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The St. Louis Cardinals' identity problem

Inverted W?
Inverted W?

When you've invested no hope in the outcome of the game or the season, watching Gerald Laird hit a two-run homer can be the most depressing thing in baseball. There are certain things I'm still rooting for, things that make it worthwhile to watch the Cardinals play baseball—I'd like to see Albert Pujols lead the NL in home runs, and Jaime Garcia pull things back together, and Chris Carpenter go over .500, and Tyler Greene, uh, play. If someone out there's glad that Skip Schumaker went 4-4 and pushed his average over .300, well, I won't begrudge them that. 

But Gerald Laird hitting a home run to push the win expectancy from 0.7% to 1.6%—you have to have a better relationship with this team than we have to appreciate something like that. Right now this just isn't a fun team to watch when Skip Schumaker isn't hitting the mid-nineties with his fastball. All the weight of being an Important Franchise with tradition and Hall of Famers crawling all over it has crushed its spindly, gawky legs. 

Watching Albert Pujols play baseball, even when it's at its most fun and he's being ridiculous for a winning team, feels a little like a responsibility. You're watching to make sure he continues to be Albert Pujols, maintains the streaks, stays on the player-of-his-generation pace. When the Cardinals are losing and he's not being especially ridiculous every home run isn't exciting so much as it is a relief. He's leading the NL again—now I can exhale. 

Tony La Russa, too—when he's a genius and Skip Schumaker's a useful second baseman and the pitcher, who is some cast-off onto which Dave Duncan has retrofitted a malfunctioning Iron Mike arm, hits eighth, there's still the matter of his teams' weird intensity and paranoia to deal with. When you just have the paranoia and intensity it's not a trade-off a lot of people want to make. 

I'm not saying the Cardinals have to make changes in the offseason because it's not as fun to watch as some underdoggy Joe Maddon club, only that that combination of minimum-requirements competence and strangled, airless atmosphere is toxic to a fanbase and, presumably, a team. These guys need to get better, whether they get more fun or not. 

The other option is to keep pitching Skip Schumaker, because I really enjoyed that. Give me novelty (I wonder how hard he could throw if the Nationals put him in to pitch in a blowout, you know, just for laughs, lol, no big deal), or a terrible division, or else a team that turns that harsh competitiveness into a winning streak of its own and runs away with the Central. That's how I enjoyed 2007, 2006, and 2004-05 and 09, respectively; this team just doesn't have one of those angles. 

For your daythread enjoyment: I'm excited to see the Cardinals still talking Marc Rzepczynski up as a future starting pitcher, although the lack of a clear timeline has me more than a little worried. One of Lance Lynn or Rzepczynski seems like a reasonable choice to replace Edwin Jackson in the offseason, and the both of them together give the team a nice way to avoid rushing Shelby Miller while still building for the future.

What does the rotation look like in 2012, if John Mozeliak, shortly after declaring himself to be progressing nicely, is committed to a home for the incessantly second-guessed and you're given the chance to replace him at GM? Your decisions: To pick up Chris Carpenter's option ($15 million less a $1 million buyout) or not? To plug in which Young Pitchers? To do what, exactly, with Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook?

That aside, this is a team that needs to upgrade somewhere, and I'm not sure the difference between Kyle McClellan and Edwin Jackson's performance this year and Rzeplynnski in 2012 is big enough to count. The more you look at it, the harder it is to see them getting significantly better anywhere except shortstop, where Theriot and Furcal have given the team an 87 sOPS+ and a solid win below average on defense to work with.