First-quarter report: Cards are NL's best team, but challenges remain

News-DemocratMay 16, 2013 

The St. Louis Cardinals have arrived at the first-quarter turn in the baseball season, running ahead of the pack and trying to stay that way.

With 40 games gone in the 162-game season, it's time to take stock in a club that has exceeded nearly everyone's expectations.

This for a team, mind you, that lost its best starting pitcher before the first drill in spring training, lost its best relief pitcher not too long after that, and has made 17 player moves to patch the roster the last two months.

"Hats off to our system and some of the things that they have done," manager Mike Matheny told reporters this week, "as far as the draft goes and development to give us some guys who are ready.

"Right now, they're contributing and they're helping us, and we couldn't ask for anything more."

The skipper surely can't be greedy, not for a team that has posted the best record in the National League, with 12 wins its last 15 games even after a 5-2 loss to the New York Mets on Thursday.

The Cardinals are first in the majors in pitching, second in the National League in fielding, and third in the league in hitting.

Even with that, there's been a mix of good and bad this season, much of it good, and some of it bad:

The five pleasant surprises:

1. The starting pitching

Even with the loss of Chris Carpenter and a recent injury to Jake Westbrook, the St. Louis starting staff has been the best in baseball.

Lance Lynn is 6-1 with a 2.88 ERA. Shelby Miller is 5-2 with a 1.40 ERA. Adam Wainwright is 5-3 with a 2.51 ERA. Jaime Garcia is 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA. And Westbrook is 2-1 with a 1.62 ERA.

Put another way: The starters have 22 of the Cards' 26 wins, a testament not only to their excellence but to their durability. They are averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings pitched per start, easing the burden on a young but improving bullpen.

2. Second to none

Matt Carpenter has been a revelation at second base, playing like a veteran in his first full season at the position.

He's handled 150 chances and had only two errors -- a .987 fielding percentage -- and has been an offensive spark for the team since he moved to the top of the batting order.

He's hitting .295 with a team-leading 13 doubles and 19 walks, with a .380 on-base percentage, best among any of the regulars.

And the second-year player has paired with rookie Pete Kozma (.252, 15 RBIs, one error in 167 chances at short) to give the Cardinals their most stable middle infield since the days of Edgar Renteria and Fernando Vina.

3. Hail to the Chief

If Carpenter has been surprising, closer-by-emergency Edward Mujica has been astonishing.

He is a perfect 11-for-11 in save situations since he was summoned from his duties in the seventh inning, asked to solidify an bullpen ravaged by the season-ending elbow injury for Jason Motte and an excruciating case of the yips for his would-be replacement, Mitchell Boggs.

Mujica, nicknamed the Chief by his younger bullpen mates, has allowed two runs on five hits, no walks and 10 strikeouts in 11 innings spanning his appearances in save situations this year.

Where would the Cards be if Mujica hadn't emerged to nail down the ninth? Who wants to imagine it?

4. A patch from Adams

The larger-than-life Matt Adams was an afterthought at the end of last season, but an offseason conditioning program and an unerring eye at the plate has made him Mike Matheny's most important bench player.

Adams is hitting .485 (16-for-33, three homers, 10 RBIs) in 15 games, and has been the best power-hitting pinch-hitter for the Cardinals in decades.

5. Good health for the big boys

So far -- and please knock on a nearby piece of wood, will you? -- the Cardinals haven't seen any health issues for veteran corner outfielders Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran.

Much of the credit goes to Matheny, who has carefully parceled out days of rest for those two players, bothered if not besieged by a host of medical maladies in recent years.

Not at this point in this season: Holliday has six home runs and 24 RBIs, and Beltran leads the club with 10 homers and 27 RBIs.

So that's the best of the best. But what will keep Matheny from a good night's rest for the next 122 games?

1. Deep freeze for Freese

Third baseman David Freese has no home runs and only four RBIs in 27 games, hitting .209. That's just not enough production from the Cards' 2011 postseason hero, a popular player who must have a better summer if the Cardinals are to stay ahead of the NL Central pack.

How long can the Cards go with no production from a corner infield spot, even as they try to be patient with one of their best clutch hitters in recent years?

2. The relentless Reds

For all the good vibes of the Cardinals' good start, they've been unable to shake Cincinnati in the standings. The Reds trail the Redbirds by 1 1/2 games and are matching the Cards win for win the last three weeks.

Not a surprise, considering the Reds were virtually everyone's preseason choice to win the division. But with the Cardinals' great start, you can't blame them for wishing there was a little more space between them and the biggest threat to their playoff aspirations.

3. The injury bug

With three-fourths of the season yet to play, the Cardinals must avoid injuries to any of a handful of key players, including Yadier Molina, Wainwright, Holliday, and Beltran.

A significant loss in playing time for any of those four might prove too much for a team challenged by the loss of Carpenter and Motte.

As the grind continues, Matheny must continue to find ways to rest his veteran players, keeping them fresh for an extra month of baseball in October.

4. A pensive pen

As is the case with most clubs, the Cardinals' middle relief has been a mix of good and bad.

Good luck charm Seth Maness has been a groundball machine since he was summoned from the minors, and Trevor Rosenthal has put an anxious April in his past.

But how to get better results from Joe Kelly (6.59 ERA) and Carlos Martinez (7.36 ERA)? Clearly, Kelly hasn't adjusted fully to the different demands placed on a reliever, and Martinez would be better off if he were pitching in Triple-A.

What's more, can the Cardinals continue to count on perfection from Mujica every time out? If and when he has a bad outing, will the career middle-inning reliever suffer a meltdown as Boggs did?

5. Whither Carp?

Am I the only person I know bothered by the specter of Chris Carpenter's return? Nobody has more respect for him than I do -- No. 29 may be the greatest competitor to wear a Cardinals uniform since Bob Gibson -- but there's something about his comeback that I find troubling.

Maybe it's the fact he's putting himself through another grueling comeback, hoping to return from the latest in a long string of medical issues that would have ended the careers of most other players long ago.

Or maybe it's that Carp's return -- if it happens, and we're a good distance away from that -- would mean he'd take the place of a deserving young pitcher, and perhaps impede that player's development.

In any event, the Cardinals will face a tough decision if Carpenter makes it through his rehab. And it will be one more worry for Matheny in a season that promises more challenges ahead.

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at (618) 239-2512 or jostermeier@bnd.com)

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