A Few Thoughts About The Recent Slide
It is beyond belief that a team built as well as the 2012 Cardinals are playing this badly. Even with the injuries, this was easily the deepest team in the National League. We have one of the most potentially-potent lineups in the game, a solid four man rotation, a promising bullpen, and lots of goodwill.
But whatever this team should be, it isn’t. Instead, we’ve witnessed one of the worst stretches of Cardinal baseball by a team built to repeat. It has been catastrophically bad. I often spend game days staring vacantly at this team like a farmer coming out of his storm shelter after a tornado ripped through his house.
Here are a few thoughts and questions I have as I attempt to make some off-day sense of the last several weeks.
1. Matheny is still a rookie. We lobbied hard for Mike Matheny to take over this team last August. I still believe he has the inner strength and intelligence to be a successful big league manager. For instance, I think he’s handled the early-season adversity well, and he’s done a fine job propping up deflated teammates.
Most of his in-game work has been fine as well. Managers are much like relievers; you never notice what they’re doing until they screw up. If we gauge Matheny’s performance thus far by the level of bitching among fans, then I would suggest that he’s done remarkably well. Overall, they haven’t spouted too many angry tweets and cross-eyed, punctuation-free rants on message boards.
But yesterday was a tipping point. Regardless of what anyone thought about Matheny’s fifth-inning gambit to safety-squeeze with runners at second and third and no outs (I wasn’t totally against it), the resulting play went over like a sardine cake at a five year-old’s birthday party. Hopefully Matheny has a bomb shelter free of television and the internet, because Matheny Season officially opened yesterday afternoon and the hunters are fully loaded.
The point is that Matheny is going to make a lot of mistakes in this job. Be grateful that we didn’t have to experience Hall Of Fame Manager Tony La Russa’s™ first few seasons as manager of the Chicago White Sox, where he had losing records for three seasons before finally figuring it out. If you think Matheny’s handling of the bullpen is bad in his second month as manager, just try to recall how bad TLR handled it last year in his 492nd season as manager.
Matheny is learning. He has the luxury of a good team behind him that is starting to recover some health. Give him more time before you threaten to eat his children.
2. What the hell is John Mozeliak doing?? If anyone wants to whine about the current state of the team, Mozeliak is the better target. The move yesterday – demoting Maikel Cleto to make room for Skip Schumaker – seems like the most ridiculously bizarre and nonsensical GM move since the Brock/Broglio trade.
Sure, let’s keep Shane Robinson (batting .116 in May, .250 overall) and Adron Chambers (.250 avg., .300 slugging) on the team and lose a bullpen arm that throws fastballs 98 miles per hour! That sounds intelligent!
I’m all for Mozeliak showing some amount of patience. His mostly-patient approach in the first half last year proved to be wise. However, even 2011 Mozeliak hacked off dead weight like Ryan Franklin and Miguel Batista in May/June! The 2012 bullpen has been an unmitigated disaster again, but what has Mozeliak done about it? Released non-factors like J.C. Romero and Scott Linebrink??
Mozeliak needs to stop worrying about matching his scarves to his expensive suits and start concerning himself with cleaning up the mess around here. He gambled that the 2012 team would be fine despite indications from certain relievers and starters that injury problems might confound the plans. That gamble has not worked. So instead of playing the waiting game, some moves need to be made.
3. What kinds of moves can we make? As yesterday showed, the bullpen is such a disaster that Obama should have the National Guard surrounding the stadium. It pains me to say this, but Eduardo Sanchez needs to be demoted and Brandon Dickson brought up to replace him as a stabilizing influence. The Marc Rzepczynski situation needs to be addressed quickly as well, probably in the form of a second quality left-hander, not Sam Freeman.
