The remains of the season: St. Lous Cardinals

On April 2—just the second game of the Cardinals’ young season—there were 4,000 empty seats at New Busch Stadium. It was the first time in the 174-game history of the ballpark that the game failed to sell out; a sign, perhaps, that even the most diehard Cards fans weren’t terribly thrilled about the 2008 season.

To be fair, no one was too excited about the Cardinals back in April. With a roster full of projects, journeymen and spare parts, the team seemed destined for mediocrity, if not worse. The consensus among Hardball Times staffers was that the club would finish no better than fifth.

But here we are in the first week of August, and the Cards are holding their own, 10 games over .500, just a half game out of the Wild Card spot. Let’s review some of the team’s biggest surprises so far, and ask ourselves whether their performance is sustainable the rest of the way.

Offense

The Cardinals’ offense was supposed to resemble the San Francisco Giants c. 2004, with Albert Pujols in the role of Barry Bonds, and the rest of the lineup playing the Seven Dwarves. So far, though, the Cards have been quite effective at the plate. They’re second in the league in Equivalent Runs, second in OBP, and they have four guys on pace for 27+ home runs.

The biggest surprises are in the outfield. Skip Schumaker, who spent most of the last couple years in the Pacific Coast League, currently sports a .377 OBP as the team’s primary leadoff hitter. Rick Ankiel, an ex-pitcher who didn’t become a full-time hitter until he was 25 years old, leads all NL centerfielders in OPS. But more surprising than either is Ryan Ludwick, a rangy bopper who’s currently outslugging Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman and Alex Rodriguez. In fact, Ludwick has the highest slugging percentage in all of baseball.

Can Ludwick keep it up? Not likely—after all, he came into this season with a career line of .251/.319/.446 in 704 major-league plate appearances. In 3,100 minor-league appearances, he put up a line of .270/.349/.501. Guys like that don’t usually blossom into bona fide All Stars at age 30.

On the other hand, Ludwick has a solid pedigree—in fact, he was a second-round draft pick by Billy Beane back in 1999. After struggling through knee, hip, shoulder and wrist problems while playing for five different organizations in seven years, Ludwick is now fully healthy and fully settled as the Cards’ everyday rightfielder. It’s possible, then, that his numbers are something more than a momentary blip.

Something to keep in mind, however: Ludwick’s gaudy performance has come off some pretty lousy pitchers. According to Baseball Prospectus, Ludwick has faced the second-easiest pitching of any player in baseball. With 19 of the Cards’ 48 remaining games coming against NL pitching leaders Los Angeles, Chicago and Arizona, Ludwick is due for a few rough patches.

Starting Pitching

The Cards have a typical Dave Duncan staff: lots of balls in play (they have both the fewest walks and the fewest strikeouts of any rotation in the league), and lots of projects, rejects and rehab cases (guys like Joel Pineiro, Chris Carpenter, and converted relievers Todd Wellemeyer and Braden Looper). Yet somehow they’re scuffling along with a better-than-average 4.32 ERA.

Can they continue to give the Cardinals quality innings as the season wears on? First of all, don’t expect anything from Pineiro—the more opposing batters see him, the worse he gets. And he has been especially bad lately: a 6.86 ERA with a staggering 14.6 hits allowed per 9 innings since the end of June. Don’t expect a ton from Wellemeyer, either: Soon after he was named the NL Pitcher of the Month for May, he came down with a sore elbow, and he has been shaky ever since (3.16 ERA with 6.9 K/9 before the injury; 5.17 ERA and 5.0 K/9 after).

The Cards are hoping to stabilize the rotation with the addition of former Cy Young Chris Carpenter (who missed 15 months due to Tommy John surgery) and reigning ace Adam Wainwright (out since the first week of June with a sprained finger). Carpenter has been erratic both in his rehab starts and in his first ML outing against the Braves, though, to his credit, his command seems to improve each time he takes the hill, and his velocity is already where he wants it to be. Swapping out Pineiro for even a diminished Carpenter could be worth an extra win or two for the Cards. Wainwright’s situation is trickier: He has been on the shelf longer than expected, and even when he does return, he might be relegated to the bullpen, where he shone for the ’06 championship squad. His latest throwing session, however, was considered a resounding success, so he, too, could start contributing to the team before the end of August.

The Bullpen

In 2007, the Cards had one of the better bullpens in the league, paced by strong seasons from Jason Isringhausen, Ryan Franklin and Russ Springer. This year, the names are basically the same but the results are drastically different. They’ve already blown 26 saves, putting them on pace for 37 choke jobs. (The all-time record is 39, set by the ’96 pre-humidor Colorado Rockies.)

Can the ‘pen turn it around? Probably not. Nearly every Cardinals reliever has gotten worse as the season has worn on. Jason Isringhausen saved eight of his first nine games; since then, he has been, by almost any measure, the worst reliever in baseball. His penmates are also declining. Let’s choose June 5 as a rough-and-ready marker of when things started to go wrong. In the first game of a twin bill against the Nationals, five Cardinals hurlers combined to nail down a 4-1 win. In the nightcap, Ryan Franklin gave up a two-run walkoff homer to Elijah Dukes. The latter served as a harbinger of the Cards’ bullpen woes:

            ERA on 6/5   ERA after 6/5
Franklin       1.98          5.40
McClellan      2.01          3.81
Springer       2.93          1.74
Villone        3.86          6.75
Flores         4.02          5.63

Only Springer has been reliable; the others have been flailing for months, due to either fatigue or questionable stuff. All in all, their performance hearkens back to the summer of 2003, when a Cardinals team with a good lineup and decent starting pitching was done in by a positively awful bullpen.

The Record

As of this writing, the Cardinals are 62-52. And that’s not entirely a mirage—they’re only two wins off their Pythagorean record, and their mark in one-run games (21-20) is about what you’d expect.

Nevertheless, the Cards most likely will not reach the postseason this year. A few reasons:

1. Barring a miracle, they are not going to win the division outright. The Cubs are clearly the best team in the league, if not all of baseball, and they currently hold a six-game edge over St. Louis.

2. Although the Cards seem like they’re in a dead heat for the Wild Card (they’re only a half game behind the Brewers, and the Cards’ run differential is superior), the Brewers have been playing better baseball for a while now. Since May 25, the Brewers are 39-24, and they have made up 6-1/2 games on the Cards, including a recent four-game beatdown in Busch Stadium. Factor in the addition of C.C. Sabathia, and it’s fair to say that the Brew Crew should hold up better than the Cards in the dog days of summer.

3. Finally, Milwaukee enjoys a much easier schedule down the stretch than does St. Louis. Whereas the Cards have 14 games remaining against Florida (59-53) and Arizona (58-54), the Brewers have 10 games against San Diego (43-69) and Washington (42-70). Moreover, the Brewers have an extra series against Pittsburgh (51-61), whereas the Cards’ extra series comes against the Cubs—and that series happens to be at Wrigley, not Busch.

So the Cards face an uphill battle if they want to play into October. In a season of surprises, they’ll have to save their best for last.

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