The Cardinals own the best record in the major leagues. They've done this by weathering quite a few slow starts among their position players. The starting pitchers picked up the slack and have been dominant. Shelby Miller has slotted in behind Adam Wainwright as a legitimate ace in his own right.
Just to gauge how crazy this start has been consider that among qualified starters, the Cardinals have four pitchers among the top 30 in FIP. Wainwright (2), Miller (10), Garcia (21) and Lynn (23) all make the list. (Jake Westbrook is #28.) That's pretty remarkable and has clearly been the fuel for the team's hot start.
Meanwhile there remains some legitimate questions among the rest of the club. Will David Freese regain his swing? How bad can Jon Jay's defense get? How much of Daniel Descalso does the club really need to see? Ty Wigginton?
With a start that the Cardinals have had, it's difficult to lock onto any one item and pretend that it would make a big difference. Easier would be to simply revel in their success. That isn't to say there isn't room for improvement. More to the point, there's a couple of players in the minors who are ready for their opportunity as well.
How long can the doghouse hold onto Ryan Jackson?
One of the enduring mysteries of the last six months has been the ascendency of Pete Kozma and the swift downfall of Ryan Jackson. Kozma's ridiculous and completely unsustainable 2012 numbers have moderated to a level far closer to expectations. The power has vanished this season and he's limping along with just enough offense to remain at replacement level. Kozma isn't the only player to look like this in the middle infield, however.
From 2010 to 2013, Daniel Descalso has been worth a grand total of 0.3 fWAR. A weak bat, plus slightly below average defense and the ability to stay healthy has created a place on the team for Descalso. It should be an eminently replaceable one.
Before the start of the season, Descalso projected to be a better offensive player than Jackson and Kozma. That seems less obvious after a little more than a month. Ryan Jackson is hitting .359/.438/.467 in Memphis. That line is unquestionably fueled by an unsustainable BABIP but the peripherals that Jackson is sporting are essentially in line with past performance. The walk rate has ticked up the power has ticked down. He's basically the same player he always was.
Given the anemia of Descalso's start and the very whelming aspect of Kozma's play, I remain interested on whether Jackson can do the super sub thing better than Descalso. The Cardinals are unlikely to make this change -- better the devil you know -- but, on paper, it's worth noting that Descalso has cost the team more than Mitchell Boggs who now resides in Memphis.
When does the big league club go back to two lefties?
After a season of bemoaning how lonely Marc Rzepczynski was as the lone lefty in the Cardinals bullpen, the Cardinals have recently consigned Randy Choate to the same fate. Rzepczynski finds himself in Memphis with Boggs and the Cardinals call up their sixth right hander in Seth Maness to take his place.
Almost any argument for a second lefty in the pen accepts the premise that there is a need for a second lefty in the pen. If your right handed pitchers are able to retire left handed batters or your left handed pitchers just aren't very good ... then you probably don't want two lefties in the pen.
That's not really the problem the Cardinals have. While Sam Freeman has pitched himself into obscurity in Memphis, two left handed starters have picked up where they left off. Tyler Lyons and John Gast are both pitching well in Memphis. Lyons has seen his strikeout rate dip this season but his overall numbers remain solid and in line with his previous efforts. John Gast started the season with 32 scoreless innings and the best strikeout rate since 2010.
Gast has the more impressive fastball and a little better stuff overall but Lyons has clearly better control of his arsenal. It's the first time since Jaime Garcia that the Cardinals have seen home grown lefties have sustained success in the minors that lets them project as major league players. (I was never a Sam Freeman believer after seeing him in Springfield.) Whether there's a spot on the club for them -- and whether that spot is in the rotation (unlikely) or bullpen -- remains to be seen.
Are the top Memphis prospects ready?
If you're looking for prospects in Memphis, three names stand out. Well, one name really stands out and then there are two other good prospects. Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Michael Wacha all constitute the upper rankings of Cardinal prospect lists.
Taveras is playing well, which, given his history, is kind of boring. With a slower than usual adjustment to the league, Taveras finds himself with a good but not elite power output and a good but not elite wOBA as a result. None of this damages the ranking of Taveras or his evaluation as one of the best players in the minors but there's little compelling reason to think a Taveras arrival is imminent.
Kolten Wong on the other hand has been off to a quite poor start. Wong's seen a modest walk rate plummet in 2013 to dangerously low levels. The case for Wong has always been one couched more in scouting reports than a compelling statistical case. More difficult to quantify qualities like defense and speed and baserunning are an important part of Wong's prospect resume. It's concerning to see his numbers dip overall but until the scouting reports start to turn, it's too early to get worked up.
Meanwhile, Michael Wacha has come up hard against the reality of professional baseball as a starter this season. Wacha's strikeout rates from 2012 as a reliever have fallen to a mediocre 5.31 K/9 in Memphis. It's a testament to Wacha's performance last year that he's mentioned in the same arena as Taveras and Wong a year after being drafted.
So for the moment, the Cardinals elite, blue-chip prospects have stalled a bit in Memphis. There's less heralded help to be found but the club doesn't have a player ready to come up that would radically alter the construction of the major league team.
Which, when your in first place with the best record in baseball, is probably okay.