On Sunday night, the Cardinals will host the Pirates on ESPNs Sunday Night Baseball game of the week. The game starts at 7 pm CT, and airs exclusively on ESPN. ESPN Countdown will preview the game starting at 6pm with Adnan Virk, Tim Kurkjian, and David Ross. Kurkjian took time out of his schedule to answer a few of our questions about where the Cardinals stand and what they need to do to get better.
VEB: The Cardinals don’t have any more games against the Phillies. Can you see them piling up enough wins against the rest of the National League to get in the race?
TK: There’s still a chance for the Cardinals. I must say I’m pretty confused about where they are up to this point. I had them as a Wild Card team when the season began. I still think they can make the playoffs but a whole lot has to happen and quickly. They are gonna have to swing the bats a whole lot better than they are doing right now. Their defense, which seems to be better than it was last year, has to get better. That bullpen—which should be very good and really hasn’t been most of the season—has to get better also.
I have learned over the years to never discount the Cardinals because they always seem to find a way, but the last couple years they haven’t seemed like the same team for some reason. It’s a tough fight in the league now because the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are really good. At the moment, those are two Wild Card teams and they have a significantly better record than any other Wild Card team including the Cardinals.
VEB: One month from now, teams are going to be taking a stand as far as buying or selling, or even holding. Where do you think the Cardinals will be in a month?
TK: With the relative weakness of the division—and by that i mean the Cardinals aren’t as good as I thought they’d be and neither are the Cubs—the division is still up for grabs with Milwaukee playing better. A month from now i think the Cardinals will be in the race for the wild card and division.
When you are in the race these days, you can’t afford to not go for it. With fanbases like you have in St. Louis used to winning, when you have a chance to win, you have to keep trying to win--which means I think the Cardinals would be buyers at the deadline trying to find some help for the club. If a month from now they are hopelessly out of it—and i don’t see that happening—then they are going to have to be sellers. Even the Cardinals at some point have to acknowledge if it’s not going to happen this year, we better restock our farm system and trade along some guys who might not be part of the future.
This is when GMs earn all their money, right now: “Are win or are we out?” I think the Cardinals will still be in the race a month from now.
VEB: What do you see the Cardinals looking for? How can they get better?
TK: They need to get a hitter for the middle of the order. As good a player as jedd gyorko is, he shouldn’t be hitting cleanup for you because that means you are down a big bat in the middle. That’s what the cardinals need as much as anything else. They are going to need another bullpen piece which I didn’t think they’d need at the beginning of the season. It looked like they had plenty.
That’s where I would start: a big bopper in the middle and a bullpen piece and see where it goes from there. It’s been such an up and down season for the cardinals--starting out 3-9, then they had that great stretch, then they’ve got another difficult stretch--it’s hard to figure out what the Cardinals are doing. This next month will tell us all we need to know.
VEB: The coaching staff changes two weeks ago were seen by some as a bit of a warning shot to Mike Matheny given the sloppy play we’ve seen from the Cardinals the past few years. How secure do you think Matheny should feel about his role if things don’t get better?
TK: These are the Cardinals and they rarely do anything controversial or rash so i have to think Mike Matheny has to feel pretty good about himself. However, if this team continues to flounder--when I say that i mean under .500 a bit or just hanging around .500--thats just not good enough for this city and that organization and that team.
I think by the end of the year if they go two years in a row without making the playoffs, if they finish poorly, and it doesn’t show that it’s going in the right direction, then I wouldn’t feel so good if i was Mike Matheny at the end of this year. I think he deserves a full year to try and get this back together and i think he’ll get the full year. Something a whole lot better than this has to happen if he‘s going to feel good about things.
VEB: One of the major bright spots this season for the Cardinals has been Carlos Martinez, who has taken a big step forward this season. Where does he stand in terms of the best pitchers in the game today?
TK: He’s certainly one of the best when it comes to stuff and he’s had some starts this year where he’s just looked dominant. After his shutout a few times ago, I talked to a scout who was there who said it was the best he’d ever seen Carlos Martinez pitch, which is really saying something when you have stuff like that. There’s still a learning curve. He’s still young. Every once in a while he can still be a little bit erratic.
There’s no questioning the stuff. There’s no questioning the drive. I would say most people look at him and say he’s one of the best pitchers in the game.
VEB: Are there any matchups or players in particular that you are looking forward to watching in the Cardinals-Pirates series or on Sunday night?
TK: Andrew McCutchen. He’s really starting to swing the bat a whole lot better. With everything that went on last year, then with the offseason. And All the rumors early in the season, it’s nice to see that it looks like he’s getting his swing back to some degree. With 14 homer and over 40 RBI, he seems to be playing a little better defensively. I always keep my eye on him because there’s still a chance, I guess, with his contract situation that he could be traded by the end of the year. They can’t trade him if he’s playing really well, but that also might be the time you get the most for him.
VEB: How do you pitch him now? Like the guy up to 2015?
TK: I don’t think he’s that guy but he’s certainly better than the guy from 2016. It confused me how he could take such a drop like that and not look as athletic as we were used to seeing him. He looks a lot better his year. He’s got a ways to go to become the great Andrew McCutchen of old. Baseball’s a funny game. You lose it and find it pretty quickly, usually without explanation. I don’t know why he lost it, but I think he’s on the way to finding it again and that is a good sign for the Pirates.
Thanks again to Tim for taking some time out. You can follow him on Twitter @Kurkjian_ESPN