The rotation is in trouble, too. We have no idea how Chris Carpenter will respond to baseball action once he finally returns. Jake Westbrook will continue his schizophrenic decent-to-bad output. Jaime Garcia will probably not be back this year. That leaves Adam Wainwright, Lance Lynn, and (gulp) Kyle Lohse to shoulder the bulk of starting pressures. We really need another starter if we’re trying to win this year. Although Joe Kelly has performed admirably, he’s still out of his depth. We need a number three starter who can give us some innings.
So, if we can get a lefty in the bullpen and a starter, we could really correct our course in a hurry.
I think the rest of the roster is fine if we could get them back in one piece. I’m not counting on much from Lance Berkman besides morale this season, so anything he gives us beyond that is a bonus after knee surgery. Jon Jay would be another important add to this lineup if his shoulder ever comes back (apparently he’s making progress). At 100%, this is the most potent lineup in baseball, so Mozeliak waiting a while for this team to heal is not a bad idea.
4. How important is chemistry right now? I’d say it’s as important as any other factor, but of course I would say that given how much I believe in momentum and other mystical baseball intangibles. This team is beaten down right now, and their play is reflecting that. They’re missing key clubhouse components like Berkman, Schumaker, Carpenter, and Jay. As Joe Strauss recently noted, the clubhouse is much quieter these days. The team has lost some of its swagger.
I always love how baseball people (mostly stat heads) scoff at the importance of chemistry on a baseball team (really, any sports team). The 2011 miracle Cardinals should’ve dispelled any doubts, as they practically rode chemistry all the way to a Series win.
But just as good chemistry and determined attitudes can ignite an incredible run of victories, sour, defeated attitudes can send a team into a tailspin. Notice how Rafael Furcal‘s June swoon (.143 avg., one extra base hit) has coincided with the team’s worst stretch of baseball? Sure, Furcal not getting on base hurts the team. However, Furcal’s REACTION to his struggles has hurt just as much. Furcal is pressing, frustrated, angry, and it’s reflected in the team. Just as Furcal’s lightness and positive spirit infused the 2011 team with a winning attitude, his current mood has turned the clubhouse into a quieter, less joyful place.
5. What is our goal this season? This is a question I’d like truthfully answered from someone. If we are still in a “win-now” stance (which, I believe, we are), then the current course of the organization confuses me. If a team wants to “win now,” they sometimes need to sacrifice potential talent for big, winning pieces, yet I don’t see that from the organization. Instead, they seem intent on greedily holding onto their prized farm system prospects and current roster potential.
In fact, I’m starting to wonder if the Colby Rasmus trade would’ve happened last year if Tony La Russa and Rasmus could’ve gotten along. I can totally see a scenario where the team makes a less important trade at the deadline while keeping Rasmus, in which case we do not win the Series.
Sometimes you need to let go of prospects if you really want to win it right now. There is always risk (see: the Mark DeRosa trade), but that’s the job. Would we be better off trading Shelby Miller for a starter and a reliever? These are tough questions, and I’m not sure the organization and the fans are ready to answer them.
Instead of a “win now” mentality, I see the Cardinals adopting a plan to be fairly competitive while constructing a new team made up of young (and cheap) talent. Mozeliak locked up Carlos Beltran and Furcal for two years, clearly aiming for that window when new talent would emerge in their places. He has staggered the pitching contracts to allow room for new pitching from the minors. I have no problem with that at all; in fact, I consider that some of Mozeliak’s best work.
But that does handcuff what the organization can expect to do this year. Publicly they’ve insisted that the Cardinals are planning to repeat as World Champions. Their actions have insinuated another agenda, at least to this point.
6. Is it time to panic? Probably a little bit. This team isn’t performing up to its expectations (it’s currently six games below its Pythagorean projected record). Some of the solutions are more esoteric than others. The Reds have suddenly caught fire, compiling the best record in baseball over the last month. Frankly, it’s shocking that we’re only five back.
I’d like to see this team with a few of its injured pieces back. However, I’d also like to see the front office and team management take more positive steps to correct a failing course.
In the meantime, let’s hope for a change in the wind.