Monday, July 13, 2015
Despite the Pirates taking 3 of 4 in Pittsburgh right before the All Star break, the Cardinals have had an unbelievable first half. They are off to one of the best starts in franchise history, and on pace to win 100 games this year. At 56-33, they enter the All Star break with the league's best record. All of this with injuries to Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Jaime Garcia, Jon Jay, Jordan Walden, and several other players.
One of the main reasons for the Cardinals success is their pitching. They currently have the majors best ERA at 2.71. Even without Wainwright, the starting staff has thrived. Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez are both first time All Stars this season. John Lackey has had a solid season, and has emerged as the staff's veteran leader with the absence of Wainwright. Lance Lynn has followed up an excellent 2014 with another good year. All four of these starters enter the All Star break with sub-3 ERA's. Garcia has a 1.69 ERA in the 7 starts he's made.
The bullpen has also been very solid this year. Trevor Rosenthal has put up an All Star first half, blowing only two saves out of 28 chances. Rosenthal had a sub-1 ERA until Sunday night's debacle against the Pirates. With the exception of that hiccup, Rosenthal has been much improved this season from an off year in 2014. While Rosenthal had an off year by his standards in 2014, Kevin Siegrist had a nightmare season where he was hurt and ineffective in 2014. This season, the lefty has been dominant. Siegrist sports a 1.55 ERA in 45 relief appearances. The one two combination of Siegrist and Rosenthal has solidified the back end of the bullpen.
In the second half, there are some questions about the Cardinals pitching. Can the team rely on Garcia to be it's fifth starter? Garcia had pitched very well in 7 starts, but recently went down to a groin strain. Other options after Garcia include Tim Cooney and Tyler Lyons, both dropoffs. Another left handed prospect, Marco Gonzales, would be an option once his rehab is completed. GM John Mozeliak may seek out a trade for a veteran innings eater, but has been patient so far.
On the bullpen side, there are some depth concerns behind Rosenthal and Siegrist. Other relievers such as Seth Maness and Randy Choate have been inconsistent this season. The middle relief is definitely a concern right now. That could be alleviated once Matt Belisle and Jordan Walden come off the disabled list. Carlos Villanueva could have an expanded role in the second half, after pitching very well as a mop up reliever in the first half.
Offensively, the Cardinals have been improved from last season. There is more power and speed on this team than last year's edition. This still isn't the 1927 Yankees lineup, but the Cardinals should have several players in the 15 to 20 home run range. Improved team speed has helped this team score more runs than last season. They already have 42 steals at the All Star break, and should easily beat last year's measly total of 57 for the season.
The return of a healthy Matt Holliday would be a big kick start to the Cardinals. The team's offense hasn't been the same since he went on the DL with a quad strain. Matt Carpenter has fallen off since then, possibly in part of not have Holliday's protection. Carpenter had dealt with some exhaustion issues earlier in the season, and went into a slump during June. He played his way off the All Star team after a hot start to the year, but the four day rest might be the best thing for Carpenter.
Jason Heyward was the Cardinals big acquisition in the offseason. Heyward got off to a slow start, but has heated up in the last month. He has raised his average to .273, hit 9 home runs, and leads the club with 11 stolen bases. Heyward has also made several spectacular defensive plays, and has a cannon for an arm. The Cardinals are getting much better production out of right field than they did last year.
While St. Louis is getting better right field production, first base has been a black hole for the team this year. Matt Adams went down with a quad tear in late May, and he wasn't exactly tearing things up when healthy this year. Adams had a subpar .656 OPS at the time of injury, which is below average for a major league first baseman. Adams is expected to miss the rest of the season. This put Mark Reynolds in a full time role. Reynolds had played well as a part time player, but has been overexposed as a full time first baseman. Reynolds has a lot of power, but he strikes out a lot(84 K's in 234 at bats).
The Cardinals have also sparingly used Xavier Scruggs and Dan Johnson at first base, with neither being major league caliber starting first baseman. This could be a spot where the Cardinals seek outside help. There is still one more internal option before Mozeliak looks for a trade. Top outfield prospect Stephen Piscotty has been playing first base at Memphis, and could get a call up after the All Star break.
The team's middle infield as been outstanding this year. Jhonny Peralta won the fan vote to be the NL's starting shortstop in the All Star Game, and has been the Cardinals best hitter this season. Peralta leads the team with 13 home runs, 46 RBI's, and a .473 slugging pct. Kolten Wong made a strong All Star case, but was snubbed from the team. Wong has played outstanding defense, making several highlight reel catches. Wong has hit .280 with 9 home runs, 37 RBI's, and 10 steals. He has hit towards the top of the lineup most of this season, batting either first or second.
Jon Jay entered the season as the team's starting center fielder. Jay had hit .303 last season, and won back the starting job from Peter Bourjos. This year, Jay has dealt with wrist problems and struggled. Bourjos is a tools guy, but hasn't been able to put it together. He does play good defense and is the fastest runner on the team. Still, Bourjos has never developed into a consistent hitter. Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham have also seen time in center field this year. Grichuk has one of the hardest swings in baseball, and has amazing bat speed. He has hit 7 home runs, and could find himself as the regular center fielder once Holliday returns from injury.
