June Is Not the Time For Complacency

The St. Louis Cardinals stand atop the National League Central Division with a 6.5 game lead over their historic rivals, the Chicago Cubs. The Redbirds boast one of the best records in the league with a fear-invoking line-up that makes faint hearts shudder on the mound. Their starting pitching has ridden the waves between lousy, excellent, and pretty good. The bullpen survived an early test of having its closer on the disabled list and held its ground well enough.

Celebration is obviously premature. The first half of a season is one of instruction and evaluation before the real post-All Star Game stretch begins in July. The first third of the season so far for the Cardinals has indeed been instructive and has offered up a cautionary note about depth and sustainability. The talent on this team is proving to be a mile wide and an inch deep.

The first warning came with the disabling of closer Jason Isringhausen. Izzy's abdominal strain not only damaged him physically, but it also ripped the guts out of the bullpen. With the established closer on the bench, the rest of the bullpen was required to assume uncharacteristic and unfamiliar roles for which some of those members were ill-prepared to fill.

Izzy's injury shuffled the entire deck for the bullpen, and some – including Bill Pulsipher and Jimmy Journell – were found lacking. Izzy's return stabilized the bullpen, but it remains a potential sore spot until Cal Eldred and Mike Lincoln are able to return and demonstrate their abilities to carry a load. Pitching coach Dave Duncan will be tested to determine the long-term effectiveness of his bullpen and how best to address any continued weaknesses.

The age and brittle health of the nursing home the Cardinals call an outfield has revealed a major weakness in the offensive depth from the bench. So Taguchi is extremely capable defensively, but finds himself in an enormous slump that saw him pass catcher Yadier Molina on the way down toward to Mendoza line as Molina vaulted up past it.

Taguchi's failure to maintain his early-season offensive form is probably not surprising given his history, but this slump is hurting the team because the other bench outfielder, Roger Cedeno, has been offensively non-existent and lacks the defensive credentials that Taguchi offers. Cedeno is throwing up goose eggs at the plate faster than an octopus in a snowball fight. Cedeno literally at this point has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel towards getting his walking papers.

Memphis can't provide any help in this situation. No one at the triple-A level offers the abilities to add the offensive pop needed off the Cardinal bench. The John Gall Fan Club, all six of them, lobbied long and hard last year to get their man up and dressed in the birds-on-bat. They are silent this year as Gall's offensive performance in Memphis has been unimpressive, though improving. Gall is now batting .284, the highest it has been this year. Gall does lead the Redbirds in RBI's, but he just isn't the solution.

Scuttlebutt has it that master-GM Walt Jocketty is exploring some trade deadline swaps that might bring a younger, more durable and offensively productive outfielder in from another team, most likely a pending free agent in his walk year whose current team is seeking some value before losing it all in the off-season bidding wars. Wily Mo Pena and Austin Kearns of the Cincinnati Reds have been mentioned among others.

This is a plausible and necessary scenario given that this is most likely Larry Walker's last year in St. Louis before he either walks as a free agent or, more probably, retires. With Jim Edmonds at 35 and Reggie Sanders at 37, this outfield is aging faster than La Russa and Jocketty can plug the holes. Expect to see at least two new faces in the outfield when the Cardinals open the 2006 campaign.

The last weak spot uncovered during the last couple of weeks is the intrinsic value of Scott Rolen to this team. During his time on the disabled list after shoulder surgery, the Cardinals have been winning, but seem to lack the offensive and defensive sparks that Rolen brings to the line-up. Abraham Nunez and John Mabry have done an excellent job filling in, but they are clearly no substitute for future Hall-of-Famer Rolen. Rolen simply brings an unparalleled level of quality to the hot corner that can't be replaced. Tony La Russa has been quick to commend Nunez and Mabry, but he has also been quick to add that he needs Rolen back. He is absolutely correct. The Cardinals are a visibly weaker team without Scott Rolen.

Lastly, the post-All-Star Game schedule is heavily NL Central as it should be. Of the 23 series left in the season after the break, 14 are against division opponents. In September, eight of the nine series are head-to-head with inter-division rivals. To date, the Cardinals own their Central opponents, but as some of the teams – especially the Cubs – return key players off the DL, the competition could heat up.

While certainly the games count now, the proof of the true quality of this team won't be seen until all of the pieces to the puzzle are in place, either from players returning from the DL or acquired from an out-of-contention team. That may not happen until after the July 31 trade deadline. The National League Central Division will be won in August and September, not during these days of experimentation, recuperation, and, to borrow from the King of Siam, puzzlement.

You can write to Rex Duncan at rdunc221@yahoo.com

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