Analysis and Prediction: The NL Central Contenders

Cardinals:

Remaining Schedule: The Cards (71-61) play all but two series against NL Central opponents. They play seven games against a dangerous, nothing-to-lose Cubs team,  seven more games against the Reds, three games versus the Pirates, and here’s the big one: seven games against the Brewers. In between all of those games, the Cards play a series against the cellar-dwelling Rockies and a series against the struggling Diamondbacks. Considering the fact that the Cards are 31-21 against NL Central opponents, this turns out to be a pretty favorable schedule.

Injury Report: At long last, Michael Wacha and Yadier Molina are set to return to the Cards around the middle of September, providing a much-needed boost to this team.

Prediction: With Wacha and Molina coming back, the Cards will finally chase the Brewers for good and take the NL Central crown. The Cards play a much easier schedule than the Brewers or Pirates, plus they have played well in the division this season.

Brewers:

Remaining Schedule: The Brewers (73-60) have a very similar schedule to the Cards, except their out of division games are against two contending Wild Card teams: the Giants and Marlins. A nine-game road trip to St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati from September 16-25 will likely decide their fate, but the Brew Crew can take comfort in the fact that they are better on the road (37-29 record) than at home (36-31). Nonetheless, Milwaukee is just 29-25 against NL Central opponents this season, so this heavy slate of divisional competition might not be a good thing for this team.

Injury Report: Starting pitcher Matt Garza is expected to return to the club very soon after suffering a left rib cage strain that placed him on the 15-day DL.

Prediction: The Brewers will slip out of first place and settle for the top Wild Card spot. They have tougher out of division series than the Cards, and they have not been great against divisional opponents, so I expect the Brewers to win as many games as they lose from here on out.

Pirates:

Remaining Schedule: The Pirates (69-64) have the hardest schedule out of the three NL Central contenders. First and foremost, the Buccos have to play 17 out of the remaining 29 games on the road, and they are significantly worse on the road (27-37 record) than at home (42-27). Pittsburgh also plays three series out of the division against the Phillies, Red Sox, and Braves. Combine all of this with the fact that the Pirates finish the season on a seven-game road trip, and you get the feeling that the odds are not in their favor.

Injury Report: The Pirates are a relatively healthy team, but starting pitcher Charlie Morton is expected to return for the stretch run. Additionally, Andrew McCutchen is back from his injury, but who knows if he can stay healthy for the final month.

Prediction: The Pirates will eventually fall out of contention for one of the Wild-Card spots and miss the playoffs entirely. This will be a disappointing end to the season considering how they made it to the playoffs a year ago, but the Buccos are faced with too many tough road games to overcome these challenges.

The Enigma of Oscar Taveras

As each new September rolls around, major league clubs find themselves staring down the barrel of another down season or a legitimate shot at a playoff berth. The ambiguity that exists at the trade deadline of if some teams will contend or not has disappeared by the time the dog days have passed a the end of August. So while the contenders are preparing for that final playoff push, everyone else is left with 15 new unoccupied roster spots to scout out some talent for the coming years. In years past, the September call-ups have often held only one true story of intrigue; when will Oscar Taveras finally be called up?

Oscar Taveras

Oscar Taveras

Coming in 2014, Oscar Taveras was the third highest ranked prospect in all of professional baseball, but he had not so much as sniffed a big league uniform. Over six minor league seasons at various levels, Taveras had posted an incredible .320 batting average and .516 slugging percentage. Cards’ fans awaited Taveras’ arrival like a dog at the door when his owner returns from work.

In 2014, Taveras finally arrived. And he hit a home run in his first at-bat. Since then? Not much else.

After his much ballyhooed debut homer, Taveras cratered and has only slightly recovered. As of today, Taveras is hitting .233/.272/.306 with an abysmal -0.7 WAR. Taveras has only hit one more homer since his debut and has made a return trip to the minors. His OPS+ currently sits at 61 which is worse than the Reds’ light hitting shortstop Zach Cozart. All of which brings us to the question: what the heck happened to Oscar Taveras?

According to Fangraphs, Taveras has been swinging at 34% of the pitches he sees outside of the strikezone and making contact with 84% of those swings. Both of those statistics explain Taveras’ heightened groundball rate of 52% and why he hasn’t been hitting for power all season long. Because Taveras his swinging at bad pitches, he’s making weak contact resulting in more outs.

So will he continue like this or return to form? Conventional wisdom says that as Taveras adjusts to Major League pitching, he will stop swinging at bad pitches and thus return to form. Fangraphs supports this assessment with their five year projection indicating Taveras to be a yearly 3.5 to 4 WAR player. Fear not Cards’ fans, the Taveras you’ve long awaited should be due to arrive next spring.

