St. Louis Cardinals

Here’s what’s wrong with the Cardinals, and how they have to fix it

If you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan, the information contained in this column may not make you happy. Sorry about that.

A year ago today, the St. Louis Cardinals were 20-7, leading the National League Central by 5 ½ games, in the midst of taking three of four from the Chicago Cubs on the heels of six straight wins against Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Today? The Cardinals are 16-15, trailing the division-leading Chicago Cubs by 8 games, and saddled with a 2-9 record against likely playoff rivals — the Cubs, Pittsburgh and Washington.

“We’ve got a long ways to go,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said this week. “As soon as you lose a few games in a row, everybody wants to make a bigger deal than what it is. Same thing if you win a few in a row.

“A lot of games left. Just gotta keep playing.”

After losing three to Washington last weekend, the Cardinals made the most of a four-game stretch with Philadelphia this week, winning three of four. That’s been followed by a split against Pittsburgh so far this wekend, and even a stirring 6-4 win over the Bucs Saturday doesn’t obscure this central and unsettling fact: Through 35 days and 31 games of the 2016 season, the Cardinals are nowhere near the team they were in 2015.

Some pieces in the starting pitching have been suspect. The hitting has been hit-and-miss, much of it miss more often than not. The defense? Well, to paraphrase an old joke: What do Michael Jackson and the 2016 Cardinals have in common? They both wear gloves on one hand for no apparent reason.

The Cardinals haven’t been this far out of first place in the NL Central since the last day of the 2012 season, when they were nine games behind division-winning Cincinnati. The Redbirds made the playoffs as a wild card that year, winning a division series against Washington before succumbing to San Francisco in the National League Championship Series.

That was then, this is now: The Cardinals spent 183 days in first place last year — all but eight days of the regular season. They haven’t been atop the division once so far this season.

Too early to be figuring the wild-card standings in your head? Yeah, way too early, because many things have to happen the rest of this season – all of it good — for us to be discussing October baseball around these parts.

Until then, there are reasons aplenty – nearly everywhere – to explain the Cardinals’ stop-and-go-then-stop-again start to 2016.

As an aggregate, the Cardinals rotation doesn’t much resemble their 2015 counterpart, except that every day one guy gets handed the ball to start the game.

In 2015, the five-man starting staff — John Lackey, Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez and Jaime Garcia — posted a combined 2.96 ERA and earned 76 of the Cardinals’ 100 wins.

The 2016 rotation — Adam Wainwright, Mike Leake, Michael Wacha, Martinez and Garcia — has a combined 4.12 ERA — more than one more run each game than last year’s starters — with 10 wins to date. At that rate, Cardinals starters will win 52 games this year, which is not nearly good enough for a club needing its rotation and relief corps to amass 90 victories or so to be in the playoff conversation.

“This is a long season,” said Wainwright, the biggest disappointment in the rotation with a 2-3 record and 6.30 ERA in seven starts this year. “But it’s very important for us to show up every day with the expectancy to win, the expectancy to make all the big plays, go out there and get the big hits, make the big pitches. That’s Cardinals baseball. That’s what we will get back to.”

The Cardinals offense, while mostly better than 2015, has played its part in the team’s start, with pluses and minuses across the ledger. The Redbirds are hitting .271 as a team, fourth in the 15-team National League, but have struck out 251 times in 1073 at-bats — a staggering 23 percent of the time. And there are five important players below .250: Matt Carpenter (.246), Matt Holliday (.245), Brandon Moss (.220), Kolten Wong (.219), and Randal Grichuk (.200).

The defense has been the most suspect, with the Cardinals last in the league in fielding percentage (.978) while committing the most errors (26). At that rate, the Cardinals will commit 136 miscues this year, the most by any Cardinals team since they made 142 booboos in the 1998 season. That team gave us something else to think about (didn’t somebody hit 70 home runs that year for St. Louis?); alas, no such diversion so far this season.

“You’re never as good as they say you are when you’re going good,” Matheny said. “And the opposite when you’re struggling.”

And so it is simple: For the Cards to climb back in the division race — or at a minimum figure in the wild-card race if the Cubs continue to run away with the division — they only have to do three things:

Throw the ball better. Hit it better. And catch it better.

For now, with important road series in Los Angeles – first against the Angels (hiya, Albert) and then the Dodgers — Matheny is trying to maintain that let’s-worry-about-today-for-now mindset.

“I don’t get too far ahead of ourselves,” Matheny said. “Just that one-game-at-a-time approach is really where we should be ... Every day I anticipate we’re going to go out there and win. I think we’re the kind of team that can win against anybody any night.

“If it happens we put together a long streak, that’d be a great thing. But I think we need to just get back to simple — let’s win today.”

Joe Ostermeier, chairman of the St. Louis Chapter of the Baseball Writers Asssociation of America, has written about the Cardinals for the News-Democrat since 1985. He can be reached at: 618-239-2512, @JoeOstermeier