Monday, September 30, 2013

Cardinals clinch homefield advantage. Will face either Pirates or Reds in NLDS.

The Cardinals finished off their sweep of the lowly Cubs yesterday, winning 4-0 behind Joe Kelly.  As a result, the Cardinals edged the Braves by one game for the best record in the NL and home field advantage through the NLCS (the AL gets the home field advantage in the World Series, thanks to Bud Selig's stupid All Star game rule).

This caps off a strong finish for the Cards, who went 19-8 in September.  Getting home field advantage is huge for the team, as they went 54-27 (.667) at home versus 43-38 (.530) on the road.

First up for the Cardinals will be the NLDS against either the Pirates or the Reds, who will face off in a one-game playoff on Tuesday. 

The Cardinals may prefer to face the Reds rather than the Pirates, as they went 11-8 against the Reds and just 9-10 versus the Pirates.  However, the good news is that, if the Cards do have to face the Pirates, they will likely only face Francisco Liriano, who went 3-0 with a 0.75 ERA against the Cards this year, once during the NLDS.

In any case, we'll find out who the Cardinals face sometime tomorrow night and I'll give you a more detailed breakdown of the NLDS on Wednesday.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cardinals clinch division title. Battle remains for home field advantage.

The Cardinals locked up the division title tonight with a 7-0 victory over the Cubs.  Lance Lynn pitched 6 shutout innings for the win and will make the decision regarding the postseason starting rotation a difficult one for Mike Matheny.

After finishing second in the division the last 3 years, winning the division is extra sweet for this Cards team.  Its their first division title since 2009.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Braves won 1-0 against the Phillies to remain tied with the Cardinals for the best record in the NL and home field advantage. 

With two games to play, the Cardinals will send Adam Wainwright to the mound tomorrow and Joe Kelly on Sunday to try to win out and put the pressure on the Braves to keep pace. 

In any case, the Cardinals accomplished their biggest goal, winning the division.  Getting home field advantage would just be icing on the cake.

The St.Louis Cardinals Top 7 Prospects

For our September United Cardinals Bloggers project, we were asked to rank our Top 7 Cardinals prospects. 

For this, I eliminated any player who had exhausted their rookie eligibility (130 at bats or 50 IP) and based my rankings on this year's performance as well as the views of scouts from various websites. 

My picks are below.  Be sure to check out the United Cardinals Bloggers page for links to the other lists and a composite ranking.

1.  Oscar Taveras

Despite a season marred by injuries, Taveras remains the Cardinals top prospect.  He hit .310/.348/.471 with 5 homers and 5 stolen bases in just 47 games on the season.  He will likely head back to AAA to start next year, but should be called up by mid-season.

2.  Carlos Martinez

The Cardinals top pitching prospect, who has yet to use up his rookie eligibility, Martinez got a late start to the season due to visa issues, but put up an impressive 6-3 record with a 2.49 ERA in 16 starts between AA Springfield and AAA Memphis.  He also has a 2-1 record with a 5.47 ERA at the major league level.  He should battle for a rotation spot next year.  If he doesn't earn a spot in the rotation, he could become a late-inning guy in the bullpen.

3.  Kolten Wong

Although he hasn't had much success at the major league level (.151/.196/.170 in 53 at bats), Wong looked pretty impressive at Memphis, hitting .303/.369/.466 with 10 homers and 20 stolen bases.  It will be interesting to see how the Cardinals sort out the David Freese/Kolten Wong/Matt Carpenter logjam at second and third in the offseason.

4.  Stephen Piscotty

The Cardinals' "other" compensation pick in 2012 for losing Albert Pujols (Michael Wacha being the first), Piscotty put up some nice numbers in his first full season in the minors.  He hit .295/.355/.464 with 15 homers and 11 stolen bases and finished the year at AA Springfield.  He could earn a September callup in 2014 and be in the outfield mix come 2015.

