Earlier this month, I wondered if the St. Louis Cardinals needed to make a trade. At the time, the Cardinals owned a comfortable lead in the National League Central standings—seven games over the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates and nine and one-half over the Chicago Cubs. That was less than two weeks ago. In the intervening time, the PIrates have surged. This weekend, they won three straight wins over the Cardinals in Pittsburgh to close out the season's non-mathematical first half.
With 89 games down and 73 to go, the Cardinals are the proud owners of a 56-33 record. Their .629 winning percentage is the best in Major League Baseball at the All-Star break. The Kansas City Royals' 52-34 gives them a .605 winning percentage that is the American League's highest and second-best in baseball. After beating the Cards in three straight and winning 13 of their last 16, the Pirates are presently 53-35 with a .602 winning percentage that is the third-highest in the majors. The Buccos sit just two and a half games back of the Cards in the NL Central standings. If you're a loss-column watchers, Pittsburgh has two fewer defeats than the Cardinals.
Before the Cardinals lost a second consecutive game after holding a lead extra innings, general manager John Mozeliak appeared on KMOX radio. Mozeliak was his normal July self, dolling out some tight-lipped Mospeak:
(As an aside, if you're on Twitter, you should follow Mark Tomasik. Regardless of whether you're on Twitter, you should read his posts on Cardinals history at Retro Simba. They're very good.)
The Cardinals currently have Matt Holliday, Jaime Garcia, Matt Belisle, and Jordan Walden on the disabled list. You can already hear Dan McLaughlin, Al Hrabosky, and Ricky Horton mindless regurgitating the talking point that getting them back is like acquiring an All-Star or an ace or a setup man without giving anything up.
There is a cavalry on the DL. Some are better bets to return than others. Holliday seems the surest, followed by Garca (oddly enough). Walden is attempting a comeback from a serious shoulder injury and is an open question mark. We just don't know much about Belisle's forearm issue.
It's easy to envision the Cardinals adding a reliever if Walden or Belisle is not back by July 31. Manager Mike Matheny is clearly unenthusiastic about turning to Miguel Socolovich, Mitch Harris, Marcus Hatley, or Nick Greenwood. And understandably so. Navy-ness aside, each hurler is bad, a reliever of last resort at best. The problem is that when they are in the same bullpen as veteran mop-up man Carlos Villanueva and lefty specialist extraordinaire Randy Choate, the relief corps as a whole is hamstrung by the limited usefulness of its component pitchers. Matheny will need a reliever he can trust—in other words, a reliever who is decent—for the season's final two and a half months if Belisle and Walden are unable to make it back to game action and pitch effectively.
That leaves first base, where the Xavier Scruggs experiment, such that it ever existed has come to an end in order to start the Dan Johnson revitalization attempts. Mark Reynolds continues to be flat-out bad. After his two-homer game this weekend, Reynolds is still hitting at levels on par with 2014 Daniel Descalso: .222/.292/.389 (.298 wOBA, 89 wRC+). That simply will not cut it for an everyday or even primary MLB first baseman.
All of this was as true on Wednesday night after the Cardinals' thrilling comeback victory over the Cubs at Wrigley as it is this morning on the heels of back-to-back heartbreaking losses in Pittsburgh, even if the standings are tighter. Such brutal losses can turn a fanatic (and that's what we fans are) sour in a hurry. But doom is not upon us. The All-Star break is. So trumpeting about a "collapse," like the Post-Dispatch's click-thirsty headline writers are this morning, is silly.
Watch the Cards collapse in Pittsburgh http://t.co/c9PR0DPN7r— STL Cardinals News (@STLCardsNews) July 13, 2015
The Cardinals lost three straight games in July to the second-best club in the NL with over 70 games left in the season. The Cards aren't facedown on the track. Far from it. They have the best record in baseball. The Pirates are breathing down their neck as the clubs head for the 2015 finish line. If I'd have told you on the eve of opening day that this would be the state of affairs at the All-Star break, you'd have nodded your head. Why? Because the Pirates are a very good team. So are the Cardinals. And a Central race in the vein of those the Cards had in the early-to-mid Aughts with the Astros (and the last two years with Pittsburgh) was to be expected. Here we are, experiencing it with epic games in the humidity of July that feel more appropriate for the crisp October air. The heat is on in the Central.
SBN and FanDuel have entered into an exclusive daily fantasy baseball partnership. There are no MLB games today because of the All-Star break. I can't tell if they allow Home Run Derby game. If they do, I think I'd go with Albert Pujols just for old times' sake. Play FanDuel here.