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Bird Watching: Late-Mid-Season St. Louis Cardinals Roster Review…Who Stays and Who Goes?

With 99 games in the books, it’s not quite mid-season any longer, and perhaps that’s why Mike Matheny’s Cardinals club is beginning to emphasize words like “urgency” and “push” in their post-game meet-and-greets.

For months the Redbirds have waited for historically productive bats to begin producing in the here-and-now. Allen Craig could use a bit of resurgence; so too could perennial producer Matt Holliday. And with All-Star catcher Yadier Molina out for most, if not all of the season, their sub-par statistics stand out even more.

But now we’ve entered the part of the season Matheny likes to characterize as the “those who produce, play” period. The time for waiting is over. In mid to late July, you either are or you are not. For general manager John Mozeliak, the challenge ahead is attempting to separate the former from the latter and address the emergent holes in the roster as a result.

Of course, we here at Cards ‘N Stuff have every reason to believe Mozeliak is a regular reader, so let’s give the GM a bit of help. Below you’ll find a quick-hits look at some of the more polarizing figures on the Cardinals’ active roster.

Let’s get into it!

Shelby Miller. The Cardinals could conceivably work with a four-man rotation until August 14th. That date falls just two or three weeks shy of September, the month Michael Wacha could potentially re-enter the rotation if all goes well with his most recent MRI and impending rehab assignment. If Mozeliak can’t find a willing trade partner in the starting pitching market, that means Miller has a matter of weeks to get his act together and prove he’s ready to reclaim a mid-rotation slot. The blame, of course, for the righthander’s struggles is falling on Shelby’s inability to develop a dominant — or at least reliable — secondary pitch, something to complement his impressive fastball. But the truth is that his fastball hasn’t been all that impressive either. Often falling off the mound to the first base side, Miller looks unbalanced and uncomfortable on the hill. The result is unpredictable fastball command…and that’s bad. With a less-than-intimidating secondary pitch and a fastball with manic behavior patterns, Shelby Miller has thrust himself back into trade discussions. The problem is…if the Cardinals are willing to part ways with Miller, who would be willing to assume the risk? Mozeliak may be forced to accept that his once-prized pitching asset has become something of a liability.

Carlos Martinez. The enigmatic righthander reminiscent of the great Pedro Martinez is struggling to produce repeatable results as a member of the starting rotation. Out of spring training, Martinez looked ready to man a spot at the top of most major league rotations. But now, the young pitcher looks immature, frustrated, and a bit out of his element…a far cry from the late-season, ace-in-waiting the Cardinals hoped for when they wedged him into the bullpen to bank innings. His fastball is still eye-popping, but the youthful hurler continues to look as if he’s trying to throw rather than pitch, a tactic that will get you punished at this level. Still, there’s absolutely no reason to give up on Martinez. The talent is there and the maturity will follow…exactly the reason the Cardinals may find themselves discussing his strong right arm with potential trade partners like Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Boston, and/or Philadelphia. For our money, we wouldn’t part ways with Martinez for anything less than David Price locked into a fresh new contract extension (something St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Derrick Goold suggested could be a necessity if the Cardinals are to land the Cy Young winner).

Joe Kelly. Standoff Joe is positioned to, yet again, rescue the rotation. After starting the year as a controversial member of the starting five (see keywords: competition, Martinez, and Carlos), Kelly now returns after spending time on the DL with a troublesome hamstring injury. He’s fresh, he’s effective, and he could be the key piece to a St. Louis push for October. If Michael Wacha can’t go, and the Cardinals pull off a trade for a starting pitcher, Kelly will be the key fifth man in September. If, however, Mozeliak can’t find an affordable piece by July 31st, Kelly’s value suddenly jumps as the de facto fourth man in a potential playoff rotation. Unfortunately for Kelly, the best case scenario for the Cardinals is a combination of Wacha’s healthy return and a dazzling trade-deadline deal to land a top-of-the-rotation starter. Such an outcome relegates Kelly once again to the bullpen…but it’s a pen sure to need September reinforcements after shouldering an increased load in July and likely August after Garcia, Wacha, and now Miller’s time away from the starting rotation.

Tony Cruz. The Cardinals desperately want/need Tony Cruz to work out behind the plate. He’s defensively sound, he knows the pitching staff, the pitching staff trusts him, and he calls a good game. If all of that can continue mixed with just the occasional offensive contribution, the Redbirds can save a ton of value in terms of prospects and trade targets. In other words, they can stop seeking catching help and put all their eggs into the starting pitching basket at market. And so far, so good. Cruz has led the rotation to mostly successful outings since Yadier Molina’s exit. Sure, whenever a speedster reaches base, Matheny looks ready to chew off his entire coaching staff’s fingernails…but welcome to life without Yadi. There is no Ivan Rodriguez in his prime waiting to take over for St. Louis. If a worthy replacement for Yadier Molina exists, no team is going to let him go. Remember, there’s a reason most call Yadi the most irreplaceable player on the Cardinals’ roster. And that leaves us with Tony Cruz…a more-than-capable catcher with a good bat. Good enough to get the Cardinals to the end of September and a Yadi return just in time for October baseball.