5.  John Gast

One of the Cardinals less-heralded prospects, Gast was dominant at AAA Memphis to start the year.  He posted an obscene 1.16 ERA in 7 starts before earning a promotion to St. Louis.  He made just 3 starts with the Cards, going 2-0 with a 5.11 ERA, before a shoulder injury ended his season.  Its unclear if he'll be ready for the start of the 2014 season, but he should be a factor at the major league level before the year is through.

6.  Rob Kaminsky

I had a hard time choosing between Kaminsky and fellow 2013 first-rounder Marco Gonzalez for this spot, but eventually went with Kaminsky.  While Gonzalez has a higher floor than Kaminsky, Kaminsky has more upside and he showed off those skills in the rookie league striking out 28 batters in just 22 innings.  As a high schooler, he will likely move slowly through the Cardinals system and may not make the big leagues until 2016 (at the earliest).

7.  Mike O'Neill

He may not be a "sexy" prospect, but O'Neill is one of my personal favorites.  While he does not have much power (just 3 homers in 341 games) and his speed is just average, O'Neill has arguably the best "eye" in the Cardinals farm system.  This year he put up an incredible 91/37 BB/K ratio while hitting .314/.424/.369 between Springfield and Memphis.  His .431 OBP at Springfield was second only to Oakland A's "moneyball" prospect Anthony Aliotti (.452).  He should earn at least a bench role with the Cardinals at some point in 2014.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Has Michael Wacha pitched himself into postseason rotation?

The worst thing, for me at least, about living in the Chicago area is that I rarely get to see the Cardinals play (and I'm too cheap to pay for MLB's Extra Innings package).  So you can imagine my frustration upon learning that Michael Wacha had a no-hitter going and not being able to see it.  (Although, thanks to MLB Network, I was able to watch the last two innings).

Despite losing the no-hitter with two outs in the 9th (if only Wacha was a few inches taller), there's no doubt that Wacha is on a roll.  So much so, that the commentators on MLB Network were already saying he's a shoo-in for the postseason rotation.

In 5 September starts, Wacha is 2-1 with a 1.72 ERA.  Overall he is 4-1 with a 2.78 ERA.  If he is not one of the Cardinals top 4 starters (assuming the Cardinals use a 4-man rotation in the playoffs), then I don't know who is.

If Wacha does make the postseason rotation, then the most likely man out is Lance Lynn.  Adam Wainwright and Joe Kelly have been too good and Shelby Miller, who struggled in August (4.55 ERA), has bounced back nicely in September (2-0, 3.09 ERA). 

Lynn started off strong in April (4-0, 3.10 ERA) and May (3-1, 2.77 ERA), but struggled in June (3-1, 4.83 ERA), July (2-3, 4.84 ERA) and August (1-4, 5.84 ERA), nearly costing him his rotation spot.  He has bounced back in September (1-1, 2.66 ERA), but will it be enough for him to keep his rotation spot in the postseason.  Plus, Lynn has worked primarily out of the pen the last two postseasons.

There are other factors at play here, of course.  The Cardinals may not want to put Wacha in such a high pressure situation in his rookie year (see Ankiel, Rick) or they might just want to keep his innings down.  If that's the case, they may just decide to put Wacha in the pen and stick with Lynn in the rotation.  Or they could just go with a 3-man rotation. 

There is still some time for Mike Matheny and Co. to sort all of this out, but if it were up to me, I'd go with Wacha.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Is Trevor Rosenthal following Jason Motte's career path?

Stop me if you've heard this one before--guy spends most of the season as a setup man, then the incumbent closer struggles, opening the door for him to take over.

Back in 2011, that guy was Jason Motte.  This year, that guy appears to be Trevor Rosenthal.

First, a bit of history.  Back in 2011, the Cardinals were struggling to find a closer after incumbent Ryan Franklin imploded in April.  The Cardinals tried a few different guys, such as Mitchell Boggs and Eduardo Sanchez, before Fernando Salas stepped up and took hold of the job.

