The Cardinals currently find themselves atop the NL Central by a half game. To the credit of both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, the club finds themselves with 20 games left and a tight race to complete September. The offense has proven to be an unsurprising strength over the course of the year. The Cardinals rank 6th in park adjusted offense trailing five American League teams.
The problem has been the pitching. And while we all appreciate having those Honda's around for reliability, as the Cardinals approach the post-season, they're going to want a Ferrari. What does a Cardinals rotation look like heading into the post season?
The first starter is the obvious starter. Adam Wainwright has been nothing short of spectacular this year. According to FIP, there are only two NL starting pitchers that warrant mention as better than Wainwright. The first - Matt Harvey - won't be in the playoffs and is dealing with an injured elbow. The second - Clayton Kershaw - seems likely to win the Cy Young this year. Nonetheless, the Cardinals clearly have an ace heading into the post season that can match up against any opponent.
After that is where things get dicey. The Cardinals have two pitchers they can chose from to slot in after Wainwright. The enigmatic Lance Lynn or rookie Shelby Miller. From a strict FIP standpoint, these two are largely equivalent. The difference over the course of the season has been that Lynn has gone a bit deeper in games. Lynn has also exhibited a tendency -- though I hasten to advise against reading much into it -- to struggle through big innings this season. If you consider the bulk of the work, there's a case for either one but Miller would be my choice for second in the rotation. In either case, the Cardinals don't have a compelling option to use over Miller or Lynn unless they wanted to take a huge risk and start a rookie like Michael Wacha or Carlos Martinez. That seems unlikely.
For the opponents, the break down looks like this:
|Mike Minor||3.22||AJ Burnett||2.82||Mat Latos||2.94||Clayton Kershaw||2.37|
|Julio Tehran||3.77||Francisco Liriano||2.75||Homer Bailey||3.08||Hyun-Jin Ryu||3.24|
|Kris Medlen||3.70||Gerritt Cole||3.32||Bronson Arroyo||3.93||Zack Greinke||3.27|
There may be some minor deviations -- the Reds could go with rookie Tony Cingrani over Bronson Arroyo and slightly improve their statistical rotation -- but this is probably a good approximation for the opponents rotations in the playoffs. Outside of Atlanta, the Cardinals will be up against rotations that will be at least as good and arguably better in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and Cincinnati. The question will be whether the Cardinals offense is up to the challenge.
Part of addressing that challenge is finding a way to improve the chronically slumping Pete Kozma to something resembling a major league hitter. It will mean finding a way to cope with the loss of Allen Craig who may be back in time for the postseason. (That latter problem has a pretty straightforward answer but the start of Brock Peterson at first base is such a perplexing, La Russa-esque start that I worry a bit.)
The Cardinals have 20 games left in the regular season. They certainly want to win the division and avoid the one game playoff but there are dueling imperatives. They also need to get players like Yadier Molina, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday enough rest to be ready for the post season. They need to settle on the mix of Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma, David Freese and Kolten Wong. They need to have a bullpen that's ready to go with rested arms of Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica preferably.
The last 20 games will be important to make the final decisions. The Cardinals haven't clinched a spot in the playoffs yet but now is the time to start planning accordingly. There's an excellent chance that there will be baseball in St. Louis in October.