Despite some roster frustrations, injury issues, and inconsistency, the Cardinals are well positioned to take the division. What needs to go right for that to happen? Here are six things.
By the time you read this the second half of the Cardinals’ 2022 season will be underway. As of today – Thursday, the worst sports day of the year – the Cards sit at 50-44, a last Sunday rainout with the Reds away from being in a tie with the Brewers in the NL Central.
The first half was, at times, frustrating and painful. And, at times, exciting and interesting. The result is an inconsistent team in a position to wrest the division crown from the equally inconsistent Brewers.
Why do I say that? Several reasons.
First, consider where the most recent full-season, non-COVID Cardinals teams sat at this point in the year:
2019 – 44-44 first half, 47-27 second half
2021 – 44-46 first half, 46-26 second half
Mike Shildt might not have been a master of philosophical agreement, but he sure had a knack for winning games after the All Star break! Recent history suggests that it takes a while for the Cardinals to sort their roster out. But once they do, they’re lights out.
Second, their competition isn’t very strong. Such a performance by the Cards would surely carry them past the equally inconsistent Brewers. Milwaukee’s pitching carried them to 95 wins last season and hid significant flaws on offense. A few cracks in their rotation and bullpen have exposed their weak lineup and stolen their upper-end win projections. The Brewers currently sit at 50-43, half a game up on the Cards, and on pace for just 87 wins.
Can we count on their slide continuing? Maybe. Maybe not.
Let’s assume the Brewers start getting things together in the second half and play closer to their pre-season projects. Let’s assign a somewhat arbitrary win total to take the ’22 NL Central: 92-70.
If we set that as our demarcation line, then the Cards need to go 42-26 in the second half. That’s worse than they’ve done post-break in the past two full seasons. But it’s still a 60% winning percentage.
Is that doable?
It’s not impossible. Pythagorean record takes a team’s run differential – runs scored minus runs allowed – and then converts that into a win-loss record. It’s not the most advanced approach to record projections but it’s fairly reliable over a full season.
The Cardinals’ current Pythag record is 54-40, four wins above their current total. Without anything going better for them in the second half, we should probably expect Oli’s club to win at a higher rate than they have based solely on their RS/RA, even with all that inconsistency.
The schedule is also a factor. The Cards’ remaining strength of schedule is just .453. That’s the lowest in baseball. The Brewers? .490. Both teams have a relatively cool path through the dog days of summer and will be able to rack up hefty win totals against weak NL Central competition. The Cardinals, though, have it easier than the Brewers,
Add it up. Their run differential points toward improvement. The schedule aligns in their favor. Still… 92 wins is a long way off.
They need to find something more.
And no, by nore I don’t mean Juan Soto. That’s not what this article is about, even if that’s all Cards fans want to talk about.
Instead, I came up with 6 (much less interesting than pondering a trade for a future Hall of Famer) things that the Cards need to go right in the second half for them to take the division.
Those six things don’t include the obvious. Like “Nolan Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt need to stay healthy.” Well, duh. Or “Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas have to remain highly effective.” Of course, they do.
For the Cards to reach my arbitrarily mandated 92 wins, the good things that have happened so far need to continue. And they need to find more good, too.
Here’s my list. Six things that need to go right for the Cardinals to win the division:
1. Steven Matz has to be healthy and effective.
Matz was set to make his return to the rotation on Sunday. That game was rained out, giving the Cards’ winter free agent acquisition that much more time to get ready for his return to action. Reports were promising based on the data from his rehab appearances. That’s good because they need Matz up to form right away and not spending a month shaking off the rust.
Based on his history – including his peripherals this season – there are a lot of reasons to believe that Matz can stabilize the rotation in the second half. (I wrote about this last week.) With one “#1/2” starter in Mikolas and a solid “#2/3” starter in Wainwright, they need Matz to slide into that #3 role they signed him to fill. He doesn’t have to be excellent. Just reliable. Filling that role over the next two and a half months would take a lot of pressure off the bullpen and less-reliable arms like Pallante, Hudson, and Liberatore.
2. The catcher position needs to not be a black hole of death.
Poor Andrew Knizner. He finally got his chance to show what he can do with consistent playing time when Yadier Molina hit the IL with … uh… 40-year-old-Hall-of-Fame-catcher-knee-syndrome? I think that’s the technical term. Immediately he fell into the slump of all slumps. Knizner’s wRC+ for June was 12. Twelve!
That’s the low point. In May it was 85. And in April it was 123.
I’ve openly questioned whether Knizner can be a starter-caliber hitter in the major leagues. However, I’m not even asking him to be that good. I think the Cardinals would be happy if he just wasn’t that bad.
