This season has been a disaster for the Cardinals. There is just no other way to put it.
The team, which most projection systems expected to win in the vicinity of 87 games, sits at 44-44. That doesn’t make them the worst team in baseball, but by at least one Las Vegas oddsmaker, it does mean the Cardinals are one of the biggest underperformers.
But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the NL Central... and everybody sucks. Or at least they’re all losing games at about the same rate. The Cardinals are only two games out of first here at the All-Star break, though it’s worth noting they are also only 2.5 games out of last.
So if you are a glass half-full type, the gap the Cardinals would need to close to win the division is clearly within the realm of possibility. Unfortunately, the track record of teams playing like the Cardinals is not at all good.
The St. Louis Cardinals have made the playoffs 28 times in their history. How many of those teams were at or below .500 on July 10? Exactly two.
The 2001 Cardinals were 43-43. The 1964 Cardinals were 40-41. Both of those teams went on a hellfire run in the 2nd half, finishing 93-69. To reach that same record, these 2019 Cardinals would need to go 49-25 in the 2nd half - a .662 winning percentage.
The precedent outside the Cardinals organization is not any better. Since 1901, only 26 teams have even made the playoffs with a .500 record at this point of the season. And yes, it gets a little better in the Wild Card era, but even then - only 15 teams who were .500 at the break have even made the playoffs since 1994.
The Cardinals also sit 2GB of the 2nd Wild Card spot, which is likewise within the realm of possibility. But there are three teams between them and that spot, making it a steeper climb than the GB might suggest.
If we accept that historically, it is pretty rare for teams like the 2019 Cardinals to make the playoffs, the question becomes... is this team likely to be one of the exceptions?
One reason for optimism is that, as I noted a couple weeks back, the Cardinals are underperforming across the board. It’s easy to imagine a 2nd half where even just Goldschmidt and Carpenter perform as projected and the Cardinals are a better team, maybe even the team many projected before the season.
That’s one notion that John Mozeliak, the architect of this disaster, floated in a recent interview with Tom Ackerman. But even Mo asked “how long do you wait before you say this is the new norm?” Some of the underperforming Cardinals will probably return to their previous level, but all of them? Pretty unlikely.
As for the projection systems, they think the Cardinals of the 2nd half will be pretty much the Cardinals of the first half. Fangraphs projects St. Louis to finish with 81 wins, continuing to be a .500 team the rest of the way. Baseball Prospectus has them only the slightest tick better, at 82 wins.
While they don’t believe the Cardinals are very good, both systems do still see a shot at the playoffs, given the narrow margins in the division and the wild card. Fangraphs gives the Cardinals a 21% shot. BP pegs their playoff odds at 33%.
Use this information as you please in the 2nd half. If you’re a Hope Springs Eternal type, there’s enough of a window given the narrow margins in the races to do all your wishing on the Cardinals making a run.
But as I discussed with VEB’s own licensed counselor Andy Beard a while back, please practice self-care. If it becomes overwhelmingly clear the team is out of it, or if hoping for a playoff berth begins to cause you nothing but pain, please move on.
I would love to see a magical run like 2001 or 2011, but I’m not banking on it. And given the team’s atrocious record on player acquisitions over the last three years, as wonderfully documented here by Aaron, I’m frankly terrified of the kind of moves they might make if they feel like they can “make a run.”
What I would like to see is the team give some runway to young players - particularly in the outfield. I think it’s time for this team to go through a wholesale transformation, and I’d like to see them give real consideration to who here will be part of the next great Cardinals team.
That’s exactly what Mo suggests in that Ackerman interview, hinting strongly that Randy Arozarena will be given a shot soon, and now is the time for Tyler O’Neill to announce his presence with authority.
The odds are we will not see a playoff run over the remainder of the season. But maybe we will see a few high spots - a glint of the Cardinals future. At least I hope so.