Not that I want to spend more time strolling down memory lane, but here is a quick recap of where the St. Louis Cardinals' players ended the 2004 regular season in aggregate in several key offensive statistics and in comparison to the rest of the National League. It serves as one reference point by which to measure the 2005 squad.
2004 Cardinals' team statistics:
Batting average: #1 (.278)
On-base percentage: #3 (.344)
Runs: #1 (855)
Total bases: #2 (2553)
Doubles: #2 (319)
Home runs: #3 (214)
Walks: #8 (546)
Strikeouts: #8 (1085)
What does this say? What we already knew, right? The 2004 Cardinals hit for average, they hit for power and were in the middle of the pack in the 16-team National League in free passes and strikeouts.
As 2004 moved to 2005, many believed that an entire season of Larry Walker and a young Yadier Molina would more than offset the loss of Edgar Renteria and Tony Womack. Renteria, of course, was coming off a sub-par year for him, while Womack exceeded everyone's expectations. In fact, I bet if he were honest with himself, Womack exceeded his own expectations.
Anyway, where are we after two weeks into the 2005 season? Scott Rolen has found his stroke at the right time. The team is in first place, coming off a nice sweep on the road over the Brewers and is preparing to feast on weak, perennially-bad Pittsburgh. I am not the only one who is well aware that the last winning season the Buccos posted was way back in 1992.
So, don't worry, be happy, right? Wrong.
In looking at the numbers from the first two weeks, the Cardinals' powerful 2004 offense is nowhere to be found. They have been replaced by a feeble and anemic lot. In fact, so far, the 2005 Cardinals' hitters aren't just bad – they're the worst in the league. Yes, even worse than the Pirates. In fact, they are substantially worse that all other teams in an alarming number of categories.
The Cardinals' current 2005 NL rankings:
Batting average: Dead last = #16 (.220). The next worst team is 12 points higher.
On-base percentage: Dead last = #16 (.283). The next worst team is 22 points higher.
Runs: Second to last = #15 (43). Only the Pirates are worse with 37.
Total bases: Dead last = #16 (130). The next worst team has 144.
Doubles: Dead last = #16 (11). The next worst team has 14.
Home runs: Tied for #1 (15).
Walks: Dead last = #16 (27). The next worst team has 33.
Strikeouts: #1 (46). The next best team has 56.
That, my friends, is downright ugly.
Sure, there are a couple of highlights. Despite all the mediocrity, the Cardinals are still slamming the long balls prolifically, sharing the league lead. They also are putting the ball into play, as they have fanned fewer times than any other NL squad.
On the other hand, they are clearly not a patient lot at the plate. In fact, their walk rate is 50% lower than the average of the rest of the league (40.2). That isn't even close to being acceptable.
As I mentioned, the boys are still going for the downs, as the home run total confirms. However, they are not driving the ball. Where are the gappers? Eleven doubles in ten games is downright awful, especially for a team that averaged almost two per game last year.
As a team, the pitching has kept the offense in the game long enough to win. The team ERA is tenth best in the league. Yet, that is still a far cry from the 2004 squad, who lost the league's ERA crown on the final day of the regular season.
Other bright spots on the pitching blotter are the league bests in saves, five, and fewest home runs allowed, six (tie). The latter number is especially gratifying after last season's team was serving them up at a record pace for the first month. Still, I'll wait to celebrate until after Matt Morris pitches a few games.
So, back to the offense, then. Who are the culprits? I've decided to break this down by the batting order.
Table-setters: David Eckstein has met or exceeded all expectations offensively, or has he? After all, he is hitting a respectable .265 and more importantly, gotten on base at a robust .419 clip. So, what bad can I say about that? How about two runs scored? Not yesterday - that's his run tally for the entire season to-date! Granted, it's not his fault that no one can drive him in, but still…
Larry Walker's back must still be hurting him. How else can one explain a .206 batting average and a team-high seven strikeouts? Where's that bat control for which Walker is known?
Run-producers: Albert Pujols is hitting an un-Pujols-like .275, but he started slowly last season, too. He has three home runs, but only five RBI. Even more surprising is that he has only one double. Stop trying to do too much and just drive the ball, Albert.
Scott Rolen seemed to snap out of his long funk with six hits the past two days. Let's hope he can keep it up. His average is all the way up to .244 and he also has the same number of extra-base hits as Albert, four.
Jim Edmonds has yet to heat up, with a .269 average, but his on-base percentage is a nice .375 due to his team-high five walks.
Reggie Sanders escaped from exile in the seventh hole and leads the team with four home runs and eight RBI. However, Sanders could use a few singles, too, as his average is just .233. I don't know about you, but while I am happy for Sanders' power display, I am really disturbed that he is leading this offense in homers and RBI this far into the season. That had better change soon.
Bottom third: Mark Grudzielanek had a nice spring and is healthy. However, he is hitting a disappointing .226 with just one walk on the season. I thought he was supposed to be a patient hitter? I can see why Tony La Russa moved him down and Sanders back up. I get a real kick out of the Cardinals' media notes, which as recently as Sunday were bragging that Grudz had a ".389 average in the team's four wins". I guess he really stunk in the other games, then.
I am not going to pile on Yadier Molina. Yes, he is 1-for-29 at the plate, but hey, he did draw one walk, too. Seriously, he is handling the staff well, and doing the job with baserunners. But, whoda' thunk that Mike Matheny's offense would be missed?
In aggregate, the pitching staff has driven in four runs, which sadly, is better than Eckstein, Walker and Molina combined. Incredibly, Jason Marquis owns the only triple among those on the 25-man roster. However, the hurlers' combined .100 average is nothing to write home about.
So, there you have it. The optimists would say that we should be pleased that the team has managed to win 60% of their games while clearly not hitting on all cylinders. But, 60% may not be good enough to win the Central Division.
Some wins are nice, as is first-place among a bunch of .500 teams, early-on. But, things are not just fine in River City. Confusing guys like Victor Santos and his career 5.17 ERA with Cy Young needs to stop. Simply put, this Cardinals' offense has a lot of work to do just to become average. The good news is that there are 152 games left to do it.
Let's hope they start tonight.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.