The last few weeks have featured some of the worst baseball that the Cardinals have played in a long time. Not only were they mired in a lengthy losing streak, but the games they lost were frequently and painfully non-competitive.
After winning four in a row on the road against the White Sox and Diamondbacks in late May, the Cardinals were 8 games over .500 and in first place in the division. The next two days split open the cracks that were increasingly evident in the club’s play. They lost the get-away game in Arizona 9-2 and the opener in LA 9-4. They then squeaked out a win in a John Gant start that Gallegos almost gave away.
Then wheels came off. They lost six in a row – five of them at home, including a soul-crushing four-game sweep by the Reds. During that stretch, the Cardinals allowed 69 runs to score. They only generated 34 runs. That’s a -35 run differential, which is pretty bad for a full season and stomach-churning over a small stretch of games.
It’s a good thing that the team played well the first two months of the season, otherwise, that stretch of injury-induced suckage would have buried them with little or no hope of recovery.
After a win on Monday against the hapless Marlins, the Cardinals are somehow still surviving. They are 33-33 at the 66 game mark. A .500 record in mid-June isn’t great. It’s also not damning.
Despite increasingly pessimistic playoff odds from projection systems (Baseball Reference has them at 4.3% as of Tuesday morning), the Cards aren’t out of this race yet. There is still a chance.
The schedule makers pitied Shildt’s M*A*S*H unit. The next three weeks of games should give the Cardinals the opportunity to at least hold firm if not pick up some lost ground both in the standings and in their run-differential.
Here’s the upcoming schedule with the opponent record listed as of Tuesday morning, June 15.
Starting with the current series against the Marlins, the club will play 19 consecutive games against teams currently under .500. 15 of those games are against teams that are 14-21 games out in their divisions: 2 against the Tigers in Detroit, 4 against the Pirates at home, 3 against the D-Backs at home, and 4 on the road against the Rockies.
That’s a collective winning percentage of just .378.
Their toughest opponent during this stretch will be the Braves, which the Cardinals will have to face on the road. The Braves, like StL, are underachieving.
Let’s play Nostradamus with that schedule. If the winning percentages of those teams hold up during that stretch, St Louis would be expected to win 9.33 games and lose 5.67 in the 15 games against bottom-dwelling teams. Conveniently, the Cardinals play 9 of those 15 games at home. Yes, the club has been playing badly, but it really shouldn’t be impossible for them to go 9-6 while facing most of those also-ran opponents at home.
If they can work a split in the 4-game series at Atlanta, then the Cards would go 11-8 (44-41 overall) over their next 19 games before heading on the road to division-leading San Francisco and Chicago (again). If the Cards lose both of those three-game sets, they will enter the All-Star Break having gone 13-12 in their next 25 games and will sport a 46-45 record overall with 71 games to play.
That’s not where the Cardinals want to be heading into the All-Star game. But, all things considered, I think they would take it! The Cardinals just need to survive the month of June to leave themselves in position for a second-half run when it will be easier for them to gather reinforcements.
Speaking of reinforcements, when is help coming?
Mozeliak and company kicked the tires on Shelby Miller last week. That seems to have stalled, though I’m not sure why. The organization could use depth at both the major league and minor league levels, and Miller would be a no-risk addition to the stable.
Then again, the Cardinals have had chances to bring Miller back the past few seasons as a depth player and they’ve passed each time. Some of that was because of the crunch at the top of the roster but maybe there’s more here. The Cardinals have an obvious need. Miller has publicly indicated a desire to come back. Still, nothing. It makes me wonder if the team believes he just can’t help them. Or it’s because Miller is holding out for a major league deal and the Cards won’t give him one.
Beyond that, there is the potential from a trade. Mozeliak continues to downplay that possibility, acknowledging the reality of the current market. There is no supply of available pitchers. Teams don’t want to admit they are out of the race. The few teams that are ready to admit defeat can also hold their slim supply of mediocrity (or worse) for a king’s ransom, knowing that only the truly desperate (see the Cardinals) would try to make a trade for a starter in June.
