Today marks the start of the “second half.” The Cardinals have already played 94 games, so it isn’t a real second half, but the All-Star Break provides a mental breather—for fans and players alike. The Cardinals in particular have had the most eventful ASB the organization has seen in years. There’s a lot going on now and plenty yet to happen in the next few weeks; one can honestly say the end of July 2018 will decide the trajectory of the franchise. Let’s take a look at the topics to watch as we head into the final portion of the 2018 season.
Mike Matheny is gone and it truly feels like a fresh start for the organization. Matheny had plenty of troubles running a clubhouse and even more troubles as a tactitian; former site manager Craig Edwards wrote the quintessential case against Matheny back in 2016 and I can’t present it any better, so take a stroll down memory lane if you’d like. What matters now is that the Mike Shildt era has begun, and started off well with a win. (Mike Matheny won his first two games as manager, but, hey, that’s no fun to point out and it doesn’t fit our “good riddance” vibe at this point.) There will be plenty of time to discuss managerial candidates in the offseason, if Shildt doesn’t perform well.
The thing is, Shildt is a perfect candidate for the position.
Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch wrote an excellent profile of Shildt last year. Shildt spent time as a kid in the clubhouse of the team formerly known as the Charlotte O’s, around the time Cal Ripken Jr. was on the team. He was brought up as a coach in the Cardinals’ system, a scout before that. He’s a disciple of George Kissell. He’s forward-thinking and loved by the younger players in the organization due to his experience managing in the minors.
In just one game, Shildt already demonstrated that he’s willing to make more progressive choices with them team. He instantly implemented a lineup shake-up, batting Molina second, DeJong third, and Wong sixth. His reasoning was sound: DeJong did very well in the three-spot last season and he prefers a hitter with speed and high awareness in the six-hole. Dexter Fowler was given the start and showed he could do something with it. Miles Mikolas was pulled after four strenuous innings, essentially resulting in a tandem start, as John Gant pitched four innings before Jordan Hicks shut the door. It’s important to note that the game was before the All-Star Break and we don’t know if Shildt will have as quick of a hook when the games are flowing consistently, but hey, not leaving a pitcher in for the “win” is a start. Additionally, he used José Martínez as the first pinch hitter of the game, in the fourth inning—and it paid off. Shildt was quoted after the game saying, “Your spot might be the 4th, 5th, 6th inning for your best pinch hitter. Don’t let that slide by.” Holy Shildt, that’s refreshing.
Moreover, Shildt has already shown an openness with the media. His post-game press conference was candid and fun. He explained why he made his decisions in an open and honest way. He laughed and smiled. Shildt has already agreed to join KMOX every Sunday for the remainder of the season. He’s showing a willingness to be communicative.
At this point, the manager job is Shildt’s to lose. It’s exciting to watch a new manager take the helm, especially given the former skipper’s reputation with the fanbase and national pundits. What’s more exciting is that we’ll get to see Shildt really get started against our biggest rivals, on their home turf. Stlcardsfan4 wrote about things to watch as Shildt begins his managerial tenure in earnest.
A focal point in the local media, on many a Cardinals blog, and both regional and national broadcast booths, the redbirds’ offense has lacked consistency. It’s not that they’re tanking from the view of the surface numbers; the team’s 4.39 runs per game and 94 wRC+ have them ranked 13th and 16th respectively, in the middle of the pack. Limiting those numbers to the National League puts them in sixth place in both categories. The issue is that this offense wasn’t supposed to be in the middle ground. It was supposed to be dominant.
