Two, two, two posts in one:
First: this is where the brief game recap would go, if the Cardinals had had a brief game last night. Instead, a brief, structurally gimmicky second half Q and A: Guy Who Hasn't Watched the Cardinals This Year Reads their Baseball Reference page, asks some obvious questions.
GUY: What's OPS+?
DAN: Let's... let's skip ahead a few questions.
GUY: Alright, alright. So Joe Thurston is at third, and he sucks on offense and is a second baseman, and Skip Schumaker is at second and he sucks on defense and is really a left fielder, and Chris Duncan is in left and he sucks—
DAN: For now. You're pretty smug for a fictional construct who just learned what OPS+ is.
GUY: Yeah, sure. For now. So why not move Joe Thurston to second, Skip to left, Dunc to, I don't know, Memphis? Barden or somebody can make up a lot of runs on defense by pushing Thirdston and Duncan off the field.
DAN: Because Skip is The Second Baseman. And at the risk of getting too Monty Python about it, he's getting better; his UZR/150 has continued its descent from -30, his offense has pushed him over replacement level, and his presence at second is no longer the visiting announcer running joke of choice. It's faint praise, but right now he's fielding like Dan Uggla, who is a real, live second baseman, and he's hitting a little better than most.
Knowing what we do now—that the top three guys on the Cardinals' depth chart at third would be completely ineffective for more than half of the season, that neither Duncan nor Ankiel would outhit the ex-fourth outfielder—it makes sense to align the defense that way. If nothing else it's more aesthetically pleasing to watch Thurston hit .200 at second, a light-hitting position.
But the Cardinals didn't know that, for whatever reason, and it's not like Schumaker's keystone adventure is totally without benefit. Skip and Thurston may both be one, one and a half win players at second, but Schumaker is the unknown quantity; there's more room at the upper end of his projections than there is for the one win fill-ins the Cardinals usually throw at second at the last minute. If his defense continues to improve, or even if it doesn't, he fills the hole, instead of patching it, while the Cardinals see what their high-risk second base prospects, like Daniel Descalso and Aaron Luna, do over more than one season. Skip's not young, but he looks like a useful part next year, which is more than can be said for the average Cardinals second baseman in July.
GUY: I guess. So, the vaunted La Russa bench. It's not looking good from here. That's a lot of sub-replacement-level at-bats. 734, to be exact, if you count from Ankiel at number nine all the way down to the first guy who doesn't suck, Jarrett Hoffpauir.
DAN: Yeah. Yeah, it's really too bad, because the Cardinals have finally behaved well, depth-wise, and gotten dumped on for their good deed. All those minor league depth guys, Stavinoha, Robinson, Freese, have finally heeded the call and stunk up the joint; only Hoffpauir has shown up, although since he is now a 2009 Cardinal Bench Player just give him a few minutes. This is no way to reinforce good habits; it's like Chuck E. Cheese offering to steal tokens from kids in exchange for good report cards.
Is there hope on the horizon? Only in the form of The Mean. Stavinoha's not very good, but he's probably not this bad—same for Tyler Greene and Brian Barden. Khalil Greene is a long shot, but even if he doesn't return his stint will become a smaller piece of the pie as the year goes on. And either Ankiel's hurt or my watch is stopped; whether it means he'll recover on the DL or over this time off, I don't know, but nobody's as bad as he's been in July, not even an injured Rick Ankiel.
GUY: Okay. So where to from here? Ludwick seems to have taken the Holliday talk to heart; he's having an alright year.
DAN: Only recently. But all it's taken is a remarkable start to July to push his OPS higher than Holliday's; it's amazing how much concenrated lost-season a half a month with a 1.200 OPS can pick up.
This is a team, as the best MV3 squads were, with a lot of easily definable holes. (It's not as good, but the shape is the same.) And if one must have a flawed contender, I think that's the one to get. Better performance from the sinkholes at third, one corner of the outfield, and the fifth member of the rotation—even if it's still not very good—will make the kind of major difference that a team of average players would need to hunt down Roy Halladay to find. Some of it will happen internally, as Ankiel or Duncan shake out positively or negatively and somebody replaces Todd Wellemeyer. Externally the DeRosa injury hurt, because regardless of whether or not it was worth the Indians' take it was a perfect move in this direction, making major improvements at third, on the bench, and in the outfield. If he can come back at full strength, it's a real patch on a lot of the Cardinals' worst issues.
This team can get better; more significantly for Cardinals fans wary of trading Brett Wallace, it doesn't have to blow up at the deadline to do it.
GUY: Who's Brett Wallace?
DAN: Try Future Redbirds.
Two: Recently SBN's central division writers—Your Host; Stephen Higdon at Crawfish Boxes; Kyle Lobner at Brew Crew Ball, Slyde at Red Reporter, Al Yellon at Bleed Cubbie Blue, and Charlie Wilmoth at Bucs Dugout—got together for an NL Central roundtable, moderated by Sky Kalkman of Beyond the Box Score. The second half was about, well, the second half. Here it is:
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): What surprising story lines from the first half of the season have shaped the standings the most?