Mark Ellis. The Cardinals certainly did Ellis no favors by signing him to fill a backup second baseman role. The perennial starter took a hefty $5 million contract in exchange for less playing time and a chance to go to a World Series. Unfortunately for all parties involved, the man previously called a “known quantity” with a .263/.328/.385 slash line is hitting .188 with a .227 slugging percentage. Even for a backup, that’s atrocious. And yes, Mozeliak is paying attention. At the annual UCB Day Q & A session, Mo simply stated Ellis’ time is running out. If the veteran infielder can’t find a way to pull it together and contribute off the bench — a bench already low on offensive potential — the Cardinals are more-than-likely to package him in a change-of-scenery deal for pitching help…or just flat-out release him to make way for an acquisition like Ben Zobrist or a prospect like Greg Garcia. Either way, Kolten Wong’s recent improvement is making Mark Ellis more than expendable.

Peter Bourjos. Remember when Mike Matheny, the man controlling day-to-day lineup construction, warned us not to count out incumbent starter Jon Jay when the team acquired starter-to-be Peter Bourjos? Yeah…about that. Jon Jay is doing it again. He’s taken control of a position tailor-made for someone else — a “preferred” option — and is refusing to let go. Sure, Bourjos is perhaps one of the fastest men in major league baseball, and sure, if given the chance to start every day, could actually be the best center fielder in the game. But Jon Jay is hitting .294 for the season, .323 in his last ten games. That’s hard to beat for a guy who started the year (Bourjos) swinging like the second coming of Mario Mendoza. So why are we even discussing Peter Bourjos other than perhaps to mention him as yet another trade package possibility? Because the man has 8 hits in his last 15 at-bats, 3 stolen bases in his last two games, and a 2-run, game-tying home run against none other than 2-time Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw just last night. Regardless of how April, May, and June may have gone (very badly), July Bourjos is demanding a look after reportedly making recent mechanical adjustments to his swing. Perhaps the Cardinals are finally ready to enjoy the fruits of a potential-maximizing platoon in center field. Of course, that begs the question…where does that leave Oscar Taveras?

Oscar Taveras. You know, I’m no expert, but I don’t think a .190/.226/.266 slash line is exactly what the Cardinals had in mind when they called up super-prospect Oscar Taveras to improve an offensively sagging outfield. No, this is not a commentary on the future of Taveras — he certainly has a bright one that simply cannot be abandoned based on a mere 25 games — but it is an observation regarding the here-and-now impact Taveras is having on a struggling St. Louis lineup…none. The bottom line is this: The Cardinals need more offense from the corner outfield positions. Whether that comes from a Matt Holliday and/or Allen Craig resurgence, a trade-market rental acquisition, or a break-out second half from the big O, something has to give. By making himself expendable in a 2014 outfield crowd, Taveras has opened himself up to trade discussions, however hesitant Mozeliak may be to actually pull the trigger and deal his golden bat. The Cardinals are in a position to win right now, and they certainly have other outfield prospects (see: James Ramsey, Stephen Piscotty, et al).

Matt Holliday. The Redbirds’ number three hitter may be heating up…again. Matt Holliday has historically posted better numbers in the heat of the second half of the season, and while he may be getting a later start than normal this year, the numbers in his last ten games — .313 with 4 walks, 9 RBIs, and 2 home runs — suggest another July through September reemergence. If the mighty Matt Holliday is indeed back to form, he and Matt Adams may form one of the most dangerous 3/4 combinations in the National League…and as a side effect, take quite a bit of pressure off of John Mozeliak to acquire a bat. Heeellloooo, David Price…?

Allen Craig. I feel like there’s this perception out there that Allen Craig is rediscovering his timing and his swing, despite hitting only .147 in his last ten games. Maybe it’s because he has a hit in each of the last four games started, including — *gasp* — an actual, honest-to-goodness double. So, sure, it’s possible that Craig is beginning to gradually gain traction after getting the All-Star Game break to breathe and reset…but can the Cardinals really count on that heading into the trade deadline? Maybe they could sit back and wait a bit longer if Taveras was producing, content to let things play out with two cost-controlled corner outfielders and a reemerging Matt Holliday in left. But Taveras isn’t hitting, and the Cardinals need…someone. Maybe they could buy a bit more time by moving or releasing Mark Ellis and filling his spot with a more-than-capable bench guy like Zobrist…but that’s a tough acquisition, especially considering the fact that a lot of teams would love to have the versatile Zo-rilla on their bench. And with Yadi already out and other hitters like Holliday with more to prove, Mozeliak can’t afford to absorb more unproductive at-bats in August and September from a Craig/Taveras tandem. With the team working hard to catch Milwaukee, Mozeliak may be forced to move one of them to get a bat with some offensive certainty.

Wrap-Up!

Let me just say this…thank, God for Jhonny Peralta and Lance Lynn. The signing of Peralta was much-criticized by the purists among us — and yes, I admit to cringing a bit — but where would the power-starved Cardinals be without his 14 home runs and .457 slugging percentage? And don’t even get me started on the Lance Lynn hate in Cardinal Nation. While starter after starter goes down and/or struggles, Lynn has become the only constant this side of Adam Wainwright in the St. Louis rotation.

Oh…and yes, you should absolutely notice we wrote an entire roster review post discussing the needs, deficiencies, and lineup shuffling of the St. Louis Cardinals without once mentioning Daniel Descalso…hmmmm….

Here’s hoping the Redbirds pick it up and fly by the sinking Brew Crew to capture the NL Central title…

GO CARDS!!!

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