Salas was very good as the Cards closer, with only 3 blown saves in 25 tries through August 11th.  However, a couple blown saves in a row and some excellent pitching by Motte, who threw 33 consecutive scoreless innings, led manager Tony Larussa to make the change.

Motte earned his first save on August 28th.  He finished the season with 9 and was the Cardinals closer throughout the playoffs and World Series.

Fast forward to 2013 and it appears that Rosenthal is in the same boat.

The Cardinals lost Motte to TJ surgery in April and scrambled to find a replacement.  They tried Mitchell Boggs (again) before Edward Mujica stepped up and claimed the role.

Mujica was excellent for the Cards for most of the season, saving 35 games with only two blown saves through the end of August.  However, general fatigue has led to general ineffectiveness for Mujica and he has blown 2 of 4 saves in September, leading Matheny to indicate that he would go with a closer by committee.

Enter Rosenthal, who came on last night to record a 2-out save, the first of his career, and has the stuff to take hold of the role and never let go. 

Although Matheny is saying that he is going with a committee approach, I would be shocked if Rosenthal is not "the guy". 

The last 5 games of the season could be his trial period and, if he succeeds, look for Rosenthal to be closing in the postseason.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cardinals clinch playoff spot, but division title remains their focus

With the Nationals loss yesterday, the Cardinals officially clinched a playoff spot.  However, there was no celebrating as the team remains focused on winning the division.

The Cardinals were able to increase their NL Central lead to 2 games by taking 2 of 3 from the Brewers over the weekend while the Reds took 2 of 3 from the Pirates.

With 6 games to play, the Cardinals magic number to clinch the Central is 5.

First up, the Cards will have to deal with a Nationals team that is fighting for their playoff lives.  With an elimination number of 2, the Nats can ill afford to lose any more games, which should make for an interesting series.

In addition, the Cardinals are only 1 1/2 games behind the Braves for the best record in the NL and thus home field advantage.  But, first things first, the Cardinals need to clinch the division before they even think about that.

The Pirates and Reds get a little break from each other as they get to square off against the lowly Cubs and Mets, respectively.  If the Cards struggle against the Nats, while the Pirates and Reds are beating up on the bottom-feeders, things could get interesting in a hurry.

Obviously, there is a big difference between winning the division and the Wild Card, ever since the second Wild Card team was added last year.  Now the Wild Card teams play a single game elimination before the winner squares off against a division winner.  The Cardinals would obviously prefer to be in a 5 game playoff situation rather than a one-and-done game.

In any case, this is what baseball is all about.  Playoff chases coming down to the wire and fans on the edge of their seats.  No one will ever forget the final day of the 2011 season and, while I won't guarantee that this season will be more exciting than that, its shaping up to be another memorable finish.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Edward Mujica out as Cardinals closer?

After blowing another save last night, the Cardinals appear to be removing Edward Mujica from the closer role going forward.

Per Jennifer Langosch, the Cards will not use Mujica tonight and the closer spot will be "fluid going forward".  There are various candidates to fill the closer role (e.g. Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist) and game situations may determine who gets the call.

This news comes on the heels of Mujica's admission that he is experiencing "overall fatigue". 

After being lights out for the first 5 months of the season, its obvious that something was wrong with Mujica as he has posted a 9.45 ERA in September and blown 2 out of 4 save chances.  In 6.2 innings over 8 appearances, he has given up 15 hits, 2 walks and 2 homers. 

The Cardinals will likely try to give him a breather for a few days and then put him in some low pressure situations to see how he responds.  At this point, its about getting him back on track in time for the playoffs.

Although the Cardinals say that they will determine the closer based on game situation, Rosenthal is the logical choice to replace Mujica.  This final week may be Rosenthal's audition for the 2014 closer role (and beyond).

I think he will do just fine.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Matt Adams trying his best to make Cardinals fans forget about Allen Craig

With Allen Craig injured, the Cardinals offense has been sputtering.  Well, Matt Adams is trying to change all that.

Adams went 3 for 5 tonight, clubbing his 15th homer and driving in 3 to help lift the Cardinals to victory 7-6 over the Brewers.

