Cheap Seats

Look what happens when the St. Louis Cardinals bench Fowler. They win.

What a wonderful turn of events it has been to see the St. Louis Cardinals knock the Los Angeles Dodgers from their perch as the best team in the National League early in the 2019 season with a four-game sweep.

Too often in the first two weeks of the season the Redbirds have had trouble putting the ball in play consistently, much less getting on base at reasonable clip. Their strikeouts far outpaced the number of hits they collected, never a recipe for success. But they seem to be clicking now. On Thursday, St. Louis twice got significantly behind on the score board yet managed to battle back, eventually pulling away from Dem Bums.

Is it any coincidence that Dexter Fowler was grabbing a seat on the bench while Tyler O’Neill and Jose Martinez got a rare chance to start? Martinez, batting cleanup, and O’Neill, battIng fifth, combined for six hits in the game, scoring five runs. In 10 games started this season, Fowler has a total of six hits with three runs scored and one RBI. It’s not that I wish Fowler ill. I feel terrible for the guy because it seems that he’s helpless to turn around his downward spiral, no matter how much he’d like to. When he strikes out or makes a bad play in the outfield, he appears to be totally defeated.

Unfortunately, in the big leagues, it’s not about who is a nice guy and who isn’t. It’s about results. I just can’t believe the Redbirds wouldn’t score more runs with O’Neill or Martinez getting more playing time in right field. Both are better hitters than Fowler and O’Neill is vastly superior defensively. Besides, what good does it do for O’Neill, who tore the cover of the ball in Class AAA Memphis, to park his posterior on the bench? He needs to be playing every day, especially if the Cardinals really think he’s going to be the starting left fielder in 2020 when Marcell Ozuna departs as a free agent. His Thursday start was O’Neill’s second of the year. Minimally, he ought to sub in for each of the St. Louis starting outfielders a minimum of once a week. If he did that, he’d have six starts right now. But I’d actually prefer that he is the starter in right field with Martinez remaining as the primary right-handed bat off the bench.

It’s my hope that the Cardinals are giving Fowler every chance to prove himself, and that they’ll soon submit to the reality of the situation and move on to their better options. I know the team is paying Fowler a lot of money. But he hasn’t shown any signs that he’s going to get better in more than a year. Plus, he’s at the age where a significant rebound seems very unlikely.

Speaking of under performers, what in the world is going on with Michael Wacha? He was absolutely terrible Thursday, getting pounded early and often for eight hits and seven earned runs allowed in only 3 2/3 innings before he was sent to the showers. Wacha walked only one, so it wasn’t that he couldn’t control his offerings. They were just remarkably hittable. Wacha, who is playing for a contract next season, has an unsightly 5.28 earned run average. That’s a big problem because all indications are that injured starting pitcher Carlos Martinez seems tabbed for the bullpen when he returns while the next guy on the depth chart, Alex Reyes, couldn’t find his control in a relief role and ended up getting demoted to the minors. It doesn’t seem like he’s a likely candidate to start games in St. Louis any time soon. I’d guess the next option is John Gant. But where would the Birds be without the rubber-armed hurler in the bullpen where he has played in important role in several games? I don’t think the club can afford to lose what he offers in the relief corps. Austin Gomber, who has experience as a starter, was terrible in spring training and seems to have his own issues to work through.

In short, the Cardinals have gabbed about their depth all winter. But where is it now? It doesn’t seem there is a viable alternative to Wacha immediately available if he doesn’t get his act together soon. And both he and Adam Wainwright, because of their health history over the past several years, are constantly subject to injury concerns. That’s a problem not only every fifth start, but also because the short outings are putting more pressure on an already over-taxed bullpen that had to dip into the minors for fresh arms less than two weeks into the season. I was hoping Reyes would graduate to the rotation by June. But all bets are off on that subject for now.

With the 5-2 home stand against the San Diego Padres and Dodgers, the Birds complete a tough start to the 2019 season with a strong 8-5 record. Now they get to play the stunningly hapless Cincinnati Reds (4-8) twice for a short breather in Mexico before things get tough again with a pair of first-place showdowns with the Milwaukee Brewers and National League East games against the Washington Nationals and New York Mets. It’s remarkable how tough the schedule is for St. Louis the first two months of the season. But all they can do is make the best of the situation by playing the games that are on their agenda.