As usual, the team's rock has been catcher Yadier Molina. His leadership with a young pitching staff minus Wainwright cannot be overstated. At age 33, Molina has a lot of wear and tear on him. He probably isn't going to be the hitter he was from 2011 to 2013, when he hit double digit home runs and .300 plus. Still, Yadi is batting .284, which is third on the team behind Holliday and Peralta. Molina's defense is still very good. He is good at framing pitches, and has thrown out 44% of runners trying to steal this year. In the second half, the Cardinals might want to play Tony Cruz more often so Yadi doesn't wear down late in the year.
There still are some question marks, but manager Mike Matheny and Mozeliak have to be pleased on how well this team has played so far this season. Especially with all of the injuries to key players. So far, the team has been able to take advantage of it's internal depth. One of Matheny's biggest strengths is his ability to work with younger players. However, Mozeliak hasn't been gun shy about making a move to improve the club at the trading deadline in the past. The NL Central is perhaps the toughest division in baseball, that includes the Pirates(who have the league's second best record) and an improved Cubs team. The Cardinals won't have the luxury of coasting to the division crown, which might be a good thing. They have typically played better in the postseason when they had to fight to get in there.
Thursday, July 2, 2015
Many predicted that the Dodgers would easily cruise to a third straight division crown in 2015, myself included. After all, it was an even year, and the Giants have had a trend of missing the playoffs following a World Series championship. Plus, they lost Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse from last year's team. The Padres made big moves that were supposed to thrust them into contention. The Dodgers had an eventful offseason that saw the additions of Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins, Yasmani Grandal, Brett Anderson, and rookie Joc Pederson. For a defending World Series champion, the Giants entered the season under the radar.
Besides losing Sandoval and Morse, the Giants also had concerns about their rotation. There were questions about age, injury, and performance behind postseason ace Madison Bumgarner. The injury concerns proved true with Jake Peavy limited to two starts, and Matt Cain is just coming back. However, the team had enough depth to overcome that. Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum, and Ryan Vogelsong have been serviceable starters this year. 27 year old rookie Chris Heston has stepped up to fill in, and has been the team's second best starter so far this season. Heston also recently pitched a no-hitter. Yusmeiro Petit is also an option if needed.
Bumgarner hasn't showed any ill effects over the postseason workload last year, and is poised to make his third straight All Star appearance. He has been the Giants stopper, and has beaten Clayton Kershaw twice this year. The bullpen has been outstanding as usual, and loaded with experienced veterans who have been around for several postseason runs.
The other question mark for this season was the team's offense. Losing Sandoval and Morse was a big hit for the team's offense. Sandoval had been known for his clutch hits, especially in the postseason. Morse had been one of the team's best power threats last season. Even worse for the Giants, Hunter Pence has been limited to 18 games this season. Pence is not only one of the team's best hitters, he is the heart and soul of the team.
The Giants offense has been better than expected this season, ranking fifth in the National League in runs scored. A big reason why is other players have stepped up. Angel Pagan has returned from injuries that ended his season prematurely in 2014. New acquisition Nori Aoki was batting .317, although he has recently been placed on the disabled list. Buster Posey is putting up another monster season, helping pick up his teammates.
That said, the Giants homegrown infield has been the key to replacing the lost offense. Each one of their infielders has an OPS over .800. Brandon Belt has been healthy this year, after being limited to 61 games last season. Belt hasn't had the breakout year that some of predicted from him, but has been a solid contributor to a winning team. Brandon Crawford debuted the same year as Belt did in 2011, and is likely to earn his first All Star spot this year. Crawford has been known for his glove, but has made a name for himself with his bat this year. He has already tied his career high of home runs (10) midway through this season.
Joe Panik solved the team's second base hole in the second half of 2014. The Giants faith in Panik paid off, and he made a terrific defensive play during Game 7 of last year's World Series. Panik has proven that last season wasn't a fluke, and is currently 7th in the NL in batting average. Casey McGehee was acquired to replace Sandoval, who left as a free agent to Boston. McGehee struggled early on, and lost his job to Matt Duffy; and has since been released. Duffy was a rookie bench player last year, but looks to be the Giants long term solution at third base. He has hit .297 with 8 home runs, and has outperformed Sandoval this season.
The Dodgers currently have a 2.5 game lead in the West. On paper, the Dodgers look better than the Giants. They don't seem to have the heart or desire of the Giants, though. Kershaw for all his regular season dominance, has gained a reputation as a pitcher who can't win the big game. That may not be fair, but Kershaw will have to win in the postseason to shed that label. Yasiel Puig is one of the game's most electric talents, but doesn't seem to be focused at all times. Still, the one two combination of Kershaw and Zack Greinke, combined with a dynamic offense; is one of the league's better teams. This should be an interesting race between a very talented team and a three time championship team.