He is now hitting .371 over his last 10 games with 5 homers and 12 Rbi's. 

Don't get me wrong, the Cardinals would still love to get a healthy Craig back, and quickly.  But, Adams has allowed the Cardinals to survive his absence.  The team has actually gone 10-5 since Craig's injury and increased their NL Central lead to 2 games.

With 15 homers and 48 rbi's in just 264 at bats, its would be very interesting to see what Adams can do in a full-time role.

I think the Cardinals will do everything in their power to give Adams that chance in 2014.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Cardinals offense sorely misses Allen Craig

The Cardinals offense is struggling.

Excluding the 12-run outburst on Sunday, the Cardinals offense has produced just 8 runs in its other 4 games, losing 3 of them.

Its obvious that the Cardinals need Allen Craig back and fast.

Since his injury, the team is hitting just .253 and, although they have had a few outbursts with two 12-run games and a 9 game, the team is averaging just 3 runs a game (excluding those 3 big games).

That's not to blame Matt Adams, Craig's replacement, for the team's struggles on offense.  Adams has hit .289 with 3 homers and 6 rbi's in 11 games since Craig's injury, however, no one player can replace Craig's clutch hitting.

Craig is hitting an astounding .454 with RISP this year, which leads all of baseball.  In 152 plate appearance with a RISP, Craig has driven in 83 runs (including 4 homers).  That is an incredible rate of success.

It hasn't helped that two of the Cardinals big bats, Carlos Beltran (.189) and Yadier Molina (.250, but just .148 excluding his 4 for 5 performance on Sunday) have not been hitting.

The Cardinals have been a feast or famine team all season, scoring 7 or more runs in 38 games.  Their only loss when scoring 7 or more runs, came back on April 3rd when they lost 10-9 against the Diamondbacks.

The Cardinals lead the NL in run differential, with 155 more runs scored than given up, yet they are tied in the NL Central with the Pirates, who have the smallest run differential (44) of all of the NL contenders.

As to Craig, his return is still up in the air.  He was put in a walking boot (again) last Thursday, which he was supposed to keep on "for a week or so".  Even if he gets it off this week, its unclear how long it will take him to be game ready.

For now, the Cardinals have to keep plugging along and try to muster some offense without him. 

Cardinals cannot shake the pesky Pirates and Reds

After sweeping the Pirates in a weekend series on September 6-8, the Cardinals held a 1.5 game lead on both the Pirates and Reds heading into a home stretch that favored the Redbirds.

However, the Pirates have proved that they will not go quietly into that good night, as they have proceeded to go 6-2 since then, while the Cardinals have sputtered to a 4-3 record, putting the two teams into a tie for first.

In the meantime, the Reds have treaded water, going 3-4 during that stretch, to remain within striking distance, 2.5 games behind the Pirates and Cardinals.

With 12 games left for the Pirates and Cards and 11 for the Reds, we are now in crunch time.  All 3 teams would prefer to claim the division title and avoid the one-game Wild Card playoff. 

In addition, the division leaders are only 2.5 games behind the Braves for the best record in the NL and home field advantage in the playoffs.

So there is a lot at stake as we finish off these last two weeks of the season. 

The potential saving grace for the Cardinals is that the Pirates and Reds play 6 of their last 9 games against each other, meaning one of them has to lose.  If the Cards can take care of business against the Brewers, Nats and Cubs, they should be in good shape. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Lance Lynn quiets the doubters, for now

Needing a quality start to keep his spot in the rotation, Lance Lynn came up big tonight, throwing 6 innings while allowing only 1 unearned run on 5 hits and 2 walks.  He also struck out 10 on the night, the most since he struck out 11 on August 4th.

Unfortunately, the Cardinals hitters couldn't get Lynn the win as they didn't do much to support Lynn.  Marco Estrada kept them hitless for 5.2 innings before Matt Carpenter grounded a ball off Estrada's foot for an infield hit. 