Game Recap: Cards’ Rally Falls Short in 5-2 Defeat

The Bottom Line: After the Pirates took a 2-0 lead in the middle innings, the Cards mounted a rally in the seventh inning when Jon Jay hit a sacrifice fly and rookie Randal Grichuk belted a pinch-hit RBI single to tie the game 2-2. Nonetheless, Ike Davis responded with the game-winning hit for the Pirates when he hit a three-run shot in the eighth inning to give the Buccos a crucial 5-2 victory at home.

Lynn Unrewarded for Quality Start: Starting pitcher Lance Lynn (14-8, 2.79 ERA) tossed six innings and conceded just two runs on six hits, but he came away without a decision as the Cards couldn’t provide enough run support for him. Coming into this start, Lynn had notched three consecutive victories while allowing only four earned runs total, but he was ultimately outdueled by Gerrit Cole.

Lance Lynn’s quality start wasn’t enough to lift the Cards to a win.

What’s Next: In the series finale, Adam Wainwright (15-8, 2.52 ERA) looks to get back on track and deliver a series victory when he faces left-handed pitcher Jeff Locke (5-3, 3.69 ERA) at 11:35 AM in Pittsburgh.

Game Preview: Cards at Bucs (8/26/2014)

After last night’s win, the Cards sit just 1.5 games back of the Brewers in the Central and are firmly in control of the wild card race. The Pirates, meanwhile, are still in the hunt for a wild card spot but are fading fast in terms of vying for the NL Central. Over their past 10 games, the Pirates are 3-7 while the Cards are 7-3.

Lance Lynn

The Pitching Matchup: Lance Lynn (14-8, 2.78 ERA) is pitching tonight for the Cards in his third appearance against the Pirates this season. In the previous two matchups, Lynn gave up six earned runs in 12 2/3 innings pitched and 15 hits. He took the loss in the first matchup but redeemed himself in the second to earn the win. So far this season, Lynn has been leagues better in night games as opposed to day games, posting a 2.o2 ERA in night games but a 5.56 ERA in day games. Against this current Pirates’ lineup, Starling Marte is 6 for 15 with two doubles and Neil Walker is 8 for 26 with two homers.

For the Pirates tonight is sophomore pitcher Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.69 ERA). This will be Cole’s second start since his return from his second stint on the DL this season. In his first game back, Cole gave up only two earned runs in 7 innings to earn the win. Cole has faced the Cards twice before this season, giving up three earned runs in 14 innings pitched with seven strikeouts. Cole is primarily a groundball pitcher, so coupling that with the Pirates’ propensity to play the shift, this could be a long afternoon for the Cards.

The Skinny: Both pitchers throwing tonight are the up-and-comers on their respective teams. Lynn has truly proved himself this season as the Cards’ number two behind Wainwright and should carry the mantle for years to come. Gerrit Cole is also heralded as the next big thing in Pittsburgh despite his numerous arm injuries over the course of 2014. I expect today’s game to be a pitcher’s duel that could swing either way.

Game Recap: Cards Outlast Bucs 3-2

The Bottom Line: Matt Holliday singled home two runs in the top of the seventh to push the Cards past the Pirates in the opener of a three game set. John Lackey gave up an early solo home run to Pedro Alvarez but recovered to go 7 strong innings with three strikeouts.

Positives:

  • So far this season, the Cards are 4-1 in John Lackey’s starts. The veteran right hander has proven to be a quality deadline pick up going 7 innings in three of his five starts as a Cardinal.
  • Pat Neshek continued his dominate season tonight, throwing around inning of scoreless baseball. Neshek’s ERA sits at a miniscule 0.81.
  • Trevor Rosenthal picked up his 39th save despite giving up a run on a solo home run.
  • Jon Jay got the job done in his one pinch hit at-bat, knocking in a run and setting up Matt Holliday’s two-RBI single.

Negatives:

  • Peter Bourjos is batting .228 on the season and was hitting in the 2-hole tonight. That is simply unacceptable. I know he has to play, but at the very least bat him eighth.
  • Oscar Taveras went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts. The rookie has had a pretty up and down year since his debut, but the promise for greatness is still there.

What’s Next: Lance Lynn (14-8, 2.78 ERA) goes against Gerritt Cole (7-4, 3.69 ERA) tomorrow evening at PNC Park.

Game Recap: Cards Top Phils in Extras 6-5

The Bottom Line: Matt Carpenter knocked in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in the top of the 12th to propel the Cards to their eighth win in their last 10 games. Shelby Miller also went 6 solid innings, only giving up three earned runs on five hits.

