First, and most importantly, you'll have to forgive the lack of a clever title. I thought and thought, then thought some more, and really just didn't like any of the options I came up with. Some were too obscure, some not obscure enough, some didn't make much sense, still others lacked any tie to the subject at hand. Thus, in the interest of clarity, I give you this dull and lifeless title. Nonetheless, I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive.
Second, does it bother anyone else that the All-Star Game is always considered the halfway mark? The Cardinals have already played 91 games; that's significantly more than half of a 162 game schedule. I suppose it's a small thing, but it always always always bugs me.
Actually, come to think of it, if one were to add in the postseason, then suddenly 91 does, in fact, fall roughly at halfway. So the fact that 91 games is half the Cardinals' season must mean they're going to play deep into October! Awesome! See, kids, math can be fun!
So let's take a look at the second half of the second half of the Cardinals' 181 game, Championship-winning schedule.
Going into the back half of the season, I think it's fair to say we know pretty much what we have here with this team. There aren't really many mysteries left with this squad; there are a few performance that could move one way or the other, but for the most part, they are who we think they are at this point. Right, Dennis?
Thank you, Dennis. Anyhow, I don't think there are really a whole lot of surprises lurking down the stretch for this club, barring another deal of some sort.
The Keys to Victory
1) Chris Carpenter's Right Arm - Long before the season even began, lots of people said the key to the Cards' 2009 campaign would be the health of Chris Carpenter. So far, that's been a pretty excellent prediction, and it probably remains a good one going forward. If Carpenter remains healthy, the Cardinals have, arguably, one of the top five starters in all of baseball taking the mound every fifth game. As we've seen the last few years, when Carpenter pitches, the Cardinals win.
If Chris Carpenter takes the rest of his starts this season, the Cards have probably the best rotation in the National League, with the possible exception of San Francisco. If he doesn't, things get a whole lot murkier.
2) The Two Thirds Compromise - The Cards came into the season with a four-man rotation in the outfield. At the time, it seemed like a pretty good idea; you could get Colby Rasmus fairly consistent playing time without overwhelming what is still a 22 year old kid, there was plenty of power to go around, and both Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel could get the days off they likely needed to stay healthy. Unfortunately, what seemed like such a good idea in April is a disaster in July. Duncan and Ankiel have been unmitigated disasters, Ryan Ludwick missed time with an injury and struggled coming back from it, and we've been forced to endure the likes of Nick Stavinoha and Shane Robinson far too often.
For the rest of the season, it is imperative that Tony La Russa play his two best outfielders every single day. Days off for a guy who needs one are fine, but the rotation must die. Duncan and Ankiel can share playing time, but Ludwick and Rasmus need to be in the lineup day in, day out. To La Russa's credit, he seems to have mostly gone in that direction in spite of his love for lineup tinkering. Even if neither Duncan or Ankiel can step it up in the second half, the Cardinal outfield should be a plus if the other two are in there on a regular basis.
3) Mark DeRosa - It's kind of odd, I think, for a midseason pickup to be so important to a team's chances, but in the case of Mark DeRosa, I think that just may be the case. If DeRosa can come back from his wrist injury and play well down the stretch, the Cardinal offense suddenly begins to look very respectable, maybe even - dare I say it? - dangerous. Hmm. Maybe not dangerous. Is there a word that means less dangerous than dangerous, but slightly more dangerous than, say, an extremely overweight and toothless bunny? I assume there is, but damned if I know what it is.
If DeRosa remains a non-factor the rest of this season, we're going to continue seeing a lot of playing time for Joe Thurston at third base as the season marches on. Thurston is a negative on both offense and defense, to say nothing of his baserunning. Mark DeRosa could turn one of the Cardinals' biggest holes this season into a plus, even if only a moderate one. I think it's hard to overstate just how valuable that could be.
4) One, Two Buckle My Schu- The leadoff spot for the Cardinals has been a strength this season, while the number two slot has been a definite crap shoot. Skip Schumaker, in spite of my disdain for the experiment of playing him at second base (which I maintain, by the way), has been a very nice leadoff hitter for the Cards. He's posting an OPS just a hair better than league average and getting on base at a suitable clip. The various hitters placed directly in front of Albert Pujols, on the other hand, have not been so good. Of all the players who have hit second, Colby Rasmus is really the only one to make much of an impact there. With Colby seemingly installed as the everyday two hitter now, that will hopefully be an area of strength for the rest of the year.
It's been said before, but I don't think it can be stated enough: there is no such thing as protection for Albert Pujols. Lineup protection in general has been debunked for the most part, but particularly when you're talking about a hitter the caliber of Pujols, there is no hitter in baseball that is going to change the way pitchers attack him. (Or, more accurately, don't attack him.) The only real way to ensure Albert sees anything to hit is to put runners on in front of him. Schumaker, Rasmus, and to a lesser extent, Brendan Ryan will have a significant say in whether or not that happens.
5) Set 'Em Up, Boys- The closer position this season has been a significant strength, with Ryan Franklin and his terrifying Amish Beard of Death frightening opposing players into submission. What hasn't been nearly as good is the setup man job, with Jason Motte, Kyle McClellan, and Dennys Reyes all having their own struggles at various points. For the record, I think Reyes is badly miscast as anything other than a strict LOOGY; neither he nor Trever Miller are well suited to throw whole innings, I think. (Unless said inning consists entirely of left-handed hitters, of course.) That leave Motte and McClellan to try and stabilize the eighth inning.