It was good to see Lynn bounce back (finally) from his recent struggles, as he was battling not just for his rotation spot but perhaps even a spot on the postseason roster. 

Hopefully this is a sign of things to come for Lynn, as the Cardinals are certainly a better team when he is on. 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Make it or break it time for Lance Lynn?

After another poor outing last Thursday, Cardinals GM Mozeliak and Manager Mike Matheny did not mince words about the importance of Wednesday's start for Lance Lynn.  Mozeliak indicated that Lynn's next start could be his last to prove he belongs in the rotation, while Matheny echoed Mo's words, emphasizing the importance of getting Lynn sorted out.

If Lynn can return to the form that produced a 7-1 record with a 2.91 ERA through the end of May, it would greatly improve the Cardinals chances for a long postseason run.  However, his recent stretch of 4 straight losses while giving up at least 4 runs in each game has not inspired confidence.

But, if the Cardinals are forced to replace Lynn in the rotation, who do they replace him with?

Jake Westbrook has been pretty brutal of late, giving up 5 runs (3 earned) in 1.1 innings his last time out, making a 12-1 lead nearly vanish and forcing the Cardinals to use an ailing Edward Mujica to close out a game that should not have required a closer.

Carlos Martinez has the stuff and the upside to be an front of the rotation starter, but has been used primarily out of the pen in the majors and was roughed up in his only start for the team.  It also appears that the team does not have confidence in him.

Tyler Lyons started his Cardinals career with back-to-back 7-inning, one-run performances, but has given up at least 4 runs in each of his last 6 starts.

Personally, I would like to see Lynn get things straightened out, as he gives us the best chance to win when he's "on".  However, if he cannot figure it out, I would like to see Martinez be given a chance to really show what he can do.  However, its more likely that the team (i.e. Matheny) will go either with the veteran, Westbrook, or take another chance with Lyons, as Martinez seems to be far down on the depth chart in their eyes.

Neither Westbrook or Lyons seems very appealing to me, which is why I have my fingers crossed for a good performance from Lynn tomorrow night.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Schedule favors Cardinals down the stretch

After sending a message to the Pirates that basically said "Not in our house", the Cardinals ended a 17-game stretch against the best teams in the NL (Braves, Reds and Pirates) with a 10-7 record and a 1.5 game lead in the division.

Things should get easier from here, as the Cardinals face 5 teams with a combined winning percentage of just .457 in their final 19 games.  Here is a comparison of the Cards remaining schedule against the other NL Central contenders:


Milwaukee Brewers (62-80):  Home Sept. 10-12 (3 games), Away Sept. 20-22 (3 games)
Seattle Mariners (65-78):  Home Sept. 13-15 (3 games)
Colorado Rockies (66-78):  Away Sept. 16-19 (4 games)
Washington Nationals (73-69):  Home Sept. 23-25 (3 games)
Chicago Cubs (60-82):  Home Sept. 27-29 (3 games)

Overall record 326-387 (.457), 12 Home games, 7 Away

Pittsburgh Pirates

Texas Rangers (81-61):  Away Sept. 9-11 (3 games)
Chicago Cubs (60-82):  Home Sept. 12-15 (4 games), Away Sept. 23-25 (3 games)
San Diego Padres (65-77):  Home Sept. 16-19 (4 games)
Cincinnati Reds (82-62):  Home Sept. 20-22 (3 games), Away Sept. 27-20 (3 games)

Overall record 288-282 (.505), 11 Home, 9 Away

Cincinnati Reds

Chicago Cubs (60-82):  Home Sept. 9-11 (3 games)
Milwaukee Brewers (62-80):  Away Sept. 13-15 (3 games)
Houston Astros (47-96):  Away Sept. 16-18 (3 games)
Pittsburgh Pirates (81-61):  Away Sept. 20-22 (3 games), Home Sept. 27-29 (3 games)
NY Mets (64-77):  Home Sept. 23-25 (3 games)

Overall record 314-396 (.442), 9 Home, 9 Away

What does it all mean?  Well, hopefully, while the Pirates and Reds are beating up against each other, the Cardinals will take advantage of their "soft" schedule to run away with the division.  The Cards are 24-11 so far this year against the teams remaining on their schedule (they have yet to play the Mariners).  The Cubs have given the Cardinals the most difficulty, with the Cards just 9-7 against the Central's cellar dwellers, while the Cards have beat up on the Brewers (10-3 so far) and swept the Nats in an earlier 3-game series.