Positives:

  • Jhonny Peralta started the Cards’ scoring with a solo shot in the top of the 2nd. The homer puts Peralta at 18 for the season which sits as the most by a Cardinals’ shortstop in all of franchise history.
  • Shelby Miller threw 6 quality innings and left the game with a two-run lead in hand. Miller has been on and off for the Cards all season, even being relegated to the bullpen at a point, but he has continually shown signs of having dominant stuff. As it seems that Michael Wacha may miss the rest of the regular season, Miller will truly have to step up in his absence.
  • The Cardinals bullpen (with one exception) was phenomenal tonight throwing 6 innings and only giving up two runs. Pat Neshek lowered his season ERA to a miniscule 0.83, and Trevor Rosenthal picked up his 38th save of the season. But…

Negatives:

  • Randy Choate had a bad day. In his one inning of work, Choate gave up two earned runs on two hits and a hit by pitch. Considering the Cardinals won and Choate has been a phenomenal LOOGY over the years, tonight’s performance is inconsequential.

Extras:

  • The Cards are now 5-4 in extra inning games this season and 23-20 in one run games.
  • ESPN currently has the Cardinals as having a 67.6% chance of making the playoffs, most likely in the first wild card spot. The Braves and the Giants are reeling and seem to be in no shape to knock the Cards out of the playoffs at this point in the season.

What’s Next: Justin Masterson (6-7, 5.64 ERA) goes tomorrow night in the rubber match against the Phillies’ Jerome Williams (3-5, 5.91 ERA). Prepare for an entirely uninteresting game Cards’ fans.

Week in Review: Cards’ Bats Come Alive

By compiling a 6-2 overall record the past week or so, the Cards now look like a serious playoff contender, and with Yadier Molina and Michael Wacha expected to return in September, things are looking up for the Cards. The Cards had a successful home stand, taking three of four from the Padres and then sweeping the Reds, before losing the series opener in Philadelphia last night.

Offense out of its funk: The Cards offense has finally come alive in a consistent way this past week, as the offense has scored at least four runs in every game. Even unlikely heroes like Daniel Descalso, who hit a game-tying RBI double against the Reds, provided a spark for the offense. The biggest winner of the week has to be Jon Jay, who hit 11-for-22 to raise his batting average to .310 while also recording seven RBI’s. Furthermore, Jhonny Peralta knocked two homers, drove in nine runs, and hit over .300 to continue his solid stretch of play.

Jon Jay had a breakout week to raise his batting average to .310 overall.

Jon Jay had a breakout week to raise his batting average to .310 overall.

Waino struggles: In two starts against offensively challenged teams, the Padres and the Phillies, Adam Wainwright gave up a total of seven earned runs in 13 innings of work, which raised his ERA to 2.52. With two bad starts against not quality opponents, it seems as though Waino isn’t a victim of bad luck, but rather he is mired in a slump this month where he is 2-3 with a 5.29 ERA.

New Acquisitions Hardly Paying Off: While AJ Pierzynski’s .283 BA along with six RBI’s since coming to the Cards is good enough production from the catcher’s position, his week was nothing to get excited about. Pierzynski hit just 4-for-17 with an RBI this week as the replacement for the injured Yadier Molina.

Then there’s Justin Masterson, who has actually been worse for the Cardinals than for the Indians. He gave up four runs in five innings in a no-decision against the Reds this week, which now means that he has a 6.30 ERA since coming over to the Cards. Those who thought that Masterson would fare better in the National League have been dead wrong up to this point, which has put some pressure under John Mozeliak and the front office. Granted, Mozeliak only gave up one AA prospect for Masterson, but with him being just a short-term rental, the pressure is on Masterson to produce now.

Lance Lynn: Our New Ace? By defeating the Padres and Reds in dominant fashion, Lance Lynn solidified himself as the best Cardinals pitcher right now. In total, Lynn (14-8, 2.78 ERA) scattered ten hits and an earned run in 13 innings of work to lower his ERA this month to 1.75.

Lance Lynn has emerged as the Cards’ hottest pitcher by notching two wins this past week.

 

Game Preview: Cards at Phillies (8/22/2014)

After a three game sweep of the Reds, the Cardinals are rolling into Philadelphia with hopes high for earning a playoff berth. As such, manager Mike Matheny has adjusted his rotation so that Adam Wainwright will pitch tonight and Shelby Miller will go tomorrow, setting up Waino to face the division rival Brewers next week.

The Pitching Matchup: Wainwright (15-7, 2.40 ERA) takes the mound tonight having won his last three decisions against the Phillies to the tune of a 2.77 ERA. Even though he has struggled a bit since the break, Waino is still in Cy Young contention and is the stopper of this pitching rotation. Wainwright has the lowest HR/9 percentage in all of baseball, and he has been worth an incredible 4.6 WAR in 2014. For his career, Wainwright has dominated the current Phillies’ lineup, holding them collectively to .258 average. However, Jimmy Rollins does have a .333 average against Waino in 27 at-bats.

