In welcoming the Padres to Busch Stadium Tuesday, the Cardinals embarked upon a stretch-run schedule that should, in theory, keep them in the mix in the NL Central. Only the Cubs and Brewers currently have winning records of the Cardinals’ remaining opponents this season.
After catching the Cubs in the standings for a brief moment a couple weeks back, the Cardinals had slid to 3.5 games behind Chicago heading into Tuesday. What better way to climb back into the thick of the pennant race than to face a glorified Triple-AAA squad, right?
Not so much.
With half of their lineup featuring names most casual baseball fans (and perhaps some hardcore ones) have never heard of, the Padres bludgeoned the Cardinals 12-4 in front of a sparse crowd. The bulk of the damage came courtesy of Yangervis Solarte, who went 3-5 with a two doubles, a homer, and six runs driven in.
“He had a good night,” Lance Lynn said of Solarte. “The best night he’s ever had on me in his career. I threw a couple good pitches that in the past, he didn’t hit. With runners on, he took good at-bats–better than he’s ever had–so maybe next time it’ll be in my favor.”
Sure, Lynn wasn’t at his best for St. Louis, but even his six innings of four-run ball should have been enough to give the Cardinals a chance to win. A bullpen meltdown drove the stake through the hearts of the Cardinals as Matt Bowman, Zach Duke and Josh Lucas combined to surrender eight runs in two innings to cement the loss.
Relief woes Tuesday furthered the general struggles of the pitching staff in recent days. The Cardinals haven’t allowed fewer than six runs since last Wednesday, a loss to Boston. Even during the back half of team’s eight-game winning streak earlier in the month, pitching was problematic. It’s been two full weeks since the Cardinals have surrendered fewer than five runs in a game–not a winning recipe.
“Pitching wins championships, so we’ve got to be better,” Lynn said.
That directive isn’t aided by the current health status of the pitching staff as a whole. Adam Wainwright and Trevor Rosenthal are both on the DL, with the prognosis on the latter seemingly trending down. Consider the potential need for an extra starter to replace Mike Leake in the rotation for the short-term, and the Cardinals are navigating a full-on arms crisis.
Shifting assets from the bullpen to the rotation, as will happen with Luke Weaver in Wainwright's absence, leaves an already unstable relief unit desperate for solutions. With his closer injured and the healthy relievers performing inconsistently, it leaves Mike Matheny–the man charged with deploying that unit in the most effective way possible–back at square one.
“Opportunities,” Matheny said after Tuesday’s loss. “Throw them in spots that they made not have had previously. Somebody’s got to take advantage of it and jump on it. Not necessarily defined roles at this point. Guys just going to have to pitch their way through and get outs, and it’s just going to be that way until it’s very clear what we’re going to do.”
Matheny hinted that potential reinforcements could be on the way again for Wednesday, as the Cardinals continue searching for the right mixture out of the bullpen. For this, there are a couple directions St. Louis could turn. One direction would be the same the Cardinals have tried several times: scrounging additional innings from minor league arms already on the 40-man roster.
In that category, John Gant tossed six strong innings for Memphis Saturday, and would theoretically be available to fill innings for the Cardinals Wednesday on three days rest. Other eligible names include Sean Gilmartin and Rowan Wick. Not appetizing?
The other direction would be bolder, and is arguably necessary at this critical juncture in the season: shake up the 40-man roster to bring in the most talented arms in the system.
Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson and even Sandy Alcantara make for attractive options to fill roles on the Cardinals pitching staff during a time when the big club is about out of answers. Flaherty could slide in the rotation, while Hudson and Alcantara could weaponize their best tools–a wicked slider and 100+ mph fastball, respectively–for use in the bullpen. For St. Louis to add any of the three, it would mean dropping someone from the 40-man. The Cardinals have been hesitant to do so recently, but those options on the 40-man haven’t panned out; ushering in the next crop of talent could be the last ditch move this team needs.
With all due respect to Mike Mayers, his inclusion on the 40-man doesn’t offer much value to the 2017 Cardinals. Gilmartin is probably a long shot to contribute, as well. Why be so protective of lesser talents when players with higher ceilings could possibly offer better contributions by taking their places? In some cases, the players would ultimately be outrighted off the roster without departing the organization. But even if these borderline guys deemed incapable of improving the Cardinals are claimed off waivers–it won’t be the end of the world.
The Cardinals are losing games without utilizing the full depth of their talents. It’s possible these prospects aren’t ready for big-league action, and it’s not out of the question that they would flounder upon arrival.
But the team is floundering as it is; might as well try a new approach.