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After a dismal first half, here’s what the St. Louis Cardinals must do to make the playoffs

The St. Louis Cardinals played a mediocre first half

At 44-44 at the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves just two games out of first place in the NL Central despite inconsistent play through the first half of the season.
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At 44-44 at the All-Star break, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves just two games out of first place in the NL Central despite inconsistent play through the first half of the season.

Time to turn the page.

For me, I’ll grant you, and also for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Last week, I spent all my energy focused on what the Cardinals have done wrong the first half of the season.

Today, on the eve of 2019’s second half, let’s focus on what the Cardinals have to get right — and do well — the rest of the way.

St. Louis Cardinals need to forget about first half

The Cardinals, having learned (we hope) from the first half of the season, now have to forget all about it.

They need to forget the maddening .500 record, a result so dismal that Baseball Reference at this moment gives the Cardinals a 13.7 percent chance of making the playoffs, and an 0.2 percent chance of winning the World Series.

(Let that sink in a minute: That algorithm’s computations have decided the Cardinals have no better than a 1-in-7 chance of catching the Chicago Cubs atop the National League Central. And the Cubs are all of two games – yes, two – ahead of the Cardinals.)

“The record is what it is because that’s how we’ve played,” first baseman Paul Goldschmidt told reporters in San Francisco after a 1-0 loss to the Giants on Sunday left the Cardinals at 44-44 at the All-Star Break. “We’ve played .500. If we want to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to play better in the second half.”

They need to forget the 31 times they scored three runs or fewer; they are 4-27 in those games. At that rate, they’ll produce three runs or fewer in 57 games by season’s end, more than a third of the time.

They need to forget the nine players who have landed on the injured last at one point or another this year, including starting position players Yadier Molina, Matt Carpenter and Marcell Ozuna, and pitchers Jordan Hicks, Adam Wainwright and Alex Reyes.

They need to forget the dismal 9-18 month of May, and the fair-to-middling 16-16 record since then.

With all that forgetting, they have one thing to remember: How they were playing when they were 20-10 on the first of May.

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Paul Goldschmidt is hitting .254, 40 points below his career average, and is on pace for his lowest career RBI total. Morry Gash AP

Cardinals need to score more runs

It’s simple math: If the Cardinals don’t improve their run production, they’ll remain mired in mediocrity.

Only three clubs in the 15-team National League have scored fewer runs than the Cardinals this year — the last-place Miami Marlins, Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants. Those three teams are a combined 34 games under .500, which makes the Cards’ .500 record seem better than it is.

The St. Louis attack is averaging 3.3 runs a game; last year, that number was 4.7 runs a game.

Put another way: This season’s lineup — with the addition of Goldschmidt, another year of experience for Paul DeJong and Harrison Bader, and a (somewhat) rejuvenated Ozuna and Dexter Fowler — is scoring almost one-and-a-half fewer runs than the 2018 club.

Goldschmidt, Carpenter and Ozuna — the most important batters in the lineup — are hitting a combined .244.

Goldschmidt, at .254, is hitting 40 points under his career batting mark of .294, and is on pace for 68 RBI, his lowest total in eight full seasons in the majors.

Carpenter, at .216, is 54 points below his .270 career average, and is on pace to hit 19 home runs — after hitting 36 last year.

Ozuna, at .259, is 17 points under his .276 career average, and both he (broken finger) and Carpenter (back) will have to forge a second-half renaissance once they are able to emerge from mid-season stints on the injured list.

If the Big Three don’t get going in the second half, the Cardinals won’t contend.

Which brings us to …

Key St. Louis players need to get healthy

Ozuna isn’t expected to return until Aug. 1, at the earliest, while Carpenter might be back in the lineup this weekend.

Yadier Molina is nursing a sore thumb injured when he was hit by a pitch in May; after returning from the disabled list right after that injury, he’s had trouble gripping a bat because of soreness in the hand.

The Cardinals are hoping the All-Star Break provides sufficient rest for Carpenter and Molina, but the waiting game is much longer for the most serious injury suffered by a Cardinals player this year.

That’s the torn elbow ligament for closer Jordan Hicks, who won’t be able to return until sometime in 2020. That leaves a major hole at the back of the bullpen, a rift the Cardinals hope can be closed by Carlos Martinez.

Who — you guessed it — began the year on the injured list because of shoulder weakness stemming from a series of injuries in the 2018 season.

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The Cardinals went 15-17 against the Central Division in the first but have 44 games remaining against their divisional foes. L.G. Patterson AP

Cardinals must play better against Central Division teams

If the Cardinals are to overtake the Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division — and hold off the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds — they must play better against those four clubs.

In a division that has all five teams within 4 ½ games of first place as play resumes, it is imperative that the Cardinals improve on their 15-17 record against the other NL Central clubs.

The Cardinals will play 44 games in the division in the second half, hoping to better a 3-6 record against the Cubs, a 5-5 mark with the Brewers, a 3-3 record vs. the Pirates, and a 4-3 mark against the Reds.

The schedule includes an 11-game stretch against the Pirates and Reds July 15-25, a seven-game stretch facing the Reds and Brewers Aug. 15-21, and seven games with the Cubs in the last 10 games of the season.

A plus-.500 mark in those 44 division games — dare Cardinals fans hope for 25 wins? — would give St. Louis a chance at its first NL Central title since 2015.

Is the cavalry coming?

The Cardinals reversed the fortunes of their 2018 season with a major change one game before the All-Star Break, firing manager Mike Matheny and installing Mike Shildt in his place.

The move seemed to invigorate the Cardinals, who posted a 41-28 record under Shildt.

No such change beckons now, which means the improved play must come from inside the clubhouse — or in the form of a trade engineered by team vice president John Mozeliak or General Manager Michael Girsch.

Will they bring in a bat to punch up the batting order? Will they acquire another starting pitcher as September beckons? Will a back-of-the-bullpen fix be needed if Martinez falters?

Or will Mo & Girsch sit tight, hoping that the club’s hitters revert to form in the second half?

Doesn’t seem they can afford to sit on their hands. Not after three years without October baseball in St. Louis, amid increasing angst among the Cardinal faithful.

The players might be able to turn the page. The fans will find that harder to do.

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.
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