Playoff-bound Cards have been disappointing

Entering the 2006 season, most reasonable expectations had the St. Louis Cardinals winning 95 games or so and running away with the NL Central title. After all, this was team that had tallied 205 wins over the previous two seasons and returned much of their core talent from a year ago.

Well, it's now late August, and while St. Louis is in first place, their lead over the Reds is a narrow one, and they're on pace for only 87 wins despite playing the weakest schedule in the game. So it's a decent team, but it's a flawed one. They're still, in all likelihood, headed for the post-season (Baseball Prospects gives the Cardinals an 80.0% chance of making the playoffs), but it's nonetheless appropriate to call this team a disappointment. This raises two questions: one, what's gone wrong, and, two, can they hang on?

As for the first query, it's a two-fronted failure. The Cardinals rank eighth in the NL in runs scored and seventh in the NL in runs allowed. In other words, in both broad phases of the game, they've been roundly mediocre.

On offense, Albert Pujols is producing at an MVP clip (.326 AVG/.429 OBP/.674 SLG, on pace for 49 homers and 36 doubles), Scott Rolen has been excellent when healthy, Jim Edmonds remains solid, Chris Duncan has been exceptional off the bench, and John Rodriguez is doing his job.

What's killing the Cardinal attack is sub-optimal production at catcher (Yadier Molina and Gary Bennett have combined to hit .215 AVG/.269 OBP/.318 SLG, while the average major league catcher in 2006 has put up a batting line of .270 AVG/.329 OBP/.416 SLG), a paltry OBP from Juan Encarnacion and a steady decline by David Eckstein. The middle-of-the-order bats continue to be solid, but the surrounding cast hasn't done its job.

As run prevention goes, the team defense is once again above average, but St. Louis is suffering from a complete rotation meltdown behind Chris Carpenter and terrible left-handed relief. Carpenter has once again excelled (168.1 innings, 3.05 ERA, 4.06 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but remove his numbers from the calculus and the Cardinals rotation has a cumulative ERA of 5.35.

In more damning terms, Cardinal starters not named Chris Carpenter have been about as effective as the Orioles' rotation. For the uninitiated, that qualifies as "not terribly effective." Pitching coach Dave Duncan has a reputation for being a savior to mid-career under-performers, but in 2006 he's been unable to perform his alchemy on Sidney Ponson or Jeff Weaver, among others.

And then there's the bullpen. The right-handed corps has been reasonably effective, but the Cards have gotten terrible efforts from their port-siders. Specifically, Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson — the two lefties currently on the roster — both have ERAs over 5.00. With bats like Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Lance Berkman (who's much better from the left side), Prince Fielder lurking in the division and given Tony La Russa's long-standing fondness for the platoon advantage, that's a serious problem.

On a more systemic level, Cardinals pitchers can't keep the ball in the park. Despite the fact that the new Busch Stadium, thus far, is playing as a below-average home run park, only three NL teams — the Reds, Cubs and Phillies (teams that all play their home games in great power parks) — have allowed more homers this season. The problem isn't a failure to keep the ball on the ground — St. Louis has the second-highest groundball-fly ball rate in the NL; rather, as the Hardball Times Web site points out, it's that such a high percentage of those fly balls are leaving the yard. That's a problem that's simply not correctable on the fly (so to speak).

The prevailing matter, of course, is whether the Cardinals have enough in the fold to make the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. The answer is probably so. Right now, they're two games up on the Reds in the Central and four games up on Padres, the closest wild card contender other than Cincinnati.

Then again, the Cardinals, in their decision-making processes, are doing their level best to make things interesting. Mark Mulder, he of the 6.09 ERA, returns from the DL on Wednesday to face the Mets, and he'll replace rookie Anthony Reyes in the rotation. Reyes has been squarely middling this season, but he he's also been the second-best Cardinals starter since being called up in Mulder's stead. It's that aversion to his rookie-ness and not the merits of his label-mates that's about to do him in. It's a mistake. Even if Mulder returns to form, it's not Reyes who should be bumped. It's Jeff Weaver. Or Jason Marquis. Or Jeff Suppan. You get the idea.

Fortunately for the Cardinals the competition in the NL — it's really more "drunken Super Soaker fights" than "hotly contested pennant races" — is so weak that they enjoy a reasonably safe margin for error. That's really the heart of the matter here. If St. Louis toiled in any AL division, they'd be idly paring their nails this October, but those aren't their straits.

This isn't a great team, and at times it's not even a particularly good team; however, the Cardinals, warts and all, are headed to the playoffs once again. Just don't expect much from them in the post-season once those pitchers and their rampant cases of gopheritis run into a powerful team such as the Mets. They might have a playoff team in St. Louis, but they don't have a certifiable threat to win the World Series.

Dayn Perry is a frequent contributor to FOXSports.com and author of the new book, "Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones" (Available now at Amazon.com).


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