Here's a quick look at the Cardinals and where they stand at the All-Star Break:
STARTING PITCHING: B
The St. Louis starters made up the best rotation in baseball over the the first two and a half months of the season. But since the middle of June things have started to get shaky. While the team initially dealt well with the loss of Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia to injury, the corps of young fill ins that has filled in the last two slots has started to become over exposed. Regardless of if Carpenter is able to make a successful comeback sometime in the next month -- he makes his first rehab start tonight, so we might learn something about his chances sooner rather than later -- the Birds need another veteran starter. The question is whether they can get a guy significantly better than what they already have for a price they're willing to pay. Otherwise, it looks like the Cardinals might shuffle the mix of youth and give guys like Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha a crack.
RELIEF PITCHING: B+
It started off terribly with Jason Motte going down to a season-ending injury, his replacement Mitchell Boggs flopping miserably and top lefty Marc Rzepczynski doing likewise. But former seventh inning man Edward Mujica moved to the ninth inning and earned 26 saves in 28 tries during the first half. Trevor Rosenthal survived a tough April and posted a 2.20 ERA with 40 hits allowed, 68 strikeouts and 10 walks in 45 innings. He had two blown saves and 22 holds in the first half.
The Cardinals have the biggest run differential in baseball and hit at a seemingly impossible clip with runners on base. But, even if the numbers don't hold up, the Redbirds have a tremendous amount of balance in the batting order. In short, they can hurt opposing pitchers from just about any spot with batting title contenders Yadier Molina (first in NL hitting at .341), Allen Craig (second in average and runs batted in with a .333 average and 74 RBIs) and Matt Carpenter (seventh in batting average at .321, first in runs scored with 72) scattered throughout the lineup.
The Redbirds tend to catch the ball when they get to it. The problem is that they don't always seem to get to it. The have aging outfielders in the corner and the mobility challenged David Freese at third base. But Allen Craig has shown a lot of improvement at first base. The Birds are a lot better with the leather when Pete Kozma is at shortstop, he's made going deep into the hole and throwing across his body to get force outs at second his signature play. But when manager Mike Matheny feels the need to plug in Daniel Descalso at shortstop the team sacrifices range for offense. Jon Jay is an important piece in the defensive mix when he plays centerfield between corner outfielders who don't offer much range. But he's struggled with the bat more this year than he has previously in his career. If the Cardinals feel the need to improve the offense in centerfield, they'll have to be sure that anyone they'd pick up is capable with the glove or else he might give up more runs on defense than he'll make up at the plate.
It's tough to criticize a team with the best record in baseball. But it's obvious the Cardinals aren't a perfect team, so there are areas that could use improvement. If I could add one piece it would be a starting pitcher capable of being a legitimate number two starter who could back up Adam Wainwright in the second game of important series. If Chris Carpenter can't come back and fill that role, it may prove too expensive in terms of young talent to fill from the outside. A righty bat for centerfield and a shortstop who can cover the ground and who can hit consistently are a little bit farther down on the wish list.