For my money, I think Motte is going to have to be the guy to do it; more and more, Kyle McClellan's outstanding performance the first half of 2008 is looking like a fluke. Well, maybe not a fluke, exactly, as K-Mac has actually been pretty good this year, but certainly the absolute high end of what we'll ever see from him. To my mind, Motte's ceiling is just much higher than that of McClellan. At times this year, Motte has been absolutely unhittable. Unfortunately, there have also been plenty of times when he's gotten knocked around pretty badly, due mostly to his lack of a consistent breaking ball. If Motte can be the guy he was for most of April and all of May, the Cardinals could shorten games down to about seven innings. If not, it's going to be a bumpy ride trying to get leads into the hands of Hezekiah.
The Wild Cards
I think there are two real wild cards in this equation, two factors that could really influence things either way.
1) Five is a REALLY serious numbah- As remarkable as the starting rotation has been for the Cardinals this year, they've done it with essentially no real contribution from the guys at the back end. Todd Wellemeyer has been godawful, none of the callups have seized a spot by the throat, and even Kyle Lohse, who we were all counting on to be a real stabilizing force in the rotation, has been less than advertised. A big part of the issue with Lohse is the injury, of course, which you can't fault him for, but being on the DL certainly qualifies as failing to contribute.
If the Cardinals can figure out some way to get more out of the fifth starter's spot, it would help the overall performance of the team significantly. Whether that's with a callup, a trade, or Todd Wellemeyer somehow turning this lost season around, I don't know. Personally, I still think the Cardinals should be trying out some of their young guys in that spot. It would literally be almost impossible for P.J. Walters, Mitch Boggs, Blake Hawksworth, or Clayton Mortensen to actually be worse than the Colonel, but the on-field staff doesn't agree. Thus, it appears we're stuck waiting for Wellemeyer to figure something else out.
2) The Return of El Pinata- Honestly, I'm afraid to even bring this one up, for fear of inviting in disaster, but I'm just going to say it: Joel Pineiro has been one of the best starters in the National League this year. There. I said it. Joel Pineiro has been, in a word, brilliant.
Much has been made of whether or not Pineiro's success this season is sustainable, but that's really a loaded question. When you look at his peripherals, you have to answer that yes, it is sustainable. It isn't as if he's somehow lucking into a low ERA; if anything, he's actually been somewhat unlucky, with an FIP that's even lower than his ERA. (2.96 vs. 3.20) On the other hand, one does have to question whether or not Pineiro can keep up what he's done so far this year. As I wrote a while back over at Viva El Birdos, Pineiro has essentially been pitching this year much like a Hall of Famer - from the Dead Ball era. Pitchers simply don't maintain the kind of ridiculously low walk and home run rates that Pineiro is posting this season, not in this day and age, anyway. The fact is, at some point in time, Jo-El almost has to fall off the beam he's currently balancing on, at least a little bit. Whether that happens this year in a Cardinal uniform or next year, (hopefully), somewhere else, will go a long way toward determining what this rotation ends up looking like at season's end.
The Bottom Line
Of all the teams in the NL Central, the two that I see as legitimate contenders are the Cardinals and the Milwaukee Brewers. I know, the Cubs have all this talent and should be better than they are, but I just don't like the makeup of that team. Too many questions in the rotation, especially with Ryan Dempster now on the disabled list, and too many underperforming hitters. I realize the fact so many of their hitters are underperforming could just mean the Cubs are in line for a wicked bounceback, but somehow I'm just not feeling it. I suppose the Astros could very well go on one of their patented second-half tears, but I look at that club, and I just don't believer they're all that good. How they've managed to stay in the race to this point is absolutely beyond me. The Reds could make some noise, with that pitching staff, but I think they need some offensive help (something I never thought I would say about the Reds), and I don't believe they have the room to add much salary.
So it's the Cardinals and Brewers, I think, battling it out for the rest of the season. The Brewers might have the advantage in terms of scheduling; they play only one series against a team with a record better than .500 between now and the beginning of September. On the other hand, I also think the Cardinas' schedule could help them out, with the large number of off days they have coming up. Those 28 game in 27 day stretches early in the year will yield to a positively leisurely pace down the stretch. Unfortunately, the Cardinals also still have to play the Dodgers this year, which is no picnic.
In the end, I think the division may very well come down to which of the two teams at the top, Cardinals or Brewers, manages to add a piece in the next couple of weeks. The Cardinals could use an offensive upgrade, even with the return of Mark DeRosa, while the Brewers badly need to bolster their starting pitching. Both teams are reportedly very interested in acquiring Roy Halladay, but I think it's much more likely the Brewers could get him. Milwaukee has the kind of high-impact minor league talent the Cardinals lack, and are probably in a little better shape in terms of payroll. (Not much, though.) Personally, the more I look at it, the less likely I think it is Halladay gets moved at all this year. Teams simply aren't willing to trade away the kind of talent haul the Blue Jays want for him. In the modern economy of the game, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to empty your farm system for one player, even one with the kind of impact potential of Roy Halladay.
My prediction for the division: neither the Cardinals nor the Brewers can make that big trade, with both teams making smaller deals for marginal upgrades. The Brewers get a back-end starter, while the Cards bring in a right-handed platoon guy for left field. The race stays close until the very end, with the Cardinals eking out a division crown by two games.
On the other hand, if the Cardinals can get the whole team on board with the mustaches, even those who have held out to this point, they win the division by nineteen.