A fragile lineupand weak pitching have transformed St. Louis from an NL force to a clubbattling to hold its division lead
On a muggyafternoon at Wrigley Field last Friday the military jets preparing for theweekend's Air and Water Show weren't the only things soaring through Chicagoairspace: The Cardinals launched six home runs and drubbed the Cubs 11-3. Twodays later St. Louis won again to take the three-game series and left townfeeling good about itself. After all, the middle-of-the-order triumvirate ofAlbert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds-who had started together in only 63of 123 games this season-would be complete again this week with Edmonds'sreturn from postconcussion syndrome, and lefthander Mark Mulder was expected torejoin the rotation after two months on the DL with a left-shoulder injury.
But this seasonhasn't played out the way it was supposed to for the Cardinals. After earningthe reputation in 2004 and '05 as the most fearsome team in the NationalLeague, St. Louis was presumed to be the only NL club outside the Mets capableof giving the American League pennant winner a run for its World Series money.But with a 5-14 performance from July 27 through Aug. 16, the Cards aren't evena lock to win their division. "Last year they were a lot stronger,"says Rangers leftfielder Carlos Lee, who saw them as a member of the Brewers."They were unbelievable-their pitching, hitting, everything was going goodat the same time. This year I think Cincinnati has a chance."
After putting upa .618 intradivision winning percentage over the last two years, St. Louis thisseason was only 29-32 against NL Central teams through Sunday, a testament tothe division's modest overall improvement and the Cards' decline. Says Redsleftfielder Ryan Freel, whose club was 21/2 games behind St. Louis, "Ithink we are the best team in the division."
St. Louis hasbeen riddled with injuries this season: In addition to Edmonds and Mulder,Pujols (strained oblique), Rolen (sore shoulder, back spasms), shortstop DavidEckstein (strained oblique) and righthanded starter Chris Carpenter (rightshoulder bursitis) have all been sidelined by injury. And the pitching hasdropped off measurably, with the staff ERA jumping from a league-leading 3.49in 2005 to 4.53 (eighth). In fact, the return of Mulder (6.09 ERA) may not bemuch to get excited about.
"I thought hehad something wrong with him his last year in Oakland," says an AL scout."He didn't seem the same, and he still doesn't." The trade in December'04 that brought Mulder to St. Louis looks more and more like a big mistake.The A's not only received righthanded starter Dan Haren-who is three yearsyounger than Mulder, is paid a fourteenth of his salary and since the deal haswon 25 games with a 1.18 WHIP and 3.61 ERA (to Mulder's 22, 1.43 and 4.38)-butalso solid setup man Kiko Calero (1.19 WHIP and .215 batting averageagainst).
The Cardinalscould have used that talent; the injuries and drop-off in performances havebeen magnified by the fact that they don't have the complementary players theyonce did. "They're not as deep as in the past," says Milwaukee G.M.Doug Melvin, whose Brewers were 71/2 games out of first after finishing 19 and37 1/2 games behind in 2005 and '04, respectively. "They lost some [key]veterans to free agency-Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, MattMorris."
By tying up morethan 60% of their payroll on five players (Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, Mulder andcloser Jason Isringhausen), St. Louis has been forced to fill out its rosterwith cut-rate castoffs such as starters Sidney Ponson (released in July) andJeff Weaver (5-13, 6.07 ERA), reliever Jorge Sosa (3-10, 5.15 ERA), secondbaseman Aaron Miles (.261, two home runs in 299 at bats) and outfielder LarryBigbie (on the DL since June 5).
"What you dois take your best shot," says manager Tony La Russa, "and see if[that's] good enough." The Cardinals' best shot this year may get them backto the playoffs, but they won't have much left after that.
Changes Spark ATurnaround
In anunderwhelming National League wild-card race, the most unlikely team incontention is Philadelphia-just ask its general manager, Pat Gillick. After hedumped third baseman David Bell and rightfielder Bobby Abreu in deadline deals,Gillick figured his team was out of the running until 2008. But the Phillieswent 12-7 from Aug. 1 through Sunday, moving from 41/2 games back in thewild-card standings at the start of that stretch to 21/2 games out of theirfirst playoff spot in 13 years. Coincidentally, their starting pitchingimproved markedly (4.06 ERA in August), and was further helped by the additionof crafty veteran lefty Jamie Moyer, whom Philadelphia wisely acquired lastSaturday in a trade with the Mariners.
Are the Philliesbetter because they traded Bell, an unproductive hitter, and Abreu, who was theposter player for an underachieving team? Not necessarily. But Philadelphia,and especially hustling second baseman Chase Utley, have benefited from a newvibe without Abreu, who's been a perfect fit in the Yankees' star-studdedlineup. "It's not that he's selfish, but he cares about taking care ofhimself," Gillick says of Abreu. "I'm not sure he's a leader-type guy,while Utley is. Chase had been reluctant, out of respect for Bobby's status andservice, to exert his leadership. It seemed since David and Bobby left, Chasehas been more comfortable imprinting his style of play on the team."
The 2004Cardinals were a juggernaut that won 105 games, went to the World Series andranked at or near the top of the National League in many key statisticalcategories. The '05 Cards fell from that lofty perch but were still impressiveon their way to 100 wins and an NLCS appearance. This season's team?Incorrigibly average. Here's a statistical comparison of St. Louis over thepast three seasons (NL rank in parentheses; 2006 stats through Sunday).
IS THERE A PLAYER MORE INTEGRAL TO HIS TEAM'S OFFENSETHAN OAKLAND DH FRANK THOMAS? While the 38-year-old Big Hurt was hitting only.265 at week's end and was bothered earlier this season by a quadriceps injury,his 26 home runs and .386 on-base percentage were critical to a team thatranked second to last in the American League in runs scored (4.5 per game).According to Baseball Prospectus's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)rankings-which compare the runs a major leaguer has created with the runs awaiver-wire or Triple A-caliber player at the same position wouldproduce-Thomas contributed 26.5 more runs than a replacement-level DH wouldhave, ranking him 64th in the majors but well ahead of every other A's player.Excluding the 13 players who had a negative VORP, Oakland hitters combined fora VORP of only 69.6 runs. That means Thomas's contribution (38.1%) was thehighest percentage in the majors, exceeding that of the Astros' Lance Berkman(36.1%), the Orioles' Miguel Tejada (33.8%), the Marlins' Miguel Cabrera(31.9%) and the Cardinals' Albert Pujols (31.6%).
• More from Tom Verducci and Baseball Prospectus atSI.com/baseball.
TAMI CHAPPELL/REUTERS; ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (INSET)
Edmonds and Rolen (inset) are two of the many Cardinals who have sat out withinjuries.