ST. LOUIS– Just short of one month into the MLB season, the St. Louis Cardinals have already dodged a few hurdles and have stumbled on some others as the team sits at 12-11 entering play Wednesday on the cusp of May.
The Cardinals have gotten exactly what they expected when they acquired/fleeced Nolan Arenado from Colorado. The big bat. The Gold Glove defense. The infectious hustle and work ethic.
The club is in the middle of a 17-consecutive game stretch which will feature Andrew Knizner behind the plate for most if not all of it as Yadier Molina recovers from a foot injury. Wednesday, weather permitting, he’ll catch Johan Oviedo as the team experiments with a six-man rotation. After a rough start to the season that saw the Cardinals’ relievers like Giovanny Gallegos and Tyler Webb among others taxed in ways that brought back memories of what happened to Seth Maness, Matt Bowman, and Kevin Siegrist in their overused days out of the St. Louis bullpen, the starting rotation has stiffened during this most recent turn. KK Kim has returned from the injured list, and Miles Mikolas continues to work his way back. Alex Reyes has seized the ninth inning opportunity as the Cardinals continue to ease Jordan Hicks back into a post-Tommy John workload.
Tyler O’Neill, the outfielder who has battled injury and consistent contact in prior years, had done the same in the early going in 2021. He said after his return from the injured list last week from a groin strain that he was hoping for a bit of a reset offensively, and while noting a small sample size, that appears to be the case. He went onto the injured list striking out in half of his 28 total at-bats. Upon his return, in 12 at-bats, he’s struck out three times. O’Neill’s growth in that area will be something to watch, especially with the age-defying Molina and his team-leading .323 average, 14 RBI and team-lead tying 5 home runs on the injured list. While Manager Mike Shildt spoke early in the year of the benefits of giving opponents “a punch in the mouth” in the first inning by having Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado hitting 2-3 in the order, Dylan Carlson has fit right into the 2-hole and makes much more sense there long-term.
If Molina can pick up where he left off offensively, he’s still the best option to protect Arenado in the fifth slot. Paul DeJong has hit for home run power, tying Molina with a team-high 5, but has otherwise struggled, striking out roughly one in every three at-bats.
Shildt continues to play the matchup game when it comes to constructing the outfield picture on a daily basis, with Carlson as the everyday center fielder. With O’Neill’s return, the picture is crowded enough that Tommy Edman’s days in right field should be more limited as long as the group is producing. Harrison Bader’s return sometime over the next two months will add another piece to the puzzle to mix and match. The question to answer between now and the July 31 trade deadline will be if the sum of the parts is producing enough or if an outside solution will be needed.
Matt Carpenter’s struggles have been well-documented in recent years and over the past few weeks. John Mozeliak bluntly acknowledged that the team is running out of time in giving him opportunities to rediscover his old form. It’s hard enough for a struggling player getting regular at-bats to break out, but it’s even harder for someone coming off the bench. In most places, the travails of a left-handed bat off the bench wouldn’t merit so much attention, but after the time and money the Cardinals have invested in Carpenter for more than a decade, this will be another delicate situation to watch as the season moves forward.
The Cardinals have rekindled the spicy rivalry with the Cincinnati Reds in the early going, with Nick Castellanos playing the role of Brandon Phillips. At present, the Cardinals are a game up on the Reds. The Pirates have over-performed early, and are tied with St. Louis, but the question will be if they can hang in for the long haul or are destined to return to Earth. The Brewers have impressed early with pitching and are off to a 14-9 start to lead the division. The Cubs are currently in the basement on the North side of Chicago.