By the time this weekend’s games are over, most teams in the NL would have completed 25% of this year’s schedule. A quick look at the standings shows the Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, and St. Louis Cardinals leading their respective divisions. No real surprises here as most people expected the Phillies to again be the cream that rises to the top in the East and many picked the Giants to repeat in the West. Personally, I took the Colorado Rockies to finish atop this division as did a lot of those who didn’t go with the Giants.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, are a bit of a surprise. This is a team that lost their division by five games last year to the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds were the up and coming team and knocked off the Cards. The Reds have a great offense in a very good ballpark and a pitching staff that is pretty deep and serviceable, if not top heavy. But the Reds are playing second fiddle to the Cardinals at this point, although it is close.
But it shouldn’t be close with what the Cardinals have had to deal with. It all started with the failed contract talks between the club and their All-Baseball History first baseman Albert Pujols. Although I didn’t buy into the notion Albert would be affected by this because he is the consummate professional, Mastersball's own Brian Walton broached that subject here. While there is still plenty of season left, it is evident Pujols hasn’t started his usual Superman self.
At present, his home run total of seven ties him for tenth in the NL with the likes of Rickie Weeks, Jason Heyward, and Ike Davis. He is also tied for tenth with 24 RBIs but has managed to chip in with two stolen bases. We’re used to seeing Albert at or just out of the top spot in homers and RBIs. Pujols doesn’t even rank in the top-30 for NL slugging percentage. While his strikeouts are on pace for a normal year, bases on balls will fall far short (70) of where he’s been the past few years (>100). But the thing that’s really hurting right now is his paltry batting average of .270 compared to a .331 career average.
Apart from the early season struggles of Mr. Pujols, the thing that hurts the Cardinals the most was the loss of Adam Wainwright to season-ending Tommy John surgery. Wainwright has made 87 starts over the past three years, tossing a total of 595 innings, and has pitched more than 230 innings in each of the last two seasons. Between 2009 and 2010, Adam has won 39 games against only 19 losses. That’s a lot to lose and a big pair of shoes to fill.
Brian Tallet is on the DL until the end of May. While he isn’t nearly the caliber of Wainwright, Tallet is an experienced major leaguer who can provide some innings and keep the bullpen fresh. On top of this, the Cardinals have lost starting second baseman Skip Schumaker until the end of May and starting third baseman David Freese until sometime in July. That leaves St. Louis with the likes of Daniel Descalso, Nick Punto, Tyler Greene, and Allen Craig to fill in for Schumaker and Freese. The results haven’t exactly been overwhelming (.252/30/3/32/10).
So what has the Cardinals at such lofty heights within their division?
On the hitting side, after Albert there is veteran Matt Holliday and the maturing Colby Rasmus. Holliday is flirting with .400 (.390 which leads the Majors) with five home runs and 26 RBIs. Rasmus is batting a very good .313 with three home runs and 29 runs scored (tops in the NL).
But the big surprise is early Comeback Player of the Year leader Lance Berkman. All Lance is doing is batting .357 (third best in the NL) with 10 homers (second best in the NL), 32 RBIs (best in the NL), 27 runs scored (fourth best in the NL), a .705 slugging percentage and 1.149 OPS (both best in the NL). What makes this even more impressive is Berkman has done this having to play the outfield virtually full-time instead of first base or DH. After his abysmal performance for the Houston Astros and New York Yankees in 2010, Berkman could be had for pennies on the dollar in most leagues this year.
Over on the pitching side, St. Louis management and particularly pitching coach Dave Duncan have pulled another rabbit out of their hat after the loss of Wainwright. Ace Chris Carpenter has struggled early on with a very un-Carpenter-like 1.46 WHIP and 4.32 ERA to go along with a 1-2 record – this after recording 33 victories in 2009 and 2010 combined.
The team is led by Jaime Garcia with five wins against no losses. Garcia is second in the league with a 1.89 ERA to go along with a 1.03 WHIP, 48 strikeouts in 52 1/3 innings and a 4:1 K/BB ratio. Against my prediction, Jaime has continued where he left off last year.
Right behind Garcia is Kyle Lohse with a 2.24 ERA and 0.86 WHIP. Kyle has four victories in six decisions and has struck out 29 hitters in 52 2/3 innings. Although his strikeout rate isn’t very high, he limits his bases on balls and has a K/BB of nearly 3:1.
Next is this year’s version of Jaime Garcia-lite in Kyle McClellan. McClellan has a perfect 5-0 record with a 1.35 WHIP and 3.30 ERA. While he hasn’t struck out many hitters (only 22 in 43 2/3 innings for a 4.53 K/9) he keeps the ball on the ground better than 50% of the time for a GB/FB of 1.85. Add to that a HR/9 of 0.62, a .259 BAA and a 79% strand rate and you have the makings of a solid starter under the tutelage of Duncan.
The back end of the bullpen started out a mess with the implosion of Ryan Franklin but the Cards have managed to patch that up, getting saves from Fernando Salas (3), Mitchell Boggs (3), and Eduardo Sanchez (4).All in all, it has been a total team effort by the Cardinals' players and coaching staff. There are a lot of questions as to whether some of these players will continue their early-season performance once the dog days of summer arrive and to what extent Albert Pujols will be the Albert Pujols of years past. But you have to feel good for a Cardinals team that has fought off adversity and, for the time being, are at the top of the mountain in the Central Division.