No one pegged the Cardinals to win the N.L. Central this year, but after ten games they find themselves atop the division, a half-game ahead of the Brewers and the streaking Cubs. You can put me among those skeptics. I felt this team had as much of a chance of winning the division as Neifi Perez had in finding his stroke, landing with the Yankees, displacing Alex Rodriguez at third base and making his first All-Star team. (I don’t think they currently market that strong of a performance-enhancing drug.)
St. Louis is currently being held up by many as Exhibit A in why a season is 162 games long, not ten. But is St. Louis’ swift start merely a fluke? Did we learn nothing when we counted out Tony La Russa’s World Series winners in 2006? Maybe the answer this offseason was not to acquire the best available hitter (Miguel Cabrera) to anchor your awe-inspiring lineup, a la Detroit. The Tigers are 1–8 and averaging a pathetic 3.1 runs per game. Possibly, the correct strategy was to count on Rick Ankiel to continue his maturation into a stud outfielder? Slick Rick has three long balls in the early going, an OPS+ of 141 and has made a pair of dazzling catches in center field.
A closer look finds the Cardinals having scored just 40 runs (a meager 4.0 per game) while allowing just 30 (3.0). With the exception of an 8–3 win over the Rockies and a 5–1 loss last night to the Giants, each of St. Louis’ eight other contests have been decided by three runs or less. That means they’re 6–2 in close games, a rather high figure that is likely to regress as the season ages.
Then again, it’s also possible that if the Cardinals offense comes up with a few more hits with runners on, the team could turn a few of those close games into blow-outs. St. Louis hitters have posted the fifth-best OPS in the in the N.L. so far at .759, and the league’s second-best on-base percentage at .352; yet, the team is toward the bottom of the pack in runs scored. The reason is a rather modest number of home runs (six), bolstered on Wednesday by Albert Pujols’ first two clouts of the year, and a pedestrian .236 average with runners in scoring position.
The pitching staff, meanwhile, has been playing over its head. The Redbirds’ 2.66 team ERA is second-best in the N.L. (Things you don’t read everyday: until yesterday, the Royals were leading the majors in team ERA.) St. Louis’ rotation has posted a miniscule 2.35 ERA and a 1.16 WHIP, while striking out 6.8 batters per nine innings. Compare that to what the starters did last season — a 5.04 ERA, a 1.53 WHIP and 5.4 strikeouts per nine — and its easy to see why the team is off to such a hot start. This year’s April rotation reflects little in the way of personnel moves — save for adding Kyle Lohse — that would suggest an improvement over last year’s staff. (It says a lot that Lohse, who is the absolute definition of mediocre, constitutes an improvement.) So it’s safe to assume that while the Redbirds’ rotation may not be as poor as last year’s version, they’re more than likely to see those eye-popping numbers backslide over the coming month. That is, unless you truly believe that the upcoming activation of Joel Pineiro, Matt Clement and Mark Mulder is going to be the team’s saving grace. I’m not sipping that Kool-Aid.
So, just how good are these Cardinals? Good enough to beat the Cubs and Brewers, the critic’s favorites, in the Central? Probably not. But there is reason for excitement. This year’s team is decidedly faster, with speed on the basepaths (Skip Schumaker and Brian Barton) that was sorely missing from last year’s squad. And defensively, they look particularly stout, especially if Cesar Izturis can ever get his act together at short. Offensively, I do expect the team to continue to improve as Troy Glaus acclimates himself to a new lineup, Chris Duncan gets healthy and Ankiel avoids a sophomore slump at the plate.
The fact that the left-handed Ankiel has continued to hit lefties hard is a reason to rejoice. To me, Rick is the key to the season. If he blossoms this year, the team will be able to deal mid-season from its outfield and starting pitching depth for a quality reliever and another big bat. Of course, that bat may already be within the organization. Colby Rasmus and Joe Mather, both of whom impressed in spring training, are currently in Memphis. Mather has continued his hot hitting, with a 1.19 OPS so far in six Triple-A games played.
Common sense tells me that St. Louis fans should probably take a deep breath and prepare for a slide in the standings. The offense (especially Pujols) needs to get untracked, to make up for forthcoming decline from the team’s pitching staff. But I do feel more confident in our ability to compete in the division than I did ten games ago. At the least, I’d say the chances are better than Neifi Perez’s comeback.