After being swept out of Pittsburgh by the division rival Pirates, the Cardinals (0-3) head to Atlanta to face off against the Braves (0-2), with their top three starting pitchers—Jaime Garcia (Friday), Carlos Martinez (Saturday), and Adam Wainwright (Sunday)—slated to start. With the Cardinals receiving their second day off already this season (albeit this one is probably much needed, beyond just the required travel), Cardinals fans now must wait roughly 36 more hours before game one against Atlanta, subsequently being forced to stew over a lost series in Pittsburgh—a series in which the starting pitching looked more than beatable, the defense looked mediocre, and the offense struggled even to make contact.
The Starting Rotation
Before discussing the offense, I will first bring up a complaint regarding the current construction of the starting rotation. Frankly, it is unacceptable to not work on the alignment of your team's starting rotation during the middle to end of spring training in order to have your top three starting pitchers available for the first three games of the season. In a vacuum, being ready for the first series of the season doesn't necessarily matter, but when this first series comes against a formidable divisional foe—one that is projected to be in a heated race with your team again this season—it most definitely matters because, from a standings standpoint, a win in April is worth the exact same as a win in August or September.
I fully understand that Martinez had a delayed start to spring training (as the Cardinals did not want to rush him back from the shoulder strain he suffered late last season), but there was nearly a full month to realign the rotation for the opening series in Pittsburgh. With expanded spring training rosters and multiple back fields available for much more realistic bullpen sessions, properly setting up the rotation should not be seen as an impossible task. I also understand that the Cardinals likely want to keep close tabs on Martinez's workload in 2016, with the hope that he is fresh and available for any games played in October, but much more must be done than merely waiting three extra days to give him his first start of the season.
Three games into the season, the offense has compiled 116 plate appearances and has struck out 37 times, resulting in a strikeout rate of 31.9%. Of those 37 strikeouts, 16 of them (43.2%) have been of the "backwards K" (aka "looking") variety. What we have been groomed to believe over the past few seasons is that while the team may be lacking in true power, the void is filled (and exceeded) by the team's innate ability to make contact at a high rate. And this has been true as the offense has been much better than many give it credit, but with the only differences in the 2016 lineup from the 2015 one being a noteworthy subtraction (Jason Heyward), aging and ailing centerpieces (Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina), and health-related absences (Jhonny Peralta, Tommy Pham), many wonder what to make of the offense this season.
To put the 37 strikeouts in perspective, I looked back at the first three games in each of the last eight seasons to gather the team's collective strikeout totals. Please know that I would have gone back even further, but my computer and/or MLB Gameday was not working properly at the time, so I stopped at 2008. Below, thanks to ever-handy infogr.am, you will find a line chart representing how the 2016 strikeout total (through three games) compares to each season since 2008. Disclaimer: It isn't pretty.
No, the Cardinals did not add a "slugger" over the offseason, but given who was available and the relative price tags associated with each, that is probably fine. One must remember that if the Cardinals would have landed either of their top two free agent targets, many would have hailed the offseason as a resounding success, and yet, neither one is considered a "slugger" (especially considering David Price is a pitcher). The fact is that this offense does not need a "slugger" in order to be successful, but at the same time, they will need to limit their strikeouts. It is important to note the sample size that constitutes the stabilization point for an individual's strikeout rate (60 plate appearances). No hitter is near that point just yet, but it will definitely come sooner than you think.
In conclusion, we are dealing with only three games (of at least 162), all of which took place in cold weather and one being against Francisco Liriano, who has had documented success against the Cardinals for quite some time now. Thus, it is nowhere near time to panic (look close enough and you can find some coming up with conspiracy theories on Twitter), but the offense's contact rate will be one of the determining factors of this team's success this in 2016. That and the starting pitching, and thankfully, we will get to see what the top three are all about this weekend in Atlanta.
P.S. For what it's worth, since 2012 (Mike Matheny's first season as manager), the Cardinals are 13-25 (.342 winning percentage) in the regular season at PNC Park. Note: I originally had this record from 2013 as Matheny's first season, but in actuality, his first season was 2012, so I have since updated it. My apologies for the error.