In a season where every moment counts, the St. Louis Cardinals seem to be falling short of figuring it out.
A lackluster beginning
In 60-games, minuscule mishaps can become troublesome and the Cardinals are facing this head-on.
The unfortunate truth is, this team does not resemble how one would have assumed they would look in 2020. Ideally, the team would be in first place with crisp fielding, baserunning, and majorly improved offense. Instead, they’ve committed multiple errors, have a historically bad-hitting outfield, 18 players and staffers testing positive for COVID-19, and even questionable baserunning blunders are complicating the team’s chances.
Taking away Paul Goldschmidt and newcomer Brad Miller, who are leading the team in almost every offensive statistic, the players’ slugging percentages look like on-base percentages. Minus Paul DeJong, there is little to no lineup protection for Goldschmidt and situational hitting seems to be on vacation.
To be fair, the team has not had an easy path this season. A surreal Twilight Zone type rollercoaster ride from quarantining in Milwaukee to playing multiple doubleheaders and depleting their bullpen in a weekend can’t be easy to deal with.
Regardless of the rollercoaster off of the field, the Cardinals are not playing like a playoff team this season.
Yadier Molina made only three errors combined in 2018 and 2019, and since his return from COVID-19, he already has three in his 17 games in 2020. Since DeJong returned, the slugger recorded an OPS of .817. Physically, the team is on the field – mentally, there are aspects one cannot begin to easily compile.
An overcrowded outfield
Many of today’s teams have slugging outfielders with the occasional weak hitter falling into the eighth or ninth spot in the lineup. It’s questionable to many when Manager Mike Shildt defends and believes in his often offensively challenged outfielders.
But there is a method to his madness.
In their 2019 season, the outfield of Dexter Fowler, Tyler O’Neill, and Harrison Bader had a combined WAR of just 3.8, which was actually less than the individual WARs of infielders Kolten Wong (5.2), DeJong (5.3), and Tommy Edman (3.9).
Heading into September, Fowler had four home runs with an average of .274, .348 OBP, .500 SLG, and a. 848 OPS. Despite starting off well with three home runs, O’Neill started the month with a .164 average, .273 OBP, .328 SLG, and a .601 OPS. With word out on Bader’s slider predicament, he collected two home runs with an average of .205 (matching his 2019 AVG), .340 OBP, .477 SLG, and a .817 OPS.
The anticipation of Dylan Carlson provided a glimmer of hope before he made his debut appearance against the Chicago White Sox in the Cardinals’ return from COVID-19. Carlson began September with 12 hits, five RBI, one home run, .176 average, .233 OBP, .265 SLG, and a .528 OPS. Considering how the young prospect was thrown into his MLB debut, there is still quite a lot of positivity surrounding his future.
Additionally, Lane Thomas has returned from COVID-19 and Edman can often be found roaming the outfield depending on how Shildt adjusts his lineups. Despite trading away Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena while losing Marcell Ozuna to free agency, it is clear that the outfield remains crowded without a heavy hitter to spice up the offense.
The catcher curse in St. Louis
Whether someone is a fan of the team or just a casual viewer, it is easy to see Molina is a force behind the dish. Nevertheless, his talent often prevents upcoming catchers from succeeding in St. Louis.
Take Carson Kelly as an example. Before being traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2018, he only started in 27 games throughout three seasons. Molina, in those three seasons, started a whopping 395 games. Of course, comparing the two would seem unfair. Molina the nine-time All-Star and Kelly who did not get an actual chance until he arrived in Arizona.
And once again, history is repeating.
Andrew Knizner arrived in St. Louis with fresh and youthful eyes last season. But his opportunities are being trimmed. Knizner, at this time, has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, and yet, it’s hard to imagine Shildt playing him over a likely future Hall of Famer. This leaves him on the bench, shuffled between Triple-A (in a normal season) and St. Louis.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that the Cardinals also currently have Matt Wieters. In January 2020, the organization re-signed him to serve as Molina’s backup for one year before returning to free agency. The fact he is a veteran player with a lot of experience makes him a logical option behind a player like Molina.
Equally important, Ivan Herrera is also developing into a potential replacement if Molina were to decide to hang up his catcher’s mitt or explore his own options. Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has even deemed him as the Cardinals’ catcher of the future. Ranked fourth among St. Louis prospects, he has the athleticism, aptitude, and work ethic to make a name for himself.
If Molina returns next season, it’ll be interesting to see how the organization utilizes Knizner and Herrera.
What comes next
2020 might not be the year when the Cardinals figure it all out. In fact, it might take longer than just this season.
The team begins a stretch six double-headers in a 14-day stretch starting Friday. For a team that is already teetering on the edge of falling apart at the seams, those six double-headers are crucial. Nestled in the heart of a lackluster division, it won’t be difficult for the Cardinals to squeeze into the postseason based on win percentage. After all, they’re right in the mix to finish in second place in the Central, which is good for a postseason berth this season.
If the Cardinals are looking to regain dominance in the NL Central, they will need to readjust and rejuvenate before 2021.
Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)