In one of the first crucial series of September, the Rockies pulled off a four-game sweep over the Reds, who were the top team in the NL when the week began. Cincinnati's five-game losing streak could have breathed new life into the second-place Cardinals, had they managed to capitalize on their softer schedule, but they managed to lose two out of three against the Brewers, and with 23 games remaining, the Reds magic number is 19, lowest in the National League, and the Cardinals have slid to 5.5 games (and, perhaps more importantly, three teams) back in the Wild Card.
This is not an insurmountable margin, certainly, and the Redbirds got off to a good start in their weekend series against the Wild Card leaders, the Braves, who have also scuffled lately. But with San Francisco and Colorado playing well, the race for playoff berths has become a jumbled one and it is difficult to see a scenario where at least three of the six NL clubs who are ahead of St. Louis go into the tank. Also, sad as it is for me to say, it is hard for me to see this club as capable of mounting the late-season blitzkrieg necessary to overcome that margin. On May 3rd the Cardinals beat the Phillies to move to 18-8 and secure there largest lead of the season, five games. Since then, they are 55-57, a thoroughly mediocre team, and in recent weeks they've been even worst, winning only five of their last fifteen contests, including series losses to Pittsburgh, Washington, Houston, and Milwaukee. When you can't beat those teams in September, it's time to throw in the towel and start talking about what went wrong.
In March I believed it would be the Brewers who won the NL Central. In retrospect, it was one of my sillier predictions of the preseason. I did contend, however, that the Reds "could become a version of the '08 Rays" and, most presciently, I was compelled to predict that St. Louis would suffer from their apparent lack of depth. "Playing without a parachute at several positions" was perhaps the most succinct description of the Cardinals flaws.
What has happened has been, in fact, rather more egregious than I would have expected. The Cardinals key quartet - Pujols, Holliday, Carpenter, Wainwright, and Jaime Garcia - are all in the running for their league's highest individual honors, yet even they could not carry the lead balloon which is the remainder of the St. Louis roster. The front three in the Cardinals starting rotation have won 45 games. Nobody else on the St. Louis roster has won more than six. And, to the even greater humiliation of the remaining roster, that six-game winner is the Cardinals closer, Ryan Franklin.
On offense, St. Louis faces a similar problem. In limited playing time, Jon Jay, Colby Rasmus, and David Freese have all been respectable, but the rest of the Cardinals roster is filled with players with sub-700 OPSs. Second-baseman, Skip Schumaker (672 OPS), and catcher, Yadier Molina (655 OPS), have been disappointing, but not nearly so much as the rotating cast of career minor-leaguers, defensive replacements, and other team's crumbs who have manned the left side of the Cardinal infield. Following a season-ending injury to Freese, the Cardinals handed third to veteran utility-man Felipe Lopez (638 OPS). When he failed, they picked up Astros castaway Pedro Feliz (528). The result: since May 30th, the Cardinals have gotten one, that's right, one lonely homer from the hot corner. That actually looks fairly good compared to what they've gotten from Brendan Ryan (563 OPS), the St. Louis shortstop who holds the dubious honor of being the least productive player in the National League. Out of the 91 players who have been handed 400+ plate appearance so far in 2010, he ranks dead last in Hits, OPS, OBP, and SLG. He's 90th in batting average, 89th in RBI, and 87th in Runs and HR.
To sum things up, here's a look at the production the Cardinals get from 1B (a.k.a. Albert Pujols) compared to what they get combined from 3B & SS.
Albert Pujols: .311/.403/.590, 137 G, 522 AB, 99 R, 162 H, 36 HR, 102 RBI, 83 BB, 65 K
3B & SS: .241/.309/.334, 274 G, 1011 AB, 122 R, 246 H, 13 HR, 98 RBI, 91 BB, 189 K
In the second half things have gotten even worse for their offense. Since the All-Star Break, only Pujols and Holliday have more than 20 RBI. Only Pujols and Holliday have hit more than 3 HR. Only Pujols, Holliday, and Randy Winn have managed to keep their OPS above 780. It's not hard to imagine how opposing managers might strategize. Since the break, eleven of Prince Albert's sixteen homers are solo shots. Seven of Holliday nine have come with either the bases empty or just Albert standing at first base. Unsurprisingly, the rank first and second on the team in free passes. Clearly, opposing teams are not pitching to the dynamic duo in situation where they can put a game out of reach.
Sadly, the Cardinals now face a scenario not unlike that which derailed the once-promising Cubs, just over a year ago. Having won the division in '09, the Cards were heavily favored to win it again in 2010. Most believed that this was a team designed to go deep in October. At the Inside Pulse roundtable in March, I was the only one of six contributers who didn't pick them to win the division. This was supposed to be "their year." But their season was not derailed by particularly bad luck. They did not have a rash of key injuries. In the form of Jaime Garcia and Jon Jay, in fact, they even had a couple of pleasant surprises.
Basically, this team isn't good enough as it's currently constituted. With a payroll approaching $95 Million, that's a problem. John Mozeliak has some tough negotiations in his future. At the end of the season, Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan will once again be free agents. They've had an amazing tenure in St. Louis, but in recent years have had some vocal disputes with the front office. This offseason there will be openings in L.A., Chicago, and Atlanta, maybe elsewhere. Could they be persuaded to take on a new challenge?
In truth, piloting the Dodgers may be less challenging than nursing this Cardinals roster. If the Cardinals had gone to the World Series this year, as many expected, I think it is safe to say LaRussa and Pujols would have both taken extensions this offseason. But the failure to qualify for the playoffs and the uncertainty regarding LaRussa's tenure may convince Albert that he needs to test the free agent market in the offseason of 2011. For St. Louis fans, that's a nightmare akin to Lebron's exodus, and it would almost certainly precipitate the departure of Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter when their contracts expire the following year. The window is closing on this incarnation of Cardinals. In an effort to pry it open for a few more years, Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt are going to need to be willing to resort to drastic measure this offseason.