Stephen Higdon (Astros): I think the thing that has by far shaped the standings and been the biggest surprise is the Cubs early season woes. I know a number of times at TCB, I have sort have marveled how the Astros, as terribly as they've played, are some how still somewhere in the NL Central hunt and it just doesn't make sense. The thing that has sort of been the defining element of the NL Central is inconsistency. No one has managed to eek out an sizable lead, nor has there been any really distinct separation of basement dwellers and contenders. While I doubt that it will remain that way through out the second half (as the BtB Power Rankings certainly indicate), the standings, as they are now, certainly make for an interesting July and Augustósomething I feel few would have predicted in March for the Central.
Kyle Lobner (Brewers): For the Brewers, three major disappointments and one major surprise have shaped the season. In the early going this season, Rickie Weeks was the straw that stirred the drink for the Brewers, but when he went down with a torn tendon sheath in his wrist, the Brewers were left with a hole at second base and in their leadoff spot. They've used no less than five players in the leadoff spot since, and have yet to find the answer. Across the bag at shortstop, J.J. Hardy's complete inability to hit has left the Brewers searching for hitting, which isn't a problem the team was anticipating. Hardy is hitting just .226 with a sub .300 OBP and limited power. Thankfully, his defense balances some of it out. Finally, the sudden and precipitous decline of Manny Parra left a major hole in the rotation that the Brewers weren't prepared to replace, but hopefully spending some time in the minors straightened him out.
On the positive side, the Brewers have gotten more than anyone could have asked for from Casey McGehee, who has gone from waiver wire castoff to NL ROTY candidate in about two months.
Slyde (Reds): I think the Cubs and Cardinals are the two surprise stories of the year for the NL Central. Personally, I didn't expect the Cubs to be as good as the media was anointing them to be, but I expected them to be a lot better than they have been. I think the injury to Aramis Ramirez really hurt them beyond what they probably imagined it would and the poor performance of Rich Harden has to be a surprise. The Cardinals are a surprise not necessarily because they are winning, but because of how they've done it this year. They were outstanding offensively to start the season, but have been carried by their pitching of late. I guess I should stop being surprised when a team with Albert Pujols does well, but I really didn't expect the Cardinals to be much better than a .500 team this year. Perhaps they'll fall back, but every time I think they're going to slip up, they seem to keep chugging.
Al Yellon (Cubs): The Cubs' woes are well known. Frankly, i put a lot of the blame for this on Jim Hendry, who, along with Lou Piniella, apparently decided that the reason the Cubs lost the 2008 NLDS to the Dodgers was that they weren't lefthanded enough. That wasn't the reason, but the Cubs dropped the popular and productive Mark DeRosa and added Milton Bradley, who has been horrendous most of the first half. Bradley's been a bit better lately, but Adam Dunn would have been a better free-agent signing. I didn't think this was a better team than last year's going in, so maybe it's not a surprise the Cubs are struggling, but I did expect better than .500 play.
Charlie Wilmoth (Pirates): I can't disagree with everyone who's been surprised by the Cubs (and I'd add Alfonso Soriano's poor start to their long list of troubles), but the excellent return of Chris Carpenter from injury, along with some really great performances by other Cardinals pitchers (Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro, Trever Miller) have to rank up there as well. I suppose surprisingly good Cardinal pitching barely qualifies as a real surprise anymore, though--it seems like every year they have a Kyle Lohse or a Todd Wellemeyer who comes out of nowhere.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which of those surprises are most likely to continue throughout the rest of the season? I.e. which are flukes and which are for real?
Kyle Lobner (Brewers): Well, obviously Rickie Weeks isn't going to come back. Aside from that, the Brewers hope J.J. Hardy's luck will even out, Manny Parra is straightened out and Casey McGehee stays hot. Of the three, McGehee is probably the least likely to maintain his current pace. If Manny Parra doesn't come back strong and the Brewers don't make a move, they could pitch themselves out of contention.
Al Yellon (Cubs): I'd have to expect that Bradley will come back to at least somewhat close to his previous performance. I doubt he'll come up to the standard he set with the Rangers last year -- much of which was accomplished as a DH -- but if he can even split the difference between 2008 and first-half 2009, it will help. I'd like to see the Cubs try him at leadoff, since he isn't driving in runs but is leading the team in OBA.
Charlie Wilmoth (Pirates): Casey McGehee is a huge fluke; his OPS right now is 150 points higher than any untranslated OPS he's ever posted at any stop, in the majors or the minors. He should regress enormously in the second half. I think Soriano will probably bounce back to a degree, but not as much as Cubs fans might hope--he has often looked very sluggish. Still, I expect the Cubs to recover somewhat and give the Cardinals a strong race. Aramis Ramirez's return will help a lot.
