So what now? The Cardinals division lead sits at five-and-a-half games over the second-place Pittsburgh Pirates. The magic number for the Wild Card is just ten games despite 25 games to go. Of course nobody wants to hear about the WIld Card. The Cardinals have lost three of four to division rivals and four of their last five games, yet the magic number for the division is just 21 games. Ben does an excellent job keeping everyone apprised of the division odds and scenarios and right now, despite the recent losses, the outlook is pretty good. Yet uncertainty reigns for the Cardinals over the final stretch of the season due to a roster in flux.
The Cardinals have not clinched, but the team can afford not to play their best over the final month and still clinch the division. The problem for the Cardinals is that they have questions that need answering over the final months, and they are unlikely to receive clarity on the issues they do have over the final month. The Cardinals can lose three of four games against good teams like the Cubs and Pirates and still be fine for the playoffs because they entered those series having won 9 of 11 games before that series began. They lose three of four games against the Cubs or Pirates a month from now and they are back home for the offseason.
Mike Matheny has been under scrutiny for some questionable decisions in the playoffs in past years, but this season he will likely face significantly more scrutiny as the Cardinals face decisions that will be second-guessed no matter which decision is made. The playoffs are a crapshoot, and the Cardinals are well on their way to another successful regular season, but MIke Matheny will be making decisions on starters and along with John Mozeliak, decisions on the roster that will be incredibly important for the postseason. Here at Viva El Birdos, we place a very large emphasis on making the decision correctly, as results are often unpredictable even when the best decisions are made. The Cardinals are about to make a bunch of decisions that do not really have a correct answer ahead of time because there are too many variables involved.
I went over my preference for the rotation just a few weeks ago, requesting that John Lackey be left out of the rotation as the Cardinals' other four starters are more talented and have had better years than Lackey this season. Since that time the Cardinals have moved around the rotation to give Tyler Lyons and Marco Gonzalez starts and given extra days off to Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha. The days off did not look to provide an immediate help as Martinez struggled in the opening inning and Lance Lynn could not make it out of the third inning against the Cubs.
Lynn's outing exposed a problem the Cardinals (not just Lynn) have against the Cubs in a potential matchup in the division series--a lefty-heavy lineup. While Lackey has made three quality starts in a row, the questions that follow him are still there. Lackey can be homer-prone, especially on the road, and Lackey has been bad against left-handers this season. The counter is that you can put Lackey at home where it is harder to hit home runs, but against the Cubs' lefties Lackey is vulnerable. We have seen the same from Lynn this season. He will have just a few more starts to prove he can be ready for the playoffs. Wacha has no real lefty-righty splits, and the lefty Garcia has had not problems with them. Martinez does have a split, but he is significantly better than Lackey or Lynn.
A few weeks ago, I said Lynn-Wacha-Martinez-Garcia to maximize home-road splits. The fact that two weeks later I am leaning toward Wacha-Garcia-Martinez-? and a player for Game 1 is no guarantee for the rotation shows not only how volatile the situation will be over the last few weeks, but that the decision will be virtually impossible to get right. We should not overreact to individual starts, but in a long season, determining the health and strength of pitchers is difficult.
That's just the rotation.
First base, which has been a problem for the Cardinals all season long, from the disappointing start of Matt Adams to the disappointing fill-in of Mark Reynolds to the disappointing start of Brandon Moss, finally looks to be in good shape as Brandon Moss went from potentially off the playoff roster and non-tender candidate to 2016 first baseman faster than any player I have ever seen. Assuming Reynolds makes the roster to provide some playoff punch off the bench, the infield is set barring a breakup of the Kozma-Cruz duo for the final bench spots. Garcia is getting a tryout now, but the odds of either one of those players sees a significant plate appearance in the playoffs is slim.
In the outfield, the Cardinals look like they will be treating the last few weeks of the season like a minor-league rehab assignment. Jon Jay, who has struggled all season long recovering from offseason wrist surgery had nearly 200 incredibly ineffective plate appearances before being shut down in late June. At the time, the Cardinals did not seem to suffer as Randal Grichuk was powering his way into the discussion for National League Rookie of the Year. Since that time, the Cardinals have given most starts to Tommy Pham with Stephen Piscotty, Jason Heyward, and Peter Bourjos all receiving brief cameos there. Jay spent just four games in the minors and will now have the opportunity to prove his wrist is healthy enough to hit consistently, a question that might not be answered in just one month.
That still leaves Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk as rehabbing sluggers who have yet to make an appearance this month. Despite playing decently, Tommy Pham already appears to be the odd man out. Bourjos has been relegated to late-inning defensive replacement, and it is not even clear whether the Cardinals will choose to make that role available to him in the playoffs. Is the playoff outfield Grichuk, Heyward, Holliday with Piscotty and Jay on the bench? If Grichuk can't go , but Holliday can, will Heyward be playing in center? If not, does that mean Jay plays ahead of Piscotty? I love to take a deep dive into the numbers and come up with what I believe is the best decision moving forward. This season, it is too late for that because of the uncertain health of many potentially principal characters.
Any sample size, whether from starters, relievers or rehabbing outfielders, is likely going to be too small to make a decent decision based on traditional statistics. We are going to have to do what we have always done and what we have often been accused of not doing--We will watch the games. Numbers can supplement our arguments, but numbers are not likely to do a great job in 50-60 plate appearances. Health, determining the rotation, and finalizing the playoff roster are the biggest questions that Cardinals have over this last month, those questions are related to one another, and we might not have the right answer to those questions. A lot can happen in three weeks, and it is possible that answers will seem easy by then, but odds are on the Cardinals facing questions and will have to make difficult decisions that will upset a lot of people, even within the organization. Second guessing is a given, but first guessing is going to be just as popular over the next month.