The Cardinals entered play against the Nationals on Tuesday night with almost exactly a month to go. The lockout extended the season into October. The Cardinals will wrap things up on the 5th. Counting Tuesday night’s match against the Nationals, the Cards have 29 games to go.
Right now, they also have a substantial lead over the Brewers. They entered the evening match-up 7.5 games on the Brew Crew. Fangraphs still has them with a 97% chance of winning the division.
Fans around the internet have noticed and “magic number” Tweets and memes have started to pop up. The Brewers are running out of time to make up the ground that they’ve lost.
The Cardinals can’t turn their attention away from the division just yet. We’ve seen miracles happen before. But they need to start thinking about where they want their team to be for a likely Wild Card round home series.
Here are five things that the Cardinals need to do to get ready for the postseason.
1. Get the rotation rested and in the right order.
The key to the Cardinals’ post-trade deadline success has been the stability of the starting rotation. They have four quality starters with Mikolas and Waino at the top, Montgomery surging, and Quintana more than a viable 4th option. Flaherty is like the gravy on the cake, with ace-upside from the 5th spot in the rotation.
It’s tempting to just ride these horses into Autumn. If the club wants them fresh and ready to advance in the postseason, they might want to consider getting them some rest.
Miles Mikolas has been mostly excellent, but some cracks have shown lately, particularly on the road. He also has 176.1 innings on the season after missing all of 2020 and only throwing 44.2 innings last season. He could use a little time in the pasture, so to speak.
I could say the same thing about Wainwright. Waino, unlike Mikolas, has been healthy and a workhorse. He’s still 41 years old. We assume health and production from him, even though history tells us to assume the opposite from a starter his age.
Montgomery and Quintana, on the other hand, still have quite a bit of mileage left on their arms. Quintana, not counting Tuesday, has only thrown 132 innings. Montgomery just passed 150. Flaherty is still stretching out and should have no restrictions at all.
What I’m suggesting is that the Cardinals get their rotation in the order they want and then get Mikolas and Wainwright some rest while sticking with that order.
Current rotation order: Wainwright, Mikolas, Flaherty, Quintana, Montgomery.
If the Cardinals make no change to their rotation and use a spot starter for the lone remaining doubleheader, they would enter the postseason in the exact order listed above. Waino would be up for Game 1. Mikolas and Flaherty for games 2 and 3. All of those games would be at home.
That’s already set up pretty well. Better, though, would be to pull Montgomery from his final start of the season. That would put him into the mix for the first series as well. I like the idea of having Montgomery and Flaherty available for a winner-take-all game 3.
That means getting Mikolas and Waino rest without losing their turns. How does the club do that? Simple: short starts. Let those two alternate 3-4 inning outings and full outings from here forward. With Pallante, Thompson, and Woodford available, plus Liberatore and a slew of relievers just a phone call away, they can rest those guys and not worry too much about the bullpen.
2. Get Dylan Carlson back into the mix as the club’s most-of-the-time center fielder.
It was less than a month ago that we Cardinals fans were talking about how Dylan Carlson’s emergence in center field made the Harrison Bader trade easy to digest. From May 1 through the All-Star Break, Carlson hit .286/.361/.476 with a 138 wRC+.
Then Carlson had about a three-week stretch where he was pretty rough. That just so happened to time out with Nootbaar’s and Dickerson’s hot stretch. What’s gone unnoticed is that Carlson, despite facing difficult playing conditions with lots of pinch-hitting and spot starts, has started to hit again. Since his 0-11 in Colorado, Carlson has responded with a 112 wRC+, buoyed by a 14.3% walk rate.
Don’t let the narratives get the best of you here. Yes, Carlson has struggled with his much-talked-about lack of exit velocity this season. But the results matter, too. There’s that very long stretch of All-Star level production from May through mid-July with a hefty slugging%. And there’s all of last season where he was an above-average hitter.
The point is that the sample sizes of Carlson sucking are pretty small. He’s just really sucked during them. But he does have extended periods where he was quite productive.
This isn’t just about Carlson, though. It’s also about Corey Dickerson and the consistency – or lack thereof – in his bat and glove. And Tyler O’Neill and his questionable ability to play center field.
