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The Collapse

Things are not going well, ladies and gentlemen.

MLB: San Diego Padres at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

In their last sixteen games, the St. Louis Cardinals are 10-6.

Let me repeat that.

In the last sixteen baseball games in which the St. Louis Cardinals have been one of the participating sides, those St. Louis Cardinals have won ten games, and lost only six.

If we were to extrapolate out that pace of play over the course of a full season, we would end up with something like a 101-61 record. It’s even a convenient number of games to multiply out; sixteen times ten is 160, so we just have to account for two extra games, and calling those down the middle seems sensible enough.

A 101-win pace is a hell of thing, wouldn’t you agree? I mean, sure, it’s not quite the 2001 Mariners or ‘98 Yankees or 2017 Dodgers, but 101 wins doesn’t take a back seat to nobody, no time, no how.

Of course, I think we all understand that we aren’t really talking about a team that is 10-6 over its last 16 games. We’re really talking about a team that won eight in a row, then gave half of it back in the next eight, going 2-6. That’s a much less encouraging narrative, though, and a much, much worse feeling.

And really, I think we all understand that even that, the ugly give-back-half-of-what-you-earned feeling, doesn’t fully represent just how dark things feel right now for the St. Louis Cardinals.

The San Diego Padres came to Busch Stadium last night, and they stomped our boys in red. Badly. Like 12-4 badly. Funny thing about that: the game was tied at 4 at the end of six innings. Obviously, when a score goes from 4-4 to 12-4 in two innings, things have gone badly wrong. And yes, things did in fact go badly wrong.

More than just last night, though, things have recently gone badly wrong for the Cardinals on a variety of fronts, and a season that already felt like it was teetering on the edge of a precipice is beginning to list further and further toward the moment when the balance point shifts and the whole enterprise falls, screaming, over the edge.

It really isn’t so much that the Cardinals got beaten last night. There are going to be nights in every season, even really good ones, where your top four hitters go 1-14 collectively, with two walks and six strikeouts. That shit just happens sometimes. (And yes, it does feel like weird things have happened to keep this club from scoring more often than usual this season, but that could just be a feeling.)

Actually, it might not just be a feeling; the Cardinals this season are eighth in all of baseball with a wRC+ mark of exactly 100. They are eighth in baseball in weighted on base average, at .328. They are fifth in on-base percentage, in a statistical dead heat with the Yankees, Rockies, and Nationals. They are dead center of the pack with a .431 slugging percentage, good for fifteenth in baseball. They’re sixth in walk rate at 9.3%. Think they strike out too much? Well, maybe they do, but pretty much every team does at this point; the Cardinals are right in the middle of the charts with a 21.6% K rate. So a club that gets on base at an elite clip, hits for average power, and strikes out right around a middling level? What would we expect this on-base juggernaut to produce in terms of runs?

Well, how about 591 runs, which is sixteenth in baseball? Fifth in on-base percentage. Eighth in wRC+. Sixteenth in runs. Baseruns thinks the Cardinals should be thirteen games over .500, instead of, you know, one.

In other words, it’s been a strange season, in addition to a frustrating one. Sometimes shit just happens.

The thing about where the Cardinals are right now, though, that makes this particular losing streak feel so damaging is how it’s happened, and what portion of the roster has failed suddenly.

It’s the pitching.

For much of this season, it’s been the Cardinals’ pitching, beginning with the starting rotation, that has held things together. Never mind that the offense has underperformed those peripheral-type stats; it’s okay, because the pitching has held it together. Night after night, the Redbirds’ starting rotation has held this ship to its intended course, with Carlos or Wacha putting up an outstanding start, or Lance Lynn bulldogging through, or Adam Wainwright or Mike Leake gutting out a tough performance, contributing five and a third quality innings despite maybe not having their best stuff on that particular evening.

As of right now, though, the Cardinals’ pitching is officially off the rails, and that is why, more than any other reason, we’re seeing the season potentially slip away as we approach the end of August.

Much of the Cards’ pitching woes probably could not have been avoided, but plenty could. The two prime culprits in last night’s bullpen meltdown were Matt Bowman and Zach Duke. Both of those wounds were at least partially self-inflicted; Bowman is tied for the major league lead in appearances, and every poster here could see fatigue coming for the Princeton Kid. Who couldn’t see the wall approaching, seemingly? That would be Mike Matheny, the brilliant ex-catcher who spent his entire career being lauded for handling pitchers, and apparently had all that pitcher-handling knowledge knocked out of his head alongside one of those concussions.

Now, admittedly, there is an aspect to Bowman’s horrible overuse that doesn’t fall on Matheny; early in the season, when Jonathan Broxton was still on the roster, and Kevin Siegrist was the dumpster fire that wouldn’t go away, and Brett Cecil was the dumpster fire you just paid $30 million to bring to your town, there were nights when it seemed as if there was nowhere to turn but to the young sinkerballer. But even as the bullpen has evolved over the season, and other options have presented themselves, Bowman continues to just get ridden into the ground. The organisation as a whole deserves blame for constructing a ‘pen as inflexible as that option-barren collection of crap we saw at the beginning, but Matheny himself deserves just as much blame for being unable to cope with anything less than an eight-man bullpen and still running it like a clown car.

As for Duke, he shouldn’t be on the field right now. Why? Because he had Tommy John surgery, which typically carries with it a twelve- to fifteen-month recovery period, ten months and nine days ago as of this morning. And it isn’t as if he just got on the field. In 2017, Duke has appeared in eleven games. He’s thrown exactly eight innings. And in those eight innings, he has an 11.4% strikeout rate, a 14.3% walk rate, has allowed 40% of the fly balls hit against him to leave the park, and is sporting a nifty ERA/FIP combo of 6.75 and 8.01. You think maybe he rushed back just a little?

