An anti-climactic end of the regular season is generally not a good sign, indicative of a losing season and the onset of the offseason. For the Cardinals, their ho-hum final series is something more of an accomplishment, having clinched a division title despite the second-place Pirates winning 98 games on the season. Whether the Cardinals face the Cubs or the Pirates, they will be facing a team that has accomplished a lot this season and played the Cardinals evenly throughout the season. Both match-ups presents will present their own problems and opportunities for the Cardinals. Focusing only on the Cardinals, there are certain pivot points that will affect the way the Cardinals play, and have the potential to turn their series. Below is one big question, and four other ones that bear close monitoring.
Who Plays Center Field?
The Cardinals have had six players play center field and none of them received more than 200 plate appearances from the position. The two players with the most time there in Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos are not even locks to make the postseason roster. Jay has been given every opportunity to show he has returned to his solid 2014 form that earned him the starting job at the beginning of the season, but that Jay has yet to present himself, hitting just .210/.306/.257 for a 57 wRC+ and he has not been any better in September. Jay would seem to be a very poor choice for starts, but Mike Matheny has a history of starting favorites at unusual times, like he did last season when Pete Kozma started Game of the NLDS against Clayton Kershaw over Kolten Wong. Bourjos has long been an option only for late innings, never getting a real shot at starting despite injuries to pretty much everyone on the roster.
Randal Grichuk, who seemed to have the starting center field spot locked up before injuring his throwing forearm, is now uncertain to be able to handle the position adequately. Tommy Pham appeared to deserve more playing time after starting 10 straight games in September, reaching base 17 times in those games along with eight extra-base hits. In the last of those games, he struck out four times and the goodwill built over the previous nine games evaporated as he was benched for five straight games as the team tried to get Jon Jay going.
The most likely player to play center at this point has the best glove in baseball when it comes to right field. Derrick Goold, who does not say something without knowledge of the situation, had this to say in a twitter conversation about the potential center fielder.
Heyward in center changes the dynamic of the team. Heyward is so good in right field that he can play center field, but he is not as great in center as he would be in right. Heyward in center likely means the Cardinals are comfortable enough with two out of Matt Holliday, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty making starts in the outfield. Holliday is still just a few games back from his second quad strain of the season, Grichuk cannot throw with full force, and Piscotty suffered a horrific head injury against Pittsburgh just one week ago.
With Jay not earning playing time and no other player gaining the trust of the manager, Heyward in center deepens the lineup, and is likely a good sign that Piscotty is healthy as Grichuk and Holliday are not likely options for right field. That leaves Matt Adams/Mark Reynolds/Brandon Moss at first base. If Grichuk could play center or Pham had Matheny's trust, Heyward could go back to his favored right field, Holliday (or Grichuk if he is not in center) could play left and Piscotty could play first base. That is likely the ideal lineup, but it it is not clear how feasible or realistic that lineup will be.
Will Yadi Play?
Yadier Molina has not played since injuring his thumb on September 20 against the Cubs. Tony Cruz has had a few timely hits, but there is absolutely no substitute for the presence that Molina provides behind the plate. The question right now is if he can play. The latest news had Molina able to play with a splint. Whether that affects his ability to catch is the main question as little is expected of Cruz at the plate and Molina had not provided much this season. This is Yadier Molina's twelfth season with the Cardinals and the team has averaged more than 91 wins per season during that time, including four World Series appearances and two titles. Putting Molina on the roster comes with some risk. If he has a minor injury making him unable to play, the Cardinals leave themselves without a backup catcher. With a crowded bench a third catcher should not be an option. If Molina suffers a minor injury in the first few games, they will likely need to bring a different catcher, by rule losing Molina for an additional playoff series should they advance.
Will Cardinals' starters limit walks and home runs?
This season, the Cardinals have been one of the best teams in baseball limiting the home run. As a team, the Cardinal gave up just 123 home runs all season, second only to the Pirates. The Cardinals spacious ballpark certainly helps, but the Cardinals have pitchers who have done a good job suppressing homers. In a short series, home runs can turn a game and potentially the series, especially if there are runners on base--which leads directly to the other concern: walks. While John Lackey and Jaime Garcia have done a great job all season keeping walks down, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha have both exceeded four walks per nine innings in the second half. Anecdotally, there can be a tendency to get too fine, often when a pitcher does not have his best stuff and has concern about giving up damage. The Cardinals pitchers are at their best when they challenge hitters, and they will need to do so against either the Cubs or the Pirates, because those teams have the potential to punish pitchers who get themselves in trouble.
How will Adam Wainwright fit in the bullpen?
With Trevor Rosenthal and Kevin Siegrist likely manning the eighth and ninth innings and plenty of rest during the playoffs helping some concerns about overuse, Adam Wainwright's role is not yet clear. He looked good in his return to the mound and certainly has the experience for high leverage roles, but he also has not had to come in during the middle of an inning. Wainwright's return is fascinating, incredibly exciting, and really scary. A recovery expected to take 9-12 months took six. His presence on the mound will generate added buzz and fervor in situations already rife with tension. I don't think any one player on the Cardinals more encapsulates MLB's THIS campaign than Adam Wainwright getting big outs in the postseason after he was thought to be lost for the season.
Will Jason Heyward and Matt Carpenter keep it up?
The Cardinals have had a lot of balance over the past few years, but as Holliday, Molina, and Jhonny Peralta have declined or been injured, Kolten Wong has stumbled a bit in the second half and a youthful group of outfielders contributing small parts each, the Cardinals have been a bit top-heavy on position players. Jason Heyward and Matt Carpenter have been the Cardinals two best players this season and it has not really been close. Jason Heyward put up a great six-win season and Carpenter had five-win season of his own, but nobody else was within two wins of that pair. Neither player needs to do anything more than they did in the regular season, but Carpenter setting the tone at the top of the lineup and getting the wheels moving should be a key to the playoffs. Heyward making all of the plays in the outfield and contributing his typical solid offense are important on a team that has question marks in the rest of the lineup.
Remember to enjoy October baseball. The season is almost over.