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where is the club headed?

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as the cardinals start to regain some of the players that numerous DL stints have cost them, the team looks better positioned for the stretch run. the team will certainly look better once albert pujols and allen craig rejoin the team. still, we saw the return of nick punto and david freese this week along with a largely but not totally coincidental sweep of the orioles. more likely, the general ineptitude of the orioles' starters and a bout of good hitting from players like berkman and rasmus combined to give us the series. 

we continue to see a generally underestimated farm system continue to produce players from its depth. unfortunately, we are now past the "role players" level of the farm, and into the "replacement value" level. still, when the SIXTH pitcher called up from the farm this season (sanchez, salas - who did get some time last year, cleto, valdes, lynn) is someone of brandon dickson's caliber, the team is doing okay in terms of farm performance.

remember some of the depth pitching we have called up in past seasons? in 2007, we let kelvin jimenez pitch 42 innings. brian falkenborg, troy cate, randy keisler, andy cavazos, and dennis dove all got to pitch. of those pitchers, only keisler is still in pro ball, pitching at AAA for the dodgers organization. the other four had all washed out by the end of 2009.

the team is back in the same place as before; not a lock for a playoff spot and not out of the running. our weaknesses haven't really changed either: a weak middle infield, an underwhelming rotation that misses adam wainwright something fierce, and an unstable bullpen - albeit one now substantially improved by subtraction. 

 while neither of our left-handed relievers inspires much confidence, and there are arguments for jettisoning one or the other, i suspect that brian tallet and his creepy-guy-in-the-van-stache will be the next to go. i say that knowing that trever miller looks terrible out there. the lurking fact that miller has been this bad without giving up any home runs makes me concerned about what happens once some of those flyballs start turning into home runs (miller's xFIP 5.87 v. tallet's 4.81). i also don't care to look at any pitcher's line to see a K to BB rate that's less than one. still, it's hard to look at a guy like tallet with an ERA and an FIP north of seven and think that he'll stick with the club. at any rate, between two relievers who have unquestionably stunk up the joint, neither is the wrong choice to bump off the roster. if we had two reasonable left-handed relievers in waiting, i'd say both tallet and miller should go.

the upshot, looking down the road, is that nobody in the NL central looks to have as much value returning to their team in july and august as the cardinals do in craig and pujols. to the extent that we are just keeping pace right now, those two and any deadline acquisitions could provide that further boost to put the team ahead. i suspect that the division will not resolve itself until the last week of the season, and that the cardinals will be in the mix until the end. it is probably pointless, in such a close division, to predict a winner, but i still like our chances. a savvy deadline move could also give us a substantial edge.

on 7/2/2010, the cardinals were a game and a half behind the reds, with the brewers a distant third at nine and a half games out. the 2010 season, of course, ended with the reds winning the division by five games.

on 7/2/2009, the cardinals were tied for first with the brewers, with a close following of the reds two games out and the cubs two and a half games out. that season ended with the cardinals running away with the division, leaving the cubs out of the race in second at 7.5 games out.

on 7/2/2008, the cardinals were 2.5 games behind the cubs. the cardinals ended up an embarrassing fourth, 11.5 games out of the lead.

on 7/2/2007, the cardinals were 9.5 games out, and ended up finishing third, only 7 games out.

on 7/2/2006, the cardinals were up by a single game, and won the division by a game and a half.

all this just goes to show that the division is hard to predict at this point. in such a close race, almost anything can happen in the last half of the season.

i would like to close out these thoughts by pointing out this season's vindication of the general principle that games in april are just as clutch as those in september; had we not built up a substantial lead in april and may, the injury-hampered cardinals would be trailing the division substantially right now. instead, the division is wide open and the cards are well-positioned for the second half.