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Sunday Night Baseball: A chat with Buster Olney

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ESPN SNB reporter Buster Olney’s thoughts on the series, the division and the Cardinals’ plans moving through the season.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Chicago Cubs Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a series to forget for the Cardinals to this point, who still haven’t won a game at Wrigley Field in 2019. They look to avoid another sweep on the North Side tonight at 6 p.m. CT on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball (if you aren’t going to be glued to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals).

I had the chance to talk with ESPN Sunday Night Baseball reporter Buster Olney about the series, the division and the Cardinals’ plans moving through the season.

Two teams struggling to find identity

According to Olney, the best way to describe these two teams right now is “confused.”

The Cubs have had obvious struggles with their bullpen, with -0.56 Context Neutral Wins (Win Probability Added/Leverage Index) in 2019. They made a big move in attempting to fix this problem when they signed Craig Kimbrel.

They’ve begun shuffling the lineup once again, when Anthony Rizzo hit leadoff on Friday. A line like .233/.338/.455 is not the type of production they were expecting from Kyle Schwarber. After the power potential he’s shown, and the defensive capability he has, his wRC+ needs to be higher than 104. That the Cubs signed Carlos Gonzalez to a minor-league deals shows a willingness to shuffle things.

We saw first-hand yesterday what the Cubs could look like with a solid bullpen and production from Schwarber at the top, as he went 2-for-4 with a homer and the Chicago bullpen pitched three scoreless innings.

The Cardinals have been doing shuffling of their own. As of recent especially, we’ve seen some different lineup looks. DeJong moves up to second with Goldschmidt slotting into the third spot. There’s a struggle to find playing time for José Martínez. With Molina’s injury, we see (mainly) Wieters bouncing around the lineup card.

On the pitching side, a rotation that hasn’t lived up to expectations is getting tinkered with among the internal options. The hope that Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty were going to pick right up where they left off hasn’t panned out. Olney does believe, though, that Flaherty will put it all together and go on a terrific run at some point this season, with the talent he possesses.

The Central is still up for grabs

Three of six divisions seem all but decided, and it’s only June. The NL Central is not one of those.

It’s a tough division. Olney says that, while teams in other divisions get easy matchups—like how the NL East get to play the Marlins consistently throughout the year—there are no “gimme games” in the Central.

Even at the bottom, the Reds have a 28-35 record but a PythagenPat of 35-28. They have the fourth-best pitching staff in the major leagues, by fWAR. Pittsburgh has pieces like MVP candidate Josh Bell who helped them put on a solid run earlier this year.

Even at 31-31, the Cardinals are still less than five games out of the top of the division. That’s still extremely attainable, given the point of the season we’re in. Which leads to...

Deadline expectations

According to Olney, the Cardinals are absolutely going to add before the deadline, and can’t see them as sellers.

Olney sees the changes in the trade deadline structure, now with one single end date, creating two distinct tiers of trades. There will be more mid- to late-June moves than we’ve seen in the past, with teams who are bunched together trying to retool. Look for more salary dumps, including mid-level performers.

This gives those middling teams time to ship it all away in July if it doesn’t pan out. That’s when the real sale begins.

There don’t look to be many buyers in the starting pitching market, at this point really just comprised of the Cardinals, Yankees and Brewers. But there are already several teams who will look to be sellers, with half of the divisions seemingly settled already. Olney says this means patience is going to be rewarded for teams like the Cardinals who could try to pull a deal like the Yu Darvish trade, where the Dodgers were able to add for little cost.

The clearest fit seems to be Madison Bumgarner. He has less team control than pitchers like Marcus Stroman and Mike Minor and will cost much less because of it. Many see him as a solid fit for the Cardinals, especially in providing a veteran presence with postseason experience on a younger team. And there seems to be no doubt the Giants are going to move him before the deadline.

What about Keuchel?

According to Olney, it probably came down to Dallas Keuchel choosing where he wanted to play. He reportedly had many deals in the same price range as the one Atlanta offered, with no one really blowing the competition out of the water, and that gave him more of an opportunity to choose a best fit. That ended up being on a youthful Atlanta Braves team, where he already shares a rapport with catcher Brian McCann.