Dan Moore (Cardinals): The Cardinals have spent the bulk of the season with such luminaries as Joe Thurston and Skip Schumaker as the offensive second banana. With Colby Rasmus hitting home runs and last year's surprise, Ryan Ludwick, finally finding his bat, that won't be an issue. The Cardinals will have a hitter on either side of Albert Pujols in the second half, but it might still only be two of them.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): Which big local stories aren't getting as much attention from the national media? Should they be?
Stephen Higdon (Astros): I think the big story for the Astros has been Michael Bourn's outstanding bounce back at the plate. Although he is starting to come back down to earth in the AVG department, his near .360 OBP has been a true boon for the Astros and something that I myself would have never predicted. He has been fairly efficent on the basepaths and in spite of his UZR rating, most defensive metrics have him pegged as one of the better CF in the NL, and it is something you never hear mentioned in the national media. Not that I blame them because it's not like there is much of a reason to pay attention to things that are happening here in the Bayou City on the baseball diamond.
Other noteworthy tidbits would probably be the Astros tremendous struggle to keep the bullpen healthy and the way that LaTroy Hawkins has established himself as a more than capable back-end of the bullpen pitcher in the wake of Valverde's six week hiatus following a calf strain. If the Astros are going to be sellers at the deadline (something I don't think will happen given the bunched standings in the Central) I would imagine that Hawkins will be a prime target for teams looking for someone to help anchor their bullpen; yet he's someone who I hear nothing about, but maybe things will change as the trade deadline gets closer.
Kyle Lobner (Brewers): At the moment, I think the national media is too steadfast in the belief that the Brewers will implode if they don't make a move. Certainly, the Brewer starting rotation struggled through June and early July, but Manny Parra pitched well in his return from AAA and Dave Bush could be back on July 20. If Bush comes back strong, the Brewers would be back to their opening day rotation, which led them to a 33-24 start. They'll do their due dilligence on guys like Roy Halladay, Javier Vazquez et al, but there's a pretty good possibility that this team could contend for a playoff spot without moving anyone.
Al Yellon (Cubs): Best-kept secret in the National League is Randy Wells -- who the Cubs thought so little of a year ago that they let him go in the Rule 5 draft to the Blue Jays. Thanks, Toronto, for sending him back. He's made 11 starts, all but one of them good, and should have three more wins because the bullpen blew games for him (or the Cubs failed to score). He's a genuine Rookie of the Year candidate.
Slyde (Reds): I'm not sure if everyone knows about Joey Votto outside of his "stress-related issues." He's 36 PAs short of qualifying for batting rate stats, but if he did, he'd be 1st in AVG, 3rd in OBP, and 4th in SLG. Also there is the dramatic improvement to the Reds pitching and defense this season. I'd guess that most people still figure the Reds are an offense first team, but they've been getting it done more on the other side of the ball this year. They are middle of the pack in ERA, but given their ballpark, that is a definite step up. Of course, outside of Votto, they can't actually do anything positive on offense to take advantage of the better pitching.
Dan Moore (Cardinals): Rick Ankiel's not a national story now that he's fulfilled the movie narrativeóhe came back, he was very successful for a year, end of national media attention. But he's more or less fallen off the face of the earth this year; if the season ended today, his OPS would be 40 points lower than it was in 2000, his one brilliant season on the mound. He's stayed in the lineup almost by default, because Chris Duncan is hitting nearly as poorly and plays defense like a converted linebacker, but recently he admitted to a lingering injury from that brutal outfield-wall collision. It's a big local story, but it doesn't fit into the Rick Ankiel Narrative.
Sky Kalkman (Moderator): How about ending with one bold prediction we won't hold you accountable for if you're wrong, but we'll worship at your feet for if it comes true?
Al Yellon (Cubs): Alfonso Soriano goes on one of his patented hot streaks, carries the Cubs for a month, and they win the division by five games.
Stephen Higdon (Astros): Cecil Cooper gets fired if the Astros drop more than 2 of their first five series after the break...Manny Acta, keep your phone close.
Slyde (Reds): The Reds trade for both Matt Holliday and Roy Halladay. A confused Dusty Baker bats Halladay fourth and Holliday 9th. When questioned about it, he responds that he actually meant to bat Halladay 2nd so that he could bunt runners over and waste outs in front of Joey Votto.
Charlie Wilmoth (Pirates): Albert Pujols wins the Triple Crown.
Kyle Lobner (Brewers): The division comes down to the last week to ten days of the season, and four teams are within 5-7 games of first place when the season ends.
Dan Moore (Cardinals): Rick Ankiel comes out of the bullpen on the last day of the season, with Todd Wellemeyer on the ropes, and clinches the division championship with a 12-6 curveball across the outside corner.