ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The Cardinals are an even 8-8 on the season, which is fitting given their Dr. Banner/ Incredible Hulk style of play.
At times they appear to be an offensive juggernaut, steamrolling teams and coasting to easy wins in the late innings. Other times, they seem incapable of scoring and unable to stop opposing teams from doing so.
Friday we looked at five concerns in the early part of the season, many of which inform those eight losses. But for each of those losses there is a win, and with that in mind, here are five encouraging signs for the Cardinals in the early going.
1.) Carlos Martinez has been every bit as good as the Cardinals hoped coming off his late-season injury. The 24-year-old is 3-0 with a 2.70 ERA and has thrown 20 innings in three starts. He’s allowed 13 hits and six earned runs, and has struck out 16. He and Jaime Garcia have acted as skid-stoppers in the back end of the rotation, and Martinez in particular has provided a reliable rallying point every fifth day.
He’s been efficient in his work, not yet crossing 100 pitches in an outing; an encouraging sign for a young pitcher that clearly felt the effects of a heavier workload last season. Martinez’s strong start has bought the Cardinals some wins while Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha work through their issues. His dependability is crucial to keeping St. Louis within striking distance in the Central.
2.) While the offense hasn’t been as consistent as some would hope, it’s clear this lineup has sharper teeth than last year’s. They’re second in the NL in runs (92), sixth in hits (145) and tied for second in home runs (23). Also encouraging is the increase in extra base hits. Last season, the Cardinals had 464 extra base hits, good for about 33 percent of their total. So far, 44 percent of their hits are for extra bases. If the team can continue to avoid the grueling task of trying to score with a station-to-station offense, everything gets easier. Deficits are erased with far less work, and leads are extended much faster. The bench is also a vast improvement over previous incarnations. Cardinal pinch hitters are leading the league with a .367 average and six home runs. Through a combination of young players, offseason acquisitions and platoon-based lineups, there’s far more game-changing power on the bench for Mike Matheny to use this season.
3.) Rookies have given the Cardinals a surprising boost in the early going. Both Aledmys Diaz and Jeremy Hazelbaker were penciled in as Triple-A players to start the season, and have arguably already won a handful of games for St. Louis.
Diaz is hitting .400 with an OPS of 1.192 and Hazelbaker, though he’s cooled considerably in recent weeks, is still hitting above .300 and slugging .628. The pair has combined for five homers and 15 RBIs, good for 21 and 17 percent of the team totals, respectively. How long this lasts is a subject for debate, as young players tend to fall off a cliff as the league adjusts to their success, but there’s little doubt the Cardinals would not have eight wins without them.
4.) Yadier Molina has rebounded impressively at the plate following his two thumb surgeries. With much of spring spent working back into game shape, there were justifiably some questions about what the Cardinal backstop would be able to contribute at the plate in the early games.
Molina put those concerns to rest quickly, belting five doubles and driving in eight RBIs in his first 59 at bats. His .339 average leads all catchers and his .848 OPS trails only Brian McCann. Once thought to be one of the lineup’s weak spots- at least until his thumb healed- the 33-year-old has proven to be perhaps the most dependable hitter in the order through the first 16 games.
5.) The bullpen remains among the league’s best. Cardinal relievers have an ERA of 2.53, which is third in the NL. They’ve thrown 46.1 innings and held opposing hitters to a .185 average. While there have been some struggles (Seth Maness’ start to the year has been uncharacteristically sloppy), the bullpen has been impressively stalwart. Kevin Siegrist (0.0 ERA, 0.45 WHIP) has continued to develop secondary pitches with success and newcomer Seung Hwan Oh, though the Cubs broke his scoreless streak with two runs, has been every bit as good as his international success suggested.
Trevor Rosenthal remains an imposing presence in the game’s final innings and Jonathan Broxton has proven worth the offseason investment. Even rookie Matt Bowman has been solid, allowing only one run over 6.2 innings. If the bullpen can continue its high rate of performance, the Cardinals will remain in the hunt while the starting pitching sorts itself out.