One-third of the way through the 2011 season, the Cardinals have proven to be full of surprises.
Picked by many pundits to finish no better than fourth in the National League Central despite a banner walk year from superstar Albert Pujols, the Cardinals are perched at the top of the division standings as the calendar turns to June. And Pujols has suffered through the worst start of his career, factoring in as the third-best offensive player on the St. Louis roster.
One thing is certain for the rest of the season: It’s going to continue to be full of surprises. But here are a few things to look for and a few things to worry about.
On the plus side:
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• This Pujols frustration can’t go on forever, can it? Albert entered 2011 as a .331 hitter who averaged well more than 100 runs batted in and 30 homers. So who is this guy hitting in the .260s with a 27-game homerless streak to his credit?
While his average is still a disturbing .262, Pujols has shown some encouraging signs of late. Not only has he cranked two homers this week, he’s starting to hit the ball up the middle more often instead of trying to pull everything. His bat hasn’t slowed. He’s way out front on everything. So his issues are rooted in technique and approach. They’re not due to his age or his health. So they seem like something that can be and will eventually be worked out.
• The Cardinals’ walking wounded are getting better all the time. While injuries were their downfall in 2010, the current edition of the club has chugged right along without starting third baseman David Freese, second baseman Skip Schumaker, top utility player Nick Punto, ace pitcher Adam Wainwright and relievers Bryan Augenstein and Brian Tallet. Even cleanup hitter Matt Holliday has missed two chunks of the schedule due to his appendectomy and a strained quad.
With the exception of Wainwright, all of those players are expected to come back at some point and contribute. So this team could arguably get better.
One the down side:
• I’m very worried about the starting rotation. Chris Carpenter hasn’t been himself. That’s OK because Kyle Lohse, Jaime Garcia and Kyle McClellan have been pitching like aces in his stead. But Garcia and McClellan both just had their worst outings of the season. Garcia’s clunker makes sense because curveball pitchers have always had problems in the thin air of Denver. But McClellan’s sudden command issues concern me because on June 1 he is about one start shy of passing his career high in innings pitched. And he’s had a tendency even as a reliever to wear down in the second half. (I wrote this before the Cardinals revealead that McClellan hurt himself in the first inning of his most recent start. What was once a concern appears now to be a realiity -- the Redbirds find themselves with four major league starters and no attractive options.)
• Speaking of durability ... I don’t think anyone expected Lance Berkman to be a National League MVP candidate at this point of the 2011 season. But he’s had some nagging injuries lately that seem to have put a stop to his early season power surge. I wonder if he can keep up his level of production all season — especially since the Cardinals have played him more frequently than originally expected at the start of the season. The Cardinals need Berkman, Holliday and Pujols to stay healthy and combine for the same amount of production if the team expects to hold off the Brewers and Reds.
They might not all be hot at once. But two of the three need to be clicking at the same time to keep putting runs on the board.
Bottom line, I’m glad to see the Cardinals have exceeded expectations. And, after a bad first couple of weeks, this team has proven to be an entertaining club to watch. I just hope they can keep it up.