Paper Tigers?

I don't mean to be a naysayer, but I have to admit I'm nervous. The question seems to be that is the upgrade to the pitching staff this year and the continued strength of the bullpen going to counter balance the lineup which has been aside from Pujols, Grudzielanek and Eckstein has been frustratingly hit and miss (no pun intended). Rex Duncan did a nice column on "Game 5" between the Red Sox and Cards and mentioned some of his reservations which I'm using as a launching pad.

Last year's lineup was particularly dangerous because behind the greatest #3 hitter that I've ever seen you had three guys in Rolen, Edmonds and Renteria who were devastatingly effective cleanup hitters. Throw Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker into the mix and there was no let up. I won't repeat what others in Cardinal Nation have been pointing out—that the losses of Womack and Renteria ended up offensively being at the very least a wash with our current middle infield. But with Grudzielanek still bouncing around the batting order, Rolen injured (and before that looking subpar), Edmonds yet to have one of his (in)famous hot streaks and Larry Walker frankly looking out of gas, there seems to be little consistency in the lineup for the guys at the top of the order. As a result there often seems to be little concern in walking Pujols. While the problem is nowhere near Bonds level, it does seem like opposing teams aren't expecting mistakes and baserunners to come back to haunt them.

The thing is we still keep winning. We still lead the National League in runs & RBI, 2nd in OBP, 3rd in Slugging and 4th in average and Home Runs. The Cardinals keep coming through, although you never really know who it's going to be. That's a strength, but a little outright intimidation wouldn't hurt either. Brian Walton's proposed 4th outfielder—an idea which I liked but didn't consider a necessity, seems to be less like a luxury and more like a necessary component for success. For example, at this point Larry Walker has only 13 more hits, 3 more RBI's and the same number of home runs as Scott Rolen (who was having a subpar year until his injury) and has played 50 games to Rolen's 30.

The bright side so far is Reggie Sanders who still strikes out a lot, but has been almost matching Jim Edmonds offensively and has been making good on his stated desire to be a 30-30 man this year. As time goes on it's clear that Mabry and Taguchi have officially been exposed by overuse (Mabry less so).

The constructive question becomes what should be done?

Patience is going to be key—even if Edmonds' numbers end up being more like his '03 campaign than '04, he still is formidable and with a flair for the dramatic both at the plate and in center field. Reggie Sanders is on pace for a career year. Walker is the big mystery. And before you start sending your hate mail I like Larry Walker, but it's clear that Walker is struggling; he looks uncomfortable at the plate and with as much time off as La Russa has been giving him it raises suspicion (mine at least) about if there's something more at work.

With the trade deadline still a month and a half away—and with Walt Jocketty seemingly making magic happen even after the deadline it seems that the urgency of how to proceed (and how aggressively) will depend on a couple factors. First is Scott Rolen. If he can bounce back and put together a second half of the season like the first half of '04 this discussion is academic. Walker himself also has a hand in how things unfold—if he manages to put it together or get healthy (whichever he needs) that would alleviate some of the urgency. Finally the Cubs (or anyone else in the Central who could be making a run) may require Jocketty and La Russa to make a move to bolster the lineup. Assuming that there are no other pressing injuries or personnel issues the Cards do have a hole for a decent outfielder with power who can hit for average—in other words, aside from the usual Jocketty magic, someone who isn't going to come cheap or easy.

After seeing what this team can do (first two games of the recent Red Sox series and game one of the Yankees series) when they're clicking and what happens when they're not (game three against the Sox and game two with the Yanks…) While things are going well, this is a team which hasn't been able to kick into high gear consistently and maybe adding a new face to the mix would be a needed spark for the closing stretch into the post season.

You can write to Joe Mammy at joe@joe-mammy.com


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