Now the Cardinals have a 3-4 record in September, which is not ideal. They've done it by occasionally looking truly awful—Kyle Lohse comes to mind, though his five inning/four run performance shouldn't be cause to bring Jeff Suppan in to do the same thing—and mostly just looking listless. But listless is a comparative quality—they're listless compared to the team we expected and to some degree still expect this team to be.
For me any late-season swoon brings 2006 to mind, both the frustration from the collapse and the rationalizing after they managed to win after all. It's the rationalizing I'd like to do, a few weeks in advance.
The thing about the 2006 Cardinals, the saying went a few days after I was sure they wouldn't win the NLDS, and then the NLCS, and then the World Series, was that The Real Cardinals were actually a pretty good team. I'm not sure this was actually true, now that I look at it—the team that entered the playoffs added Chris Duncan, who was outstanding that year but did nothing in the playoffs; and got a very well-timed hot streak from Scott Spiezio, who was vital in the NLCS. Jim Edmonds was back in time for the playoffs, and pretty good, too.
But that second-half team was legitimately bad. Scott Rolen appeared to lose it for good, only to have that huge World Series and get jobbed by David Eckstein for the MVP vote; Preston Wilson became a vital cog in the offense; in the second half three Cardinals started and put up OPSes under .670, and all of them continued starting heading into the playoffs. Their third, fourth, and fifth starters put up ERAs of 5.18, 5.90 and 6.72.
They were better than that in the playoffs, which made the difference, but the ways in which they were better were either impossible to predict (Jeff Weaver?) or possible to predict only by saying, "2006 aside, this guy is pretty good, right?" (Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, Anthony Reyes.)
With the 2010 Cardinals I'm getting a little more confirmation for the opposite idea: The Real 2010 Cardinals might still be a pretty good team, but The Current 2010 Cardinals have more than listlessness and poor clubhouse chemistry to blame for their failings: They have problems.
In the second half Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, and Adam Wainwright have made 31 starts. They're 15-9 in those starts, and the team, thanks to Wainwright's late swoon, is 19-12. The rest of the Cardinals are 6-11; Lohse is 1-3 with a 10.31 ER in four starts, the Cardinals have been unable to avail themselves of Jake Westbrook's solid pitching, and the worst of the bullpen has been confined mostly to low-leverage innings.
It's not a great pitching staff, and it's filled with pressure points—Suppan and Lohse are a ticking time bomb and a bomb, respectively, and 58 relief appearances have gone to pitchers with ERAs over 5.00. It's better than the 2006 team's rotation, but then, this is a better team. The offense we saw in April could probably still win 90 games with this pitching staff, assuming it's prepared to lose every fifth one.
But the offense from April isn't around. Put aside the discretionary decisions, the really frustrating ones—the team has had to give 171 plate appearances to Felipe Lopez (.182/.287/.270); it's watched Colby Rasmus hit .229/.317/.376 over his last 126 plate appearances; it's lost David Freese and watched Jon Jay fall, luckily very slowly, back to earth. Worst of all, Albert Pujols has been great but not all-time-great—.309/.376/.590 can't carry an offense that's got two starters whose OPSes are lower than his slugging percentage.
The 86 plate appearances Aaron Miles got should have gone to Skip Schumaker (.763), Tyler Greene, or, I don't know, Ruben Gotay. Nick Stavinoha should have zero at-bats instead of ten. But as big a disappointment as this team has been on the macro level, a lot of the problems are more easily seen by drilling down than they are by making sweeping observations about the team as a whole, which at times has appeared to have a pathological aversion to winning streaks.
Albert Pujols has underperformed; Colby Rasmus has underperformed; Brendan Ryan has underperformed; Felipe Lopez had drastically underperformed. That's where all the runs have gone, and most of the wins. I'm sure there are reasons beyond random variance and decline at work there, but I don't think we have the means or the knowledge to get at them. The team just isn't as good, right now, as it was in April. The 2006 squad got a chance to turn the burners back on; the 2010 team could, but they'd have to start much earlier.