The question, really, is why he rushed back. Was the organisation pushing him to come back faster? Was his field staff pushing him because they thought they needed him? Was Duke himself convinced he needed to get back on the field in order to reestablish some value before he hits free agency this offseason? All three seem like plausible reasons, and all three carry with them some very dark and unpleasant implications as to how and why things within this organisation have gone the way they have this season. I won’t speculate as to which reason I find the most plausible, but no matter which of the three you believe, the fact Zach Duke is pitching for a supposed contending team, basically having pushed his TJ recovery into the nine-month time frame, is utterly ridiculous.

The bullpen has three lefties currently, and it’s only that low because Kevin Siegrist was polite enough to get hurt. Again. What kind of bullpen carries four left-handers? The horrifically ill-conceived kind, that’s what. And again, I’m all for blaming much of these woes on Mike Matheny, as I think he’s about as bad as any manager we’ve seen in terms of handling a pitching staff and putting his players into position to succeed, but John Mozeliak and Michael Girsch have to take a lot of the blame on this one. This club’s bullpen was designed in an utterly asinine way from the very beginning.

The fact that Trevor Rosenthal went down was bad luck, pure and simple. But he was the one pillar really holding up an unsafe structure. Seung-hwan Oh going bad was another unexpected blow, and probably not foreseeable, at least in the way it’s happened. But bad things are going to happen. Well-built teams manage to roll with the punches.

The greatest structural buckling, however, is on the starting side, and while I can’t say I blame the construction of the rotation for these current struggles as I do in the case of the ‘pen, the cracks have been visible for quite some time now, and the organisation has been far too slow to address the problems.

Adam Wainwright is on his last legs, and yet has been allowed to take the mound in an obviously compromised physical capacity. I get that it’s hard to see your long-time ace coming to the end of the road, but believing Adam could continue to just beguile hitters with mid-80s slop and an eephus is faith-healer level shit. Mike Leake is desperately thin, lacks stamina, and actually admitted to still feeling weak from fighting shingles last year. Yet there’s been no attempt to mitigate his workload, and he’s told the press he has his own heath and workout program. Guess what? His program isn’t working. How in the hell does this organisation not monitor the health of their 80 million dollar investment more closely than this?

Did you know that Sean Gilmartin is still on the 40 man roster? Yes, that’s right. An organisation with huge needs in the bullpen and 35 lefty relievers already on the roster is still holding Sean Gilmartin for some reason. We couldn’t possibly use Mark Montgomery, or Jack Flaherty. Sean Gilmartin needs that roster spot. Or, hell, even without moving the roster around we could have seen John Gant up at the big league level to help soak up some innings as a reliever capable of stretching out for more than three outs.

The pitching, especially the starting pitching, has been the one thing that has consistently held the Cardinals up this season, and kept them in the race. The offense has been maddeningly inconsistent, failing to score at a pace their peripherals suggest they should be able to. The defense has been cleaner since the shortstop transition, but we’re still looking at one of the worst defensive center fielders in the game playing center field night after night while a plus center fielder plays next to him in left. (For the record, I’m not in any way attacking Dexter Fowler or the signing; I think Fowler has been a tremendous asset in the lineup, and I’m excited to see what he can do the next few seasons. But he shouldn’t be playing center field anymore, period.) The baserunning was apocalyptically bad early in the season, has improved under Mike Shildt, but still isn’t a strength. Certain Cardinals just cannot seem to accept they are not fast runners, and the manager cannot stop fantasizing about aggressiveness on the basepaths, even though he doesn’t have the team for it.

But through it all, the starting rotation has been the bulwark, keeping scores close and giving the club the chance to come back. Now, the teetering, creaking structure of the pitching staff is beginning to list and slowly collapse. Mike Leake looks terrible, but he’s not going anywhere, having a full no-trade clause and very little value on the market. Lance Lynn would be a better keep than Leake at this point, but not at the expense of the immensely talented and also very cheap arms the Cards have on the way through the system. Adam Wainwright is maybe going to live on a farm upstate, where he can throw curveballs all day to Carlos Beltran, and won’t that be fun?

The organisation has immense pitching depth, yet seems disinclined to use it. The offense has plenty of complementary hitters but lacks a central hub.

The recent run of success we saw from the Cardinals was certainly fun, and I tried to simply enjoy it, and not complain about the missed chances to reshape the roster by selling, of getting a jump on an offseason that will, by necessity, require huge changes to at least the structure of the roster, if not the structure of the philosophy by which the club is operating. But what we’re seeing now is the downside of that inaction. You do nothing and suddenly everyone starts playing well, and it can be fun, and certain people can crow about this is why you don’t throw in the towel when you’re still in the race. But you do nothing, and then certain lynch pins start breaking, and the structure collapses in on itself?

Well, in that case you’re probably going to get called on to the carpet to explain. And I really, really can’t wait to hear those explanations.

Honestly, though, in the end, the explanation is probably this: the 2017 Cardinals were flawed from the get-go, coming to the end of an era, and trying to get their bearings to go forward. They weren’t good enough to invest resources in trying to upgrade this season, and the way out of this quagmire was just a little too complicated, and perhaps a little too dicey in terms of P.R., for the front office to jump in with both feet. That doesn’t mean the season doesn’t feel like shit now.

Over their last sixteen games, the St. Louis Cardinals are 10-6. And everything is falling apart.