You have to appreciate what Dickerson has done to resurrect his season (and career) in August. However, we should also recognize it for what it is. Dickerson had a 158 wRC+ in August built on a .489 BABIP. He didn’t draw a walk the entire month. (And hasn’t drawn one in September either.) Hot streaks like this can fuel a playoff charge. But how much do you rely on it? How long of a leash should Dickerson get if (when?) his bat goes cold?
O’Neill is finally hitting and Carlson isn’t displacing him in the lineup. The question is should O’Neill displace Carlson from center field? The defensive sample sizes are very small but so far O’Neill’s defense hasn’t translated well from left. In his career, O’Neill’s Success Rate Added – a Statcast stat that feeds into OAA – is +2%. In centerfield he is -2%. His Success Rate overall in center is only 78%. Carlson is considerably better at +3% Success Rate Added, with an 89% success rate and +4 OAA at the position.
Because of his splits, Carlson should still get time off against righties. Likewise, Dickerson can still get some time in the outfield against righties but the club should mostly stick with him at DH. I would like to see Carlson in center in about 65-70% of the Cardinals’ remaining games. That’s enough to keep his glove out there and see where his bat goes with more regular playing time.
3. Figure out where Juan Yepez fits into this roster.
Speaking of guys who were buried by a cold stretch (and injury too, in this case), everyone has forgotten about Juan Yepez. On the season, Yepez has a 111 wRC+ and 11 homers in just 229 plate appearances. When he’s dialed in, he has impressive power. A cold stretch in July followed by an injury has pretty much erased him from the Cardinals’ plans. Now he’s healthy and bombing at Memphis with a .281/.379/.579 slash line and a 150 wRC+ since his return to health. That seems like the kind of player the Cardinals could use.
Except that they activated him briefly and then sent him down immediately, causing them to have to hold him there for a few weeks. Meanwhile, the club is carrying the right-handed Ben DeLuzio, who has no chance of making the postseason roster and no future in the majors.
Yepez is eligible to return to the roster soon. The club should activate him when he’s eligible and then try to figure out where he fits in the roster. Believe it or not, I would suggest letting him take his turns as the DH against right-handers. Yes, right-handers. So far, he has reverse splits in the majors. He did the same thing in AAA last year, though less pronounced. He’ll have a hard time finding chances with Dickerson, Donovan, and Gorman also in that same role. But there should be spots for him.
Honestly, this is probably a situation where the hot hand plays. But, if Yepez can carry his production from Memphis here, he’s the hot hand.
4. Make a decision on Paul DeJong.
As you can see above, I’m having trouble finding plate appearances from productive players on the season, including Dylan Carlson and Juan Yepez. This team is stacked with good players and has a ton of positional flexibility.
That’s where Paul DeJong comes in. The Cardinals need to decide on what exactly he is. DeJong came back from Memphis hot. From July 30th through August 21st, DeJong had a 137 wRC+ and hit 5 homers. Since then, he hasn’t had a hit.
Right now, he would not be on my playoff roster. He doesn’t offer much offensively, and he can provide no defensive flexibility. At least not the way the Cardinals have chosen to use him. With such limited time left and so many opportunities that need to go to other players, the Cards have to decide what he’ll be for them. If anything. I don’t have any suggestions here. Mostly because I’ve never held out much hope that he can return to a productive role in the majors. They don’t need to release him, though. So, he sits and maybe spells Edman a little.
5. Settle on bullpen roles.
Lastly, the Cardinals need to settle a few bullpen roles for the postseason run. Most of that centers around lefty relief, with Thompson, JoJo Romero, Genesis Cabrera, and I suppose even Packy Naughton in the mix. In the postseason, Jose Quintana might also find himself available for the Wild Card round, with just three games guaranteed.
They should be able to find 2-3 arms from that group who can be pretty good. It’s a simple matter really. Pitch them. A lot. Find out who you can rely on. Rely on them.
If I was picking a postseason roster today, I would take JoJo and Thompson with me.
The right side is simpler. It seems like the Cardinals have allowed Hicks to settle into a middle-innings bullpen spot alongside Chris Stratton. Pallante is one notch ahead of them, as he should be based on his pretty incredible bullpen performance this season. Then there’s Gallegos and Helsley, both of whom are fairly well rested. That’s a pretty good right side of the bullpen!