By Kevin Reynolds (@deckacards)
Welcome back to the first Bird Watching at Stl Cards ‘N Stuff in over a year! For those of you who follow us and our coverage of the Cardinals (yeah, both of you…), you know that we’ve spent the last year and a half writing for About Sports (here) as their resident “St. Louis Cardinals Expert.”
But that time has passed, and now it’s time to get back to our first love, this humble blog devoted to the St. Louis Cardinals and other baseball stuff. Let’s dive in…
Boy, did the Cardinals ever blow a shot to keep pace with the Cubs last night. By promoting starting pitcher Mike Mayers from Triple-A Memphis, St. Louis put themselves in a six-to-nothing hole before their leadoff hitter could step into the box on Sunday night. The ugly, one-and-a-third outing by the rookie left some of us shaking our heads and asking if Mayers was the right choice to start that game.
Hindsight would say no. A six-to-nothing drubbing is hard to ignore. But it’s not as if Mozeliak’s decision to call up the 6′ 3″ right-hander was completely without merit.
In nine starts for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals this year, Mayers won five games, compiled a 2.30 ERA, and struck out 43 on his way to a 1.17 WHIP. His success only continued in Memphis, throwing the exact same number of strikeouts in another nine starts. His ERA rose to just 2.94, and his WHIP increased to 1.25.
By comparison, Alex Reyes, the Cardinals number one prospect and starting pitcher for the 2016 All-Star Futures Game, owns a 1.44 WHIP and a pedestrian 5.02 ERA, albeit with 72 strikeouts. The much-anticipated flame-thrower still struggles with control and efficiency — his 52.0 innings pitched in 11 starts barely matches Mayers’ own 52.0 innings in two fewer appearances — and no one doubts his need for further development in the minor leagues.
But could the phenom have stood a better chance against major-league hitters than Mayers?
It’s possible. Reyes’ stuff is without question, as the baseball world witnessed for themselves over the All-Star break. No knock on Mayers’ own assortment, but the “knife-to-a-gunfight” analogy does spring to mind.
Maybe giving Reyes a shot would have been the right way to go, but there’s no glossing over the 19 earned runs allowed in his last five starts in the Pacific Coast League (PCL).
Of course, Reyes and Mayers do not tell the whole story of Cardinals minor-league starting pitchers. One needs only look as far as the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Month and the Texas League’s Player of the Month, both in June, to find a tantalizing option.
Well, that and one level lower.
After being drafted in the first round of the 2014 MLB Draft (27th overall), Luke Weaver, a 22-year-old former college pitcher from Florida State, finally arrived in Springfield for the 2016 season. Since his debut, he’s been nothing short of fantastic.
Weaver’s 1.02 WHIP, 1.31 ERA, and 71 strikeouts easily outpaces anything Memphis has to offer, and his 62.0 innings pitched in 10 starts offers a glimpse of the efficiency the Cardinals covet in young prospects.
Still, promoting Weaver, while not unprecedented (the club snatched embargoed-closer Trevor Rosenthal directly from Double-A a few years back), is still a significant gamble. The competition jump from the Texas League to the PCL is not to be overlooked.
Known as a hitter’s league, the PCL features mashers just shy of the Major Leagues. The Texas League, on the other hand, is known for it’s limited number of teams that gives pitchers a chance to see Double-A hitters over-and-over again and, theoretically, learn to make adjustments on the mound. It’s the same reason the Cardinals left future-star Kolten Wong in Double-A an entire season, to learn to adjust to pitchers who had learned to get the left-handed prospect out.
In other words, skipping Triple-A and going straight to The Show is nothing to sneeze at. But if ever a pitcher appeared ready to do just that, it’s Luke Weaver. The young right-hander is quickly raising eyebrows with his control and efficiency, and his nine walks in 62 professional innings reveals a generally polished pitcher.
If John Mozeliak is being honest with himself, he may very well regret not pulling the trigger on Weaver for Sunday night. When the standings are tallied at the end of the year, let’s hope the NL Wild Card race — or even the Central Division — is not decided by a single game.
If so, the front office may look back at the Mike Mayers game as their chance to take a big swing at the standings…and epically whiff.
Let’s get into the rest of it…
The Cardinals bullpen has become a weak link. At the start of the season, the St. Louis relief corp was seen as an unquestionable strength. Their ability to shorten games was a given, and closer Trevor Rosenthal was a known quantity. Months later and 7.5 games back of the Chicago Cubs, little is known for sure in the Cardinals’ bullpen. Oh, the outstanding reliever from Korea by way of Japan, continues to impress, but his role has changed. With the collapse of Rosenthal, Oh is now the closer by default, and Broxton — a wild card all his own — finds himself setting up The Final Boss in the eighth inning. Kevin Siegrist still looks strong most days, but with the fluid nature of Tyler Lyons’ role (is he a long man or is he a high-leverage lefty reliever?), Matheny has to pick his spots carefully when deploying the left-handed dynamo. And all of that leaves the Cardinals in a lurch. Do they promote the imprecise Alex Reyes from Memphis to fill a relief role? Or do they seek help outside the organization in the form of a trade? And how much are they willing to give up to fill a spot in what was supposed to be an otherwise strong pen? The trade market is heating up, and what Mozeliak and Co. decides to do over the next six or seven days will be revealing. How much trust do they really have in their internal pitching options?
At the end of the day, the answer is simply better baseball in St. Louis. The Cardinals offense is impressive and light years ahead of the 2015 version at the same point in the season a year ago. Even after starting out down six runs to LA on Sunday night, the St. Louis hitters still managed to tally six runs and get within three with opportunities for more. And despite a rocky start, the starting rotation is just fine. They are, without question, a playoff staff.
But it’s the defense and the Cardinals inability to play good, consistent baseball that’s holding them back. That inconsistency was again on display in last night’s loss as Piscotty’s throw eluded both Gyorko at third base and pitcher Mike Mayers, who should have been better positioned behind him, to skip into the dugout and allow another run to score. If not for lapses like those, that game may have turned out very differently.
Still, the Cardinals should count themselves fortunate that their biggest problems are fixable. It’s not a lack of talent that plagues the Redbirds…it’s just a lack of consistent baseball.
They can fix that. They will fix that.
The only question is, can they fix it fast enough?