For the Phillies tonight is 7-year vet Kyle Kendrick (5-11, 4.90 ERA). Kendrick has been a very average pitcher during his tenure in the major leagues, compiling a 69-66 record in just over 1000 innings pitched. He’s never been much of a strikeout pitcher but instead pitches to contact leading to the high volume of hits he has given up. Lefties also tend to hit Kendrick better than righties so look for Matt Adams to have a good day at the ballpark.

The Skinny: As long as the Cards’ bats don’t take the day off because their ace is on the mound, this game should extend the winning streak to five. However, while not spectacular, Kyle Kendrick is a proven professional pitcher so there is no certainty heading into this game.

The Lineup:

  1. Matt Carpenter 3B
  2. Kolten Wong 2B
  3. Matt Holliday LF
  4. Matt Adams 1B
  5. Jhonny Peralta SS
  6. Jon Jay CF
  7. Oscar Taveras RF
  8. Tony Cruz C
  9. Wainwright P

Game Recap: Cards Sweep Reds 7-3

The Bottom Line: Jhonny Peralta hit a bases clearing double in the bottom of the fifth to put the Cards up by four, and Jon Jay went 3 for 4 with two runs scored to power the Cards’ offense. Lance Lynn shut down the Reds for 7 solid innings before an hour long rain delay ended his night.

Positives: 

  • The Cards’ bats came alive tonight against Reds ace and Cy Young contender Johnny Cueto, knocking him around for five earned runs. Cueto also walked four batters during his outing.
  • Jon Jay continued his breakout year with a 3 for 4 night, raising his batting average to an incredible .313.
  • Jhonny Peralta only had one hit, but it turned out to be a game-changer, extending the Cards’ lead from just one run to four.
  • Matt Adams took two walks. Before tonight Adams had 13 walks total for the season. Even one of the Cards’ play by play men commented, “You don’t see too many two walk games from Matt Adams.”
  • Trevor Rosenthal earned a completely unnecessary save, but it pads his stats the same way.

Negatives:

  • Carlos Martinez had a meltdown in the 9th, giving up three runs on four hits and an error. While the young reliever has shown incredible promise throughout his short career, he has been way too inconsistent to remain a key player on this ballclub. Hopefully, the Cards’ will be able to work on his mechanics in the offseason.
  • An hour long rain delay; ugh.

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Extras:

  • I was actually at this game for just my second game at Busch Stadium, and I must say it’s a truly beautiful ballpark. Everyone is extremely nice and the food is top notch for a baseball game. Just some observations…
  • The Redbirds now lead the Reds 9-3 in the season series with 7 games left to play between the two teams.

What’s Next: After an off-day tomorrow, the Redbirds travel to Philadelphia to face the Phillies for a three game set. Shelby Miller takes the mound in game one against Kyle Kendrick of the Phils.

Game Preview: Cards Look to Stay Hot against Reds

With the Cards winning their last six out of seven games, the team has propelled itself into the heart of the NL playoff race. The Cards still sit 2.5 games behind the Brewers for the division lead, but they are 2.5 games ahead in the Wild Card race. Tonight, the slumping Reds, who have lost eight of 10, play at Busch tonight in the second game of this three-game series.

The Pitching Matchup: John Lackey (12-8, 3.91 ERA) makes his fourth start as a Cardinal since coming over from the BoSox before the trading deadline. Although Lackey has posted a 6.16 ERA in those starts, that stat does not resemble how he has pitched as a whole for the Cards, mainly because Lackey had a disastrous start on the road in Baltimore, allowing nine earned runs on 13 hits in five innings of work. Yet, Lackey has been spectacular at home, going seven innings and allowing two runs in each of those starts. Against the Reds hitters, Lackey has limited them to just a .194 batting average, so chances are he will fare pretty well tonight.

John Lackey

For the Reds, Alfredo Simon (12-8, 3.28 ERA) takes the mound in the hope of returning to the pitcher he was before the All-Star break. In six starts since the break, Simon has recorded a 5.46 ERA, and that’s not because of just one bad start; he has consistently struggled in each of those starts. Furthermore, Simon has surprisingly struggled in night games, accumulating a 4.13 ERA in 14 starts. Lefties are hitting .250 against Simon, compared to .231 for righties, so expect Jon Jay to continue his hot streak and for Matt Adams to have a big game, who is 2 for 2 with a homer against Simon in his career.

The Skinny: Lackey has pitched phenomenally at Busch so far this year, and Simon doesn’t look like the same pitcher he was before the All-Star break, so I expect another Cards victory. The Cards are playing at home and have all the momentum, and in order to sustain the momentum, the Cards offense will have to continue its hot stretch.