It hasn’t been pretty for the Cardinals lately.
Pick a reason. A bad bullpen, a sputtering offense, and suddenly, even a touch of inconsistent starting pitching plagues St. Louis at present. With another drubbing at the hands of the Dodgers Tuesday, the Cardinals fell below .500 for the first time in nearly a month. Losing is becoming commonplace, and nothing indicates the Cards are close to pulling out of it.
Streaks happen in baseball, of course, good ones and bad. This losing skid doesn’t mean the season is over after 49 games, but it would benefit the Cardinals to address their issues promptly before the Cubs remember they’re actually a pretty good team.
The Cardinals were supposed to be one, too. And they still might be. But after it looked for a while like the ‘pen was the leading source for their shortcomings, it's becoming clear that a hapless offense is giving the relievers a run for their money.
Fretting over blown leads feels disingenuous when the bats don’t bother showing up. Beginning last Tuesday in LA, the Cardinals have gone 2-6, scoring just 22 runs in those eight games (2.75 runs/game). That’s a problem exacerbated by a lack of production with runners in scoring position, as Cardinal bats have been 9 for 51 (.176) with RISP in that stretch.
What has gone so wrong for the Cardinals offensively?
The problems start with a roster failing to produce the way that it was designed. Cardinals brass intended the offense to be… well, more exciting. Instead of plodding base running and a reliance on the long-ball, the new lineup was designed with on-base engines at the top. The average OBP last year for Dexter Fowler, Aledmys Diaz and Matt Carpenter was .381; that trio atop the order was supposed to reorient the way the Cardinals produced runs.
The theory: with Fowler and Diaz setting the table, Carpenter could further develop the power element of his game. Then others–Stephen Piscotty, Jhonny Peralta, Randal Grichuk–would provide the next wave, feasting on RBI chances.
It simply hasn’t happened. Piscotty has struggled (.690 OPS). Peralta was disastrous early, and has spent much of his season on the DL. Randal Grichuk is currently in A-ball.
The intended top of the order–the supposed on-base engine–hasn’t fared much better.
Thanks to struggles by Fowler (.314 OBP) and Diaz (.292 OBP), the strategy to get ‘em on, get ‘em over, and get ‘em in has again devolved into nightly ritual of awaiting the next Jedd Gyorko solo home run.
That’s barely hyperbolic: Gyorko, one of the few pleasant surprises offensively and the Cardinals' clean up batter most of the season, has eight home runs. Every single one of them has come with nobody on base.
For all the talk of change, the offense is pretty much the same as it was last year–except with less power. When you sacrifice power (Matt Holliday, Brandon Moss) to construct your offense around on-base prowess, and those individuals fail to reach base regularly–the results are going to be ugly.
When a team struggling to reach base can’t capitalize on the rare opportunities it does receive with ducks on the pond, it becomes downright hard to watch. That’s where the Cardinals are right now at the plate, and the team is desperate for some adjustments.
Lineup shuffling has to be strongly considered, even for the preconceived constants in the order. Whether he remains at leadoff or not, Dexter Fowler needs to be better, more consistently–his .228/.314/.419 line has been a real disappointment. Matt Carpenter’s .367 OBP is pretty good–but that’s not his role anymore; the OBP doesn’t justify the rest of his batting line (.226/.367/.440) as the three-hole hitter he’s being asked to portray.
A .226 average might fly for the team’s chief run-producer if he’s clubbing 40 homers a year and converting with runners on. Instead, Carpenter is a .272 hitter with 49 home runs the last two years. This season, he’s batting .154 with RISP–as the three-hitter. This isn’t a recipe for success.
Matheny could shuffle his lineup to reflect what the statistics seem to indicate: Carpenter is not performing in his prescribed role. It’s almost like he’s caught somewhere between table-setter and run-producer. If that’s the case, it would seem reasonable to move Carpenter into the two-hole and leave the primary responsibility of driving in runs to the boppers–of course, for that to work effectively, John Mozeliak is would have to have to get the Cardinals some boppers.
Truthfully, there's no quick fix or easy answer outside of a drastic uptick in performance from several players. Mozeliak’s offseason vision for what the Cardinals offense could be has not yet taken shape. There’s still more than enough time for it to do so, but the longer it waits, the further the Cardinals risk tumbling toward mediocrity for the second year in a row.