That’s one of the reasons that this stretch of games against worse-than-the-Cardinals competition is so vital. Trades aren’t quite so impossible in mid-to-late July. The All-Star Break isn’t until July 13th this year. That leaves just two and a half weeks from the Break to the trade deadline.
If the club can survive until July 15th, costs will fall. Supply will rise. The Cardinals might be able to grab a better starter at the same or lower prices than they can right now.
What about help from the minor leagues?
The Cardinals have made it clear that they want to leave their system alone for much of this season. They don’t want to trade out of it to patch an injury-riddled major league club in what was supposed to be a transitionary year. (Do you remember how many times we said that here at VEB during the offseason? It was easy to forget after the club traded for Arenado and fans started returning to the stands. Still, the self-imposed budget constraints always made this year a “hope for the best” kind of season.)
They also don’t want to force their minor leaguers up to the majors before they are ready.
I’ve seen increasing calls from Cardinals fans for the team to bring up Liberatore, Thompson and Gorman. I’ve even seen some begging for first-year-pro Alec Burleson and the much-maligned (but much improved!) Nick Plummer. In the heart of the summer, it’s easy to forget that most of those players did not play organized, competitive baseball last season. Many of them are just now tasting their first competition above A-ball levels.
I’m as aggressive as anyone when it comes to major league promotions, but these players need at least some chance to re-establish themselves in the game before facing the world’s best. As ready as Thompson and Liberatore looked this spring (and they did look good to the eye-test), it might have been overly aggressive to send them straight to Memphis, as neither pitcher has looked particularly sharp.
Gorman, meanwhile, is feasting on AA pitching while learning to play two new positions. He should head to Memphis soon. His performance is probably the best thing that’s happened in the entire Cardinals organization this season.
Suffice to say, it would be a mistake to promote any of these players and risk their development just to fill some gaps on an injury-riddled, .500 MLB club.
Fast forward to late July and maybe the club could re-consider that stance. By then, both Liberatore and Thompson will have around 12-15 starts apiece, though the Olympics throws Liberatore’s schedule into question. That’s around a half-season of minor league starts. It’s still less than they probably should have but it’s enough to justify a move, assuming their performance allows supports it.
The same is probably true of Gorman, though, last I checked, he doesn’t pitch. His usefulness to this club might be limited to injury replacement for Arenado or Goldschmidt. My gosh… let’s hope that doesn’t happen!
Speaking of injuries, the All-Star Break will come sooner than the likely return of the pieces most critical for a late-season run. It looks like Flaherty might be out until August. I will no longer mention
Miles Mikolas in articles, as every time I do the poor guy gets hurt again. Best if we just don’t count on [redacted].
Some help is coming, though. KK came back last night. Bader is going to be out longer than hoped, but still should be here around the Break. The Cardinals pitchers really need his glove. Whitley is throwing at Busch now. I know he hasn’t done much in his MLB career, but he should be able to throw strikes and get some outs. The club needs that.
If the scenario I describe above doesn’t work out, the Cardinals are going to have real trouble righting the ship later in the season. After the break, St Louis hosts the Giants and Cubs. Then they travel to Cincy and Cleveland. That’s a tough stretch. August provides a small reprieve, with several series against the Pirates, as well as KC and Detroit, but the gap might be too wide by then if the Brewers and Cubs continue playing well.
Then the schedule makers get their pound of flesh from the Cardinals. September is brutal. The Cards have three series against the Brewers in the final month and also get the Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Cubs, and Reds. The Cards have to be where they want to be heading into September because I don’t see how they will make up ground against some of the league’s best.
Add it up and this window is critical. The Cardinals have to survive over the next three weeks. If they do, they’ll have a slim chance. If they don’t, they’ll likely never be able to catch back up.