When the 2012 season started the Cardinals were dismissed by many pundits as a team that would be fortunate to win 88-90 games and make the postseason as a wild card entree.
The club's potential didn't seem like it improved as starting pitcher Chris Carpenter announced he couldn't pitch on the eve of spring training, shortstop Rafael Furcal required season-ending elbow surgery in the middle of camp and closer Jason Motte tore up his elbow -- also requiring season-ending surgery -- at the end of spring training.
Since then another starting pitcher, Jaime Garcia, went down for the year while a third, Jake Westbrook, has missed six starts with a sore elbow.
But, somehow, the Cardinals haven't just coped with their injury issues. They've thrived, bulling their way to the best record in the major league as we near the 1/3 point of the season.
St. Louis stands at a breathtaking 37-18, good enough for a .678 winning percentage. To put it into perspective, if the Cardinals were a sub-.500 team through June, July, August and September, winning 53 of their remaining 107 games, they'd still finish with a 90-72 record.
If the Redbirds continued to win at the pace they set in the early part of the season, which is entirely possible as their reamaining opponents have a combined winning percentage of slightly less than .490 at this point, they'd win a franchise record 109 games against 53 losses. The 1942 Cardinals won 106 games -- although they did it in 154 games, not the current 162-game schedule.
The current Cardinals have matched the franchise record for best start through 55 games. The 1944 Birds were also 38-17 at this point.
While St. Louis has had dominant starting pitching and a dynamic offense so far this season, scoring 86 more runs than opponents for the best run differential in MLB by 27 tallies, the Cardinals have room for improvement because of a shallow bullpen and a relatively weak bench.
Adam Wainwright, who some worried lost a step after Tommy John surgery in 2011, is back at full speed.
He used a complete game Saturday to beat the San Francisco Giants to improve to 8-3 with a 2.33 ERA and a ridiculous strikeouts to walks ratio of 84 to 6.
While Wainwright was known to be the ace, it was questioned at the start of the season who was good enough to be St. Louis' number two starter. Well... There's still a question about who is the second-best starter. But it's not because of a lack of candidates.
Second year starter Lance Lynn has the best winning percentage on the team with a 7-1 record (.875) and 2.91 ERA. Westbrook leads the staff in ERA at 1.62 through his six starts -- and at the time I am writing this he is getting ready to head out on a rehab assignment with plans to rejoin the rotation in the next week or 10 days. Rookie Shelby Miller isn't far behind with a 1.82 ERA and a 6-2 record. He's struck out 62 and walked 17.
Carpenter hopes to be back sometime in the next month or two. But, in the meantime, rookies Michael Wacha, Tyler Lyons will battle for the fifth slot in the starting rotation.
After Motte went down to injury, it was assumed that set-up man Mitchell Boggs would slide easily from the eighth inning to the ninth. But an unfunny thing happened on the way to the end of games. Boggs blew up under the pressure to the tune of an 0-3 record and and 11.05 ERA. He fumbled away 60 percent of his save opportunities and has a blown save or the loss in a third of the games this season in which the Cardinals were defeated.
In something of a desperation move, the Cardinals turned to middle reliever Edward Mujica to close games... And the result has been 17 saves in 17 tries with a 1.88 ERA. He's allowed 13 hits and one walk in 24 innings of work with 22 strikeouts.
Trevor Rosenthal inherited Boggs' eighth inning duties as Boggs was moved to mop up work and eventually Class AAA Mempis. Rosenthal struggled early. But he's got a 2.08 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 22 innings of work. Since he gave up two runs in back-to-back appearances April 14 and 17th that left him with a 5.00 ERA, Rosenthal has only surrendered two more runs, total, in his next 18 appearances -- including a current streak of 10 appearances without a run allowed.
Mujica and Rosenthal have given manager Mike Matheny a solid plan for the last two innings. But, if starters can't go deep, the Cardinals could have problems in the sixth and seventh frames.
Rookie call-up Seth Maness has been something of a good luck charm, inducing double play balls in tough spots. But his 2.19 ERA hasn't yet made me convinced that his results aren't largely due to luck. He's allowed 16 hits and three walks in 12 1/3 innings of work.
Veteran lefty Randy Choate has come on strong lately. But he's a specialist and won't rack up innings. The Cardinals have been without a second lefty because Marc Rzepczynski was shipped out to the minors with a 7.88 ERA. St. Louis desperately needs a second lefty option. My guess is that Lyons would be a prime candidate for that job if the rotation gets healthy.
