I know going four and six to start the month of June doesn’t immediately scream optimism, and I know we’ve been plagued with injuries that have left the Cardinals looking like a listless bunch of barnstormers…but believe it or not, the worst could be behind us. Consider the following:
*The Cardinals, after playing 30 games in 31 days during perhaps the worst stretch of their season, finally had a day off. I’ve never played professional baseball – and I’m guessing most of you have not either – but if I do anything for that long without getting to step away and take a breath, I freak out. I can’t imagine something as grueling as a road-trippin’ MLB schedule is anything close to easy. But that’s over and done with, and the Redbirds now get to enjoy an off day per week every week leading up to the All-Star Game break…except for one – the week immediately before the ASG when they get to play a comfortable stretch of 10 games at home. Going forward, fatigue – mental or physical – should not be near the factor it was for much of May and early June.
*After this home series against the White Sox and Royals, the Cardinals get to use the DH in AL parks for the next six games. Why is that a good thing? Because the offensively challenged ‘birds will get to run out a lineup that includes Craig, Holliday, Beltran, and Adams – all in the same middle-of-the-order package! (And without subjecting Beltran’s knees to CF, Craig’s legs to the OF, or Adams’ glove to 1B). Of course, that assumes Adams is still here when Matt Carpenter returns from the DL, but surely Matheny will side with keeping Adams for a 6-game stretch that includes the DH. NOTE: I am not a supporter of the DH, but that doesn’t mean it won’t benefit the team for 6 games.
*The Reds – and specifically Aroldis Chapman – are faltering. After playing 17-11 baseball in May to charge ahead and seize first place in the NL Central, the Reds have stumbled to a 4-5 start to June –and now they face the Indians and Mets for 9 games (6 of which are on the road). While Cleveland and New York are no powerhouse contenders, they are capable of giving NL Central teams fits, as the Cardinals can attest. And with Chapman finally getting touched up a bit, the Redlegs could be in for some rocky roads ahead.
*Tone-setters Berkman and Schumaker are that much closer to a return. Yes, we still have more than a month to go on Berkman – at least – and Skip is on an unknown time table at the moment, but every game played brings us closer to getting one of our core “chemistry” and “glue” guys back in the clubhouse. This is especially true when you remember that Berkman is set to rejoin the team in St. Louis for the second half of his rehab. Look…I’m not saying chemistry and tone is key to a winning baseball team, but I do believe it is much of what the Cardinals have been missing – tone, loose optimism, confidence, etc. – during their difficult stretch. It can only help to have a hard-nosed, tone setting player like Skip in the lineup as well as a veteran leader that the team trusts like Berkman in the clubhouse. We’re getting closer.
*Chris Carpenter is finally throwing off a mound this week…hopefully. It’s not much, and yet it is – all at the same time. Carpenter’s value cannot be overstated this season. His leadership, tone, edge, perspective, etc. are all under-priced commodities for this team…but his skill on the mound is whatthe Redbirds desperately need right now. Even the hope of getting Carp back in early August could be enough to push this rotation into July.
Times have certainly been hard for the Cardinals, but they’ve made it through May and much of June with a rag-tag lineup and a starting rotation that can’t find their form. They’ve persevered without leaders and tone-setters as they struggle to find hope, focus, and perspective. And they’re only two games back. If the NL Central has taught us anything over the last 10 years, it’s this: If we can stay competitive into August…we have a very good shot at winning the whole f****** thing.
Let’s get into the rest of it:
Raise your hand if you’re excited to see Joe Kelly pitch again (*oh! Me! Me, me, me!*). The kid’s got moxie – and velocity, and control, and conviction, etc. With the struggles facing this rotation right now, a fresh dose of cheap help from AAA could be just what the doctor ordered for the rest of June and July. Miller clearly isn’t ready, and it’s too early to go looking for a trade partner, but “Machine Gun” Kelly looks to be ready to go at this level. Don’t be surprised if it’s Kelly and not Miller who finds himself in the 2013 rotation (Carp, Waino, Garcia, Lynn, Kelly…?).
Shelby Miller is getting beat up a bit – in games and in the media. The young right-hander is not faring well in AAA, and some believe he could actually benefit from a temporary demotion to AA Springfield (per Joe Strauss on Twitter). I don’t know about that…especially considering the potentially fragile psyche of a young, arrogant pitching prospect trying to deal with all the hype in the world. It seems to me that it would take a special player to be able to place a demotion in the proper context – a context that would already be struggling to find footing in the over-hyped context of “the next great RH’ed hope.” I have to believe Miller is going to push ahead and come out in July with a strong showing. If not, I say leave him in the hitter-friendly PCL for the rest of the season, let him rest his arm in the off-season, and start the 2013 year in AAA with an eye on an early call-up to the STL bullpen (see: Adam Wainwright). If Joe Kelly works out in the rotation next year, stick Miller in the ‘pen and let him develop into a starter at the MLB level for 2014. There’s no good reason to rush his development…or sabotage it with a demotion.
Carlos Beltran in the two hole? Yes, please. It’s not so much that Beltran should be in the two hole as opposed to the three or four holes in the order…it’s just that no one else is really a good fit for the two hole except for Beltran. With Schumaker and Jay both out – and Furcal struggling – there’s really no obvious choice for the second spot in the order. Descalso, Greene, Chambers, and/or Robinson just aren’t good enough, Yadi isn’t fast enough (or consistent enough the higher in the order he goes), Craig is needed at the clean-up spot (although, an argument could be made to hit Craig second if Furcal starts getting on base in front of him again), etc., etc. And, of course, it is a bit about Beltran being amazingly productive in the two spot for much of his career (check out Bernie’s take on Beltran in the two hole over at http://www.stltoday.com). Right now, he just fits hitting second. Leave him there.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times – leave Yadier Molina in the sixth spot in the order. I said at the beginning of the season that Matheny needed to resist the urge to move Molina up in the order (by the way, I said that after predicting another great offensive year for the Cardinals’ catcher ;). His stats show that the farther up he goes, the worse he gets. I don’t pretend to know why, but for some reason(s), Yadi just loses effectiveness when pulled from the 6 or 7 hole in the order. And when that happens, the Cardinals get the double whammy of hitting an ineffective player in a key spot in the order as well as neutralizing an otherwise effective bat from Molina. I say again…moving Yadier Molina up in the order is not the answer to this team’s offensive problems. Put him in the sixth spot and leave him alone.
That’ll do it today. Really…I’m not kidding…I feel much better about the Cardinals’ season, lately. Don’t believe me? Head on over to my podcast by CLICKING HERE and give it a listen.