We’ve heard about the OBP machine for a few years now. Marcell Ozuna was supposed to be the power presence tying the lineup together. Instead, we’ve seen a batting order often featuring at least one or two struggling starters who were supposed to shoulder a heavy portion of the offensive performance. After a very slow start to the season, Matt Carpenter has been a revelation. By wRC+, he’s the 16th-best hitter in the league, tied with José Altuve. José Martínez has been a wizard in the box, but his defensive performance has made it hard to appreciate the offensive prowess. Paul DeJong and Yadier Molina have both contributed positive offensive value, but both missed significant time due to injuries. Beyond that, we’ve seen quite a bit of underperformance. Marcell Ozuna has dropped .230 from his 2017 OPS, currently owning an 89 wRC+. Tommy Pham, who sat in the top ten of the FanGraphs batting leaderboards earlier this season, now has a wRC+ of 99. Jedd Gyorko is also at 99, which is right at his career average, but not his St. Louis average of 112 in both 2016 and 2017. Kolten Wong is still a bit under his career average—83 compared to 91. Dexter Fowler still sits at a very, very low 59 wRC+.
All of that individual inconsistency has resulted in very volatile run totals on a game-by-game basis. In 2018, the Cardinals have averaged a change of ±3.35 runs day-by-day. The team has had a change of eight runs in final totals of back-to-back games just under 10% of the time this season. Lower that number to five runs and the number is right below 25%. It’s hard to win games with that level of inconsistency.
The second half will present a chance to correct the offensive arrhythmia, with hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller removed from the staff. Many following the Cardinals have considered Mabry to be the main issue—be those claims backed with insider experience or not. It isn’t hard to get excited over Mark Budaska, the man taking Mabry’s place. Buddha has long been known as the man who fixes the swings of major leaguers sent down to AAA and has served as the hitting coach of the offensive force that has been the Memphis Redbirds. It will be interesting to see him teaching consistently in St. Louis. If Budaska isn’t able to work some magic on the Cardinals offense, we may have to look further than Mabry when placing blame.
In his final five games before the All-Star Break, Fowler had a pretty solid showing. He went five-for-18 with two home runs, one of which was a grand slam, with the other being hit the day after Matheny’s firing. This seemed poetic for many Cards fans, as there has been plenty of talk about the relationship between Fowler and Matheny. Regardless of the intricacies, Fowler is on record saying he and Matheny had their “ups and downs.” Fowler had an OPS of .889 in those final five games and, though it’s an extremely small sample size, one has to be hopeful those results—coupled with a change in leadership—could result in a revitalized Fowler putting up a positive second half.
Ben Godar covered this section with his piece yesterday and all you need to know about this important series and its implications for the remainder of the season are written there. We’ll start that wild ride tonight at 6:05pm CT. The eight-game stretch, divided by a three-game set with Cincinnati, can make or break playoff aspirations and is undoubtedly the earliest indicator of if the Cardinals will buy, sell, or carry out some hybrid of the two. Speaking of which...
Front Office Direction
The season began with talks of a potential Manny Machado trade come this time of the year; a 48-46 record and a midseason firing of the manager put those thoughts to bed, even before the Dodgers locked him up. Though there are less than two weeks until the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, there’s still plenty of time to make some big moves. As Ben noted, the fact that the Cardinals will be playing the division-leading Cubs during most of those days makes it much easier for Mozeliak, Girsch and company to point the compass on buying or selling. In the wake of the Matheny firing, Mark Saxon of The Athletic tweeted that he believes the front office has desired seller status for years, hoping to stock up on young talent. There have even been multiple reports that the Cardinals could be shopping Carlos Martínez. There are no concrete indications that Martínez will be moved, but if it’s even being tossed around that the front office would trade a 26-year-old ace who’s under team control through 2023, that’s a big development. This team could look a lot different, for better or for worse, by August.
Pressure on Mozeliak
All of these issues build to potential storm clouds over Mozeliak’s head. There have been constant calls for Matheny’s firing since his hiring was announced. Though there have been fewer calls for Mozeliak’s, the president of baseball operations is now the only person who has been consistent throughout the past few years of poor performance, outside of ownership. With his comments in the post-firing press conference, President Bill DeWitt Jr. made it clear that .500 baseball isn’t good enough in St. Louis—so much so that a manager was fired mid-season for the first time in over two decades. I can’t see Girsch feeling the heat so much given how fresh he is in the general manager position, but Mozeliak is now next in line for the hot seat. We’ll see how much that influences his decision-making over the coming weeks.