Righty middle reliever Fernando Salas was inconsistent before going down with an injury. And, for some reason, Joe Kelly has fallen out of favor. Kelly's appearances are few and far between and he hasn't had much of a chance to get into a groove.
C - Yadier Molina is a legit most valuable player candidate with a .351 batting average -- he's been jockeying between first and second in the league in hitting -- and his typical top flight defense behind the plate. Molina is a master at situational hitting. He's got 27 RBIs and 14 doubles so far this year.
1B - Allen Craig started off slow and took forever to crank his first homer of the season. But he's settled in with a .310 average, 38 RBIs (5th in the NL) and 15 doubles to go with his three homers. He's batting .431 with runners in scoring position.
2B - Matt Carpenter has done a fantastic job of converting from a corner infielder to a second baseman -- and that's not an easy feat because, not only does a player have to learn how to cover a bigger range and manage in double play situations, but second base is a mentally demanding spot that requires a player to be on his toes and know where to be in a variety of defensive situations. The new responsibility hasn't slowed down Carpenter who is hitting .309 with 43 runs scored, the third-highest total in the National League.
3B - David Freese got off to a terrible start. But after an April in which he hit .163, Freese hit .299 in May. He's got a .256 batting average overall and he's upped his on-base percentage from .255 to .365. Freese hasn't shown much power yet. He's got two RBIs and six doubles for the season.
SS - Pete Kozma was probably the biggest concern for Cardinals fans at the start of the season. Rumors floated around that the club would make a major trade to try to replace Furcal. But, in the end, the front office folks decided to gamble with the rookie who filled in for Furcal the last month of 2012. The bet paid off with Kozma making all the plays he should in the field while maintaining a respectable .264 batting average.
LF - Matt Holliday hasn't really clicked so far this year. He's hitting .249 although he's cranked eight homers and driven in 30 runs. I think Holliday will come around, as he always does. But even if he stays on his current pace, he'd hit about 25 homers and drive in more than 90.
CF - Jon Jay is perplexing. He's been either red hot or ice cold this season -- nothing in between. Jay lost his job as lead-off man to Matt Carpenter. But he's produced down in the order, driving in 22 runs.
RF - Carlos Beltran has had more rest this year than in the past. And it seems to have paid off. He's batting .300 with 12 homers and 34 RBIs. Hopefully, it will allow Beltran to avoid the second half fall off he had last season.
Like the bullpen, the Cardinals bench had been spectacular up front and suddenly weak as you wade deeper.
Matt Adams made the team out of spring training despite the fact that little playing time seemed to be available to him. He's only had 55 at-bats, in part because he spent a stint on the disabled list. But when he's played he's made an impact with a .345 batting average, three homers and 12 RBIs as a pinch hitter and reserve first baseman.
Daniel Descalso provides his usual versatility and lately his bat has showed signs of life. He's got his average up to .260 with 18 RBIs in 100 at-bats.
But that's about all that can be said for the St. Louis bench. Free agent acquisition Ty Wigginton has been nearly non-existent. When he plays it's almost as if Matheny feels sorry for him sitting on the bench more than he seems like a strategic asset. He's batting .205 with three runs batted in to show for a measly 39 at-bats. Shane Robinson couldn't make an out in spring training. Now he can't get a hit in the regular season with a .167 batting average.
The thing about the St. Louis offense is that no one, with the exception of Molina, is performing greatly better than what fans might expect. So there's lot of room for improvement. While the run production hasn't been hitting on all eight cylinders, it has provided great balance. If all the players aren't hot at once, enough of them seem to be hot to provide the team with enough runs to win.
Hopefully the rotation will get healthy and allow the Cardinals to shuffle some of the reinforcements to the bullpen. Lyons could be the lefty the team needs in the late innings while either Chris Carpenter or Michael Wacha could morph into the guy who comes in to bridge the gap between the starter and the eighth inning. (The front office has said it doesn't want to see Wacha pitch more than 150 innings in his first full year as a pro. He's already pitched 59 2/3 so a trip to the bullpen may eventually be in order.)
Oscar Tavares, the club's top position playing prospect has missed more than two weeks with a sprained ankle. But he'll like be called up at some point in the second half to bolster the offense and determine if he'll be ready to be a regular in 2014.
When you add it all up, the Cardinals ought to be able to easily be good enough to make the playoffs. Even playing slightly better than average baseball for the rest of the year should bring home 95 wins. And that sure ought to be good enough for one of the two wild card playoff spots.
Of course, with the stupid one-game wildcard playoff, it pays to win your division and not get bounced because you had a bad day. So the Redbirds need to stay on their toes and try to hold off the Reds and Pirates, who have the second and third-best records in baseball respectively.