If Kiz (and Yadi when he returns) can duplicate that 85 from May for the rest of the season, I’d take it. With the lineup as it’s constructed, Marmol doesn’t need much from the catcher spot. A few extra hits here and there at the bottom of the lineup could add up to a few more runs and a few more wins.
3. Tyler O’Neill needs to be in the lineup.
Speaking of runs, this club is a half-game out of first place while missing the production of their best player from 2021. Tyler O’Neill has had a frustrating first half. He’s missed time with several unfortunate injuries. When he was in the lineup, his performance was subpar.
O’Neill is healthy now and appears to be back to his old self. It’s only 65 plate appearances, but for June and July O’Neill had a .328/.385/.466 slash line with a 144 wRC+. That’s encouraging!
Even if O’Neill doesn’t return to MVP contention, his presence in the lineup makes a difference. He’ll always be a power threat. And his Gold Glove defense is something Yepez and Donovan simply can’t replicate.
4. Figure out the 5th rotation spot.
This one is closely tied to the first, but probably less important. If Matz sorts himself out and locks down the #3 spot in the rotation, that leaves the Cards with their top four rotation spots covered by a player who can provide decent value relative to expectations. Beyond that they have some decisions to make. Andrew Pallante’s K/BB ratio has been hovering in the “Danger Will Robinson” territory, but it’s improved a little lately, even though his ERA has climbed. With a 4.22 FIP and a 3.73 xFIP, he should be more-than-viable as the 5th starter.
Liberatore, meanwhile, has had his ups and downs but could be part of the conversation if performance or the schedule gives him the chance. The same could be said of Thompson, who absolutely needs to be with the club the entire second half of the season in some capacity.
Between those three the Cards can likely get enough out of the 5th starter spot to get by. To improve on their first half, though, they need more than “get by”.
This is why I would still prefer they go get a starter and preferably one who could sit between Wainwright and Hudson on the depth chart.
No, that’s not Patrick Corbin. Quit making every conversation about Juan Soto!
I’ve been eyeballing Noah Syndergaard. And Madison Bumgarner. Yes, neither is what they were but both are better than John Lester and J.A. Happ. Mostly, I think neither player will cost much in terms of prospects.
Which means they can save all their ammunition for dealing with the Nats, right??? Ok, now I’m making everything about Juan Soto.
5. Young players need to continue to make adjustments.
Young players (not named Juan Soto) are streaky. The Cardinals’ rookies got off to roaring starts. The league does what it does and struck back, quickly knocking the young hitters down a few pegs. What happens from here? The Cardinals don’t need Gorman, Yepez, and Donovan to produce with the likes of Goldschmidt, Arenado, O’Neill, and Carlson. They do need them to be solid performers that can stretch the lineup out. That’s not asking for much and they certainly have the ability to do just that. But… young players are streaky. Hopefully, they can time their down streaks so the Cards don’t have another two-week stretch like early July.
6. Carlson needs to find his power stroke.
The last one on this list is the least significant but it could make the most difference. Dylan Carlson needs to rediscover his power stroke. In the season of the dead ball, Carlson is slugging .410 one season after providing a .437 and 18 homers. His wRC+ is 111. It was 113 last season. He’s been just fine.
But he’s done all of that with just 5 home runs.
Carlson is not a huge power hitter but he should have more than this. ZiPS agrees. They have him with a 124 wRC+ and a .444 slug% in the second half with 7 homers. That might not look like a huge improvement, but that’s almost 3x his current homer pace.
Currently his HR/FB rate is just 7.1% after averaging over 12% in his first two seasons, including that miserable age-21 debut in 2020.
In other words, Carlson’s been just fine. And he should be quite a bit better.
After slumping horribly in April, Carlson bounced back in May with a 129 wRC+. He followed that with an incredible 163 for June. That’s probably his high point. But, again, he did all of that producing without hitting balls out of the park at his normal rate.
Since the first of May, Carlson’s overall batting line is .286/.361/.476 with a 139 wRC+.
With just 5 homers!
What happens if he continues to hit like that AND his fly balls start leaving the park at a more reasonable rate? Only good things, my friends. Only good things.
Carlson is probably the 4th best hitter in this lineup, when everyone is right. But, a fourth best hitter with a 139 wRC+ and over-the-wall pop? They’ll reach 92 wins with that kind of production! And he’s playing a really nice center field.
That’s all I’ve got today! Glad to be back writing after a few weeks of podcasting. I hope everyone is enjoying those. At the end of the day, though, this site is for writing. And that’s what I do best. Well… better. Or is it gooder? Something like that.
Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos! Enjoy the second half.