Six weeks left in the St. Louis Cardinals season, and so much to do.
That to-do list is topped, of course, by the goal of winning one of two wild-card spots in the National League, then hoping one three-hour, nine-inning baseball game can get them into the opening round of the National League playoffs in October.
But there is much to consider beyond that, some of it to do with this season, some of it to do with the seasons to come.
At stake? Some players’ tenure with the team, what decisions General Manager John Mozeliak will face this winter, and how the club will be shaped to compete against the Chicago Cubs for years and years to come.
Whither Matt Holliday?
As BND sports editor Todd Eschman noted earlier this week, we may have seen Holliday’s last at-bat in a Cardinals uniform.
To stave that off, Holliday is having thumb surgery in a bid to make it back to the batters box before the year of this year. Only time will tell if that will succeed, but as Eschman noted, the issue extends to 2017 and perhaps beyond.
Is it worth $17 million to bring the 36-year-old Holliday back on a club option next year, his career obviously near the end? Are the Cardinals better off getting younger in left field, and stronger in the No. 3 hole in the lineup? Or should they let one of the most popular guys in the clubhouse finish his career in a Cardinals cap?
I’d say not, but there are other issues at hand:
What’s with Adam Wainwright?
The Cardinals’ onetime longtime ace has nine or 10 starts left as he tries to turn around what he has called the worst season of his career.
At 34, can he do it? Will last year’s Achilles tendon rupture prove too much to overcome for a proud and proficient pitcher? Can he yet reclaim the form that made him the team’s best starter — and annual Cy Young candidate — for much of the last decade?
Here’s hoping Waino can rebound from a brutal season, one that has left him with a 4.71 ERA this year — compared to a career mark of 3.13. He’s won 56 more games than he’s lost for the Cardinals in 11 seasons, but is only two games over .500 (at 9-7) this year.
The worst number? He’s allowed 210 baserunners (163 hits, 42 walks and five hit-by-pitches) in only 151 innings, by far the worst ratio of his career.
Is it just a bad season, one with bad memories that can be erased by better pitching the last month and a half? Or is his career, like Holliday’s, winding down more precipitously than we may have thought?
The next six weeks will hold the answer to that.
What of Reyes? Weaver?
If you weary of the now-they’re-in, now-they’re-out wild card race, you can focus instead on the early days and weeks of what the Cardinals hope will be long careers for prized pitchers Alex Reyes and Luke Weaver.
Both have shown no scare in their big-league baptisms, and their presence could well signal a sea change for a team needing to get younger and more talented.
Reyes’ work has been eye-popping: In his first four games in the majors, he’s struck out nine hitters in seven innings, allowed three hits and three walks while posting a .000 ERA. The 25 hitters he’s faced were able to hit only .136 against him.
Weaver has pitched competently in his first two starts with the Cardinals — allowing five runs and striking out nine in a Cardinals’ win at Wrigley Field last weekend and a loss at Philadelphia on Saturday. He comes to the Cardinals with gaudy minor-league numbers – a 15-9 record and 1.78 ERA in 2 1/2 seasons, with 192 strikeouts and only 35 walks in 197 2/3 innings pitched.
Those two pitchers — and a position player who got to the majors a few months before them — may well form the nucleus of the next generation of Cardinal excellence. Which brings us to:
How will Diaz do when he returns?
Aledmys Diaz will be back from his broken thumb at some point in September, of course, but will he be the All-Star Rookie of the Year candidate that forced his way into the lineup at the start of the year and wouldn’t let go?
Hand injuries are nasty things for big-league hitters — anyone as old as me remember the lost promise of Tony Pena when he came to the Cardinals 29 years ago? He hurt his hand his first year with the club and was never the player the team thought he would be.
Such is my worry for Diaz, as .312 hitter with 14 homers and 57 RBIs his rookie season, expected to be one of the best young players on the team (to say nothing of the division and the league) for years to come.
That starts with how well he can play once his broken thumb heals. And whether the Cardinals can be patient if they are still stalking a playoff position upon his return.
What of the season-long question marks?
I include a number of players in that group, chiefly Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong but also the injured Michael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal.
The regression for the two position players has been stark and startling, and may be — aside from the rotation’s struggles and a rash of injuries that hit the team after the All-Star Break — the biggest factors in the team’s far-behind-the-Cubs season so far.
Both were key members of a 100-win, NL Central title club a year ago. But they have foundered this year — Grichuk at .229, Wong at .240 — as the Cardinals resorted to the unusual move of sending both to the minors in an effort to get them right.
Injuries intruded on that plan, though, and both are back with the parent club. And they are vying not only for playing time in 2016, but 2017 and perhaps beyond.
Will they right the ship the last month and a half, giving the Cardinals fans and brass some reason to expect good things next year? Or will their play lead Mozeliak to ponder alternatives this winter and beyond?
Wacha’s future is just as cloudy, the promise of a great young pitcher muddled by the return of a shoulder injury that has bedeviled him in two of the last three seasons.
Unless the Cardinals can devise a treatment plan (and pitching regimen) to lessen the load on an unusual malady affecting the shoulder blade behind his pitching arm, Wacha may never reach the heights expected of him after a spectacular rookie debut four years ago.
The same uncertainty attends the future of Rosenthal, who had 107 saves the last two seasons and two months before he lost his control and then conceded he was pitching with arm problems that landed him on the disabled list.
His status for this year remains cloudy, and much the same can be said for next season. He has longed to be a starter in the past; will the Cardinals entertain that notion or hope a return to health restores him to the back end of the bullpen?
Let’s sum up: Questions about the veteran leaders on the team, worries about medical issues and production for some of the youngsters, anticipation for other kids who may be the best members of this team very soon.
It should prove to be a compelling final leg of the 2016 season, with a playoff berth and the team’s future in the balance. And, however this season winds up, it will lead to a fascinating offseason.
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 on Twitter @JoeOstermeier