talent to perform at a higher level down the stretch.
Do you think the Braves, who would be their first-round opponent if the playoffs started today, feel like they can overpower the Cardinals? Do you think the Dodgers feel their pitching staff is guaranteed to shutdown the Cardinals offense?
They’re bizarre, unique, and difficult to understand, but the Cardinals are a team that no one wants to face in the playoffs. They’ve more upside than any contender and are winning games at a high rate; they can only get better.
The Cardinals are a hibernating bear. You wake the bear, you get mauled. Memo to the NL: Don’t poke the bear, you’ll get mauled.