Don't look now, but despite their struggles at the plate and sometimes in the bullpen, the Cardinals have the best record -- 14-7 -- in the National League and the biggest lead -- four games -- in baseball.
Here's a quick snapshot of the Birds one month into the season:
Behind the plate: The Cardinals have had problems keeping their catchers healthy with starter Yadier Molina missing the last two weeks of spring training and backup Jason LaRue getting injured in the first series of the year. But Molina shook off his oblique strain and caught the vast majority of innings in LaRue's absence -- including the whole 20-inning game against the Mets AND the whole game the next day. Longtime prospect Bryan Anderson finally got a call to the big leagues. Although he played very little, Anderson made a big impression with his bat, serving an opposite field, two-out hit to tie a game into left field in his last at bat before getting shipped back to Class AAA Memphis. (Grade: A)
Around the horn: Despite a couple of bumps in the road and a higher than usual strikeou rate, Albert Pujols has been Albert Pujols. He's hitting over .300 with power and making spectacular plays with his Gold Glove. Up the middle, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan have both struggled with the bat. Schumaker has started to emerge from his early season slumber. But Ryan looks more like he is trying to kill flies with his bat every day. Over at the hot corner, David Freese has hit well for average but hasn't shown any power yet. He had a couple of rough games with the glove the first week of the season. But since then he has settled in a great deal and makes most of the plays he should. Backup infielder Felipe Lopez has suffered an unfortunate elbow injury -- that seems to coincide with his stint as an emergency pitcher -- and it is unknown when he will return. I'm a little concerned about the defense. Schumaker is still learning to be a major league second baseman and there is no plan B if Ryan can't get his offense straightened out. (Grade: B-)
Out in the field: Matt Holliday has been hot and cold. Mostly hot on the road and cold at home. And he has struggled terribly to drive in runs. Colby Rasmus, freed from part time status now that Rick Ankiel has gone, has hit for average and power and seems like he is arriving as the offensive force he was expected to be. He still doesn't hit well against lefties, something he will hopefully overcome with more exposure to them. And he has that odd condition where he spikes the ball into the ground when he tries to throw to the plate. Ryan Ludwick has come, after a slow start, with quite a bit of power the last couple of weeks. (Grade: B)
Bench: Allen Craig has been sent back to Class AAA Memphis after an .056 batting average in limited plate appearances. Joe Mather has seen very little time in the field and Nick Stavinoha is pretty much just a pinch hitter. Speedy outfielder Jon Jay has been called up to replace Craig and Tyler Greene, who didn't hit a lick in spring training, is getting a second chance with the injury to Lopez. La Rue hasn't had a chance to play much because of his injury. The bench is shallow, inexperienced and the weakest link of this Cardinals club. (Grade: C-)
On the Hill: The starters have been lights out -- with the exception of Kyle Lohse, of course. Adam Wainwright has done nothing to let us believe he won't contend for the Cy Young again. The same could be said about Brad Penny, although he hasn't contended for it for a couple of years... Chris Carpenter has struggled with his control but is still getting results. Jaime Garcia has been utterly fantastic. His poise and composure is amazing for a rookie. Lohse looked like something clicked the last couple of innings he pitched. Hopefully he's turned the corner. (Grade: A)
Bullpen: After getting off to a shaky start, the pen men have been a pleasant surprise. Ryan Franklin has settled in and is getting efficient saves. Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller have pitched very well from the left side of the plate. Kyle McClellan has been streaky. But Mitchell Boggs has had some nasty breaking stuff and good heat, Jason Motte has worked a couple of sliders and a curve into his arsenal in addition to getting his fastball back in the 96 MPH range. And he's keeping it down. Blake Hawksworth has not yet allowed an earned run. (Grade B+)
Overall: The Cardinals offense has come nowhere close to producing at its capability, but the starting pitchers have given the Birds a chance to win almost every game. The trick is to get the pitching to hold up as the offense comes around. You can't argue with the results. But there is no doubt the team has room to grow.
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