The Cardinals also have the advantage of having the most home games and fewest road games remaining.  The Cardinals (44-25), Pirates (45-25) and Reds (47-24) have all excelled at home, while the Cards are the only one of the 3 with a record above .500 on the road (Cards 39-35, Pirates 36-36, Reds 35-38).

With the Reds and Pirates tied for second in the division, their 6 games against each other will go a long way towards determining the final standings.  If one of those two gets hot and sweeps those 6 games, they could push the Cards for the division crown.  However, if they split those games, which is more likely, it could allow the Cardinals to break away from the pack.

We all know that the games are not played on paper.  The Cardinals may have a beneficial schedule down the stretch, but they have to take advantage of it.  In any case, it should be an interesting 3 weeks of baseball.

Friday, September 6, 2013

What will the Cardinals do with Jake Westbrook?

Jake Westbrook is eligible to come off the D.L. today and, according to Bernie Miklasz, the Cardinals are suggesting he could return to the rotation.

Miklasz goes on to suggest that, if Westbrook replaces anyone in the rotation, it should be Lance Lynn and, after another clunker last night, I would tend to agree with him.

However, its not like Westbrook was tearing it up before he went on the D.L.  So, would replacing Lynn with Westbrook really be an upgrade?

Another option would be to use Jake out of the pen, but, as I mentioned before, Westbrook takes a while to get loose and a bullpen role would not allow him that luxury.

Another option might be to go with a 6 man rotation, allowing the Cardinals to give extra rest to their youngsters.  The Cardinals have already shown their reluctance to push their young starter, primarily Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, past their arbitrary innings limits.  Going this route could help the team keep their innings down and allow them to use those guys more freely in the playoffs.

Personally, I don't think I want to see either Westbrook or Lynn in the rotation down the stretch.  I think the Cardinals should go with Carlos Martinez as he probably gives the team a better chance to win. 

Let Lynn try to sort out his issues in the bullpen and let Westbrook act as another pitching coach, if he cannot handle a bullpen role. 

In any case, neither has shown enough lately for the Cardinals to consider them reliable options in the rotation.  Its time to give someone else a shot.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Let there be no doubt: Michael Wacha IS the Cardinals 5th starter

In case there was any doubt as to who should be the Cardinals 5th starter, between Tyler Lyons, Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, Wacha put those doubts to rest last night.

Pitching in the heat of a pennant race against the team chasing the Cardinals, Wacha hurled 6 shutout innings, allowing only 3 hits and 2 walks.

Of course, it would have been nice if the Cards could have mustered more than just 2 hits (none beyond the 3rd inning), as they were shutout by Homer Bailey and crew to put the Cardinals now 2 back of the Pirates for the division lead and only 1.5 games ahead of the Reds.

However, that should not diminish what Wacha accomplished.  His performance last night should solidify his spot in the starting rotation for the rest of the season.

But, it should not end there.

I think that Wacha could possibly be the Cardinals 4th starter in the playoffs, behind Adam Wainwright, Joe Kelly and Shelby Miller.  Lance Lynn has been inconsistent all season and I'm not sure I'd trust him in a playoff game. 

However, the Cardinals will likely go with Lynn in the playoff rotation and use Wacha in relief, in order to protect Wacha and not put too much pressure on him.

Come next spring, we'll likely see another "battle" for the 5th starter spot in spring training.  However, it will probably just be window dressing, as Wacha will likely be handed the job, just like Miller was this spring. 

One thing is for sure, I'm excited to see what this kid can do on a regular basis and we should get a good feel for that down the stretch.