I recently spoke with Brian Walton of The Cardinal Nation Blog about what to expect from the Cardinals for the rest of the season. Here’s what he had to say:

Nick Kauzlarich: What is the biggest key for the Cards to finish ahead of the stiff competition in the NL Central and emerge as serious World Series contenders after the All-Star break?

Brian Walton: Health. I believe the team has the necessary elements to reach the post-season, though obviously they are not yet hitting on all cylinders. Once October comes around, the clubs that are hot prevail, as we saw with the 2011 Cardinals. Not being decimated by injuries and having the regular players exhausted because they were overexposed during the regular season could be the difference-maker.

One part of health is no more serious injuries to key players. Another would be the return of Yadier Molina, who could provide a huge lift when it matters most. Michael Wacha’s activation would be the icing on the cake, but may be too much to expect given the uncertainties of his condition.

NK: Do you believe that the Cards need to complete a trade to set themselves apart from the NL Central? If so, at what positions?

BW: Though it had as much to do with Milwaukee’s slump as their own play, it is worth noting that the Cardinals picked up 5 ½ games on the Brewers over the last two weeks. Of course, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh also benefitted.

I do not believe a major trade is necessary. However, a couple of smaller moves to improve the bench and bullpen could provide value without the Cardinals having to give away key youngsters. It could also be important to the nervous segment of the fan base and some of the players themselves to see management is willing to make moves to win.

One fear I have of the current structure is what I perceive may be strong loyalty shown to several of the marginal players on the roster. Perhaps they are thinking that making moves can be a double-edged sword if it disrupts the team chemistry in a negative way. It is easy to make a generic call for a blockbuster trade to improve the team such as acquiring a Giancarlo Stanton or Troy Tulowitzki, but the long-term cost may outweigh the short-term benefit.

NK: With the loss of Yadier Molina for the next 2-3 months, can the Cards rely primarily on Tony Cruz, and George Kottaras to a lesser extent, to fill the void? Or will they need to complete a deal before the trade deadline?

Tony Cruz is expected to start in place of Yadier Molina, who is sidelined for 2-3 months with a right thumb injury.
Tony Cruz is expected to start in place of Yadier Molina, who is sidelined for 2-3 months with a right thumb injury.

BW: While Cruz has been fine in short bursts, he has never been called upon to carry the heavy load for that long of a period. My guess is that he will be given the benefit of the doubt until/if he shows he is overmatched. Given there is only two weeks of play before the non-waiver trade deadline, I don’t think that will offer enough time for the Cardinals to decide if they would need a short-term upgrade for Cruz. If the situation becomes dire in August, they could always try for a waiver deal, but I suspect it won’t get to that.

NK: Adam Wainwright was selected as the National League starter for last night’s All-Star Game over Clayton Kershaw. Have you personally seen any Cards pitcher throw this well for this long of a stretch? Is this the year Wainwright finally gets the Cy Young Award?

BW: Believe it or not, I saw Bob Gibson pitch in 1968. However, in those days, there was only one game a week on TV on Saturday afternoons so exposure was wildly restricted compared to today. Gibson’s 1968 had to be the most dominant stretch by any Cardinals hurler ever. As you may know, the Year of the Pitcher, headlined by Gibson, led to a major rules change – the lowering of the mound.

As of now, ESPN’s Cy Young Award Predictor has Wainwright slightly ahead of Clayton Kershaw. So current rate and pace would indicate the 2014 Award is Wainwright’s to lose.

Having said that, like it or not, the winner in what could be a very close vote may be decided if only one of the two teams – Cardinals and Dodgers – make the post-season. If they are both in again, it will get down to their individual contributions.

It is also worth noting that Wainwright will turn 32 years of age next month. He clearly isn’t on the downhill side yet, but logic would suggest he is closer than the 26-year-old Kershaw. There may be a bit more urgency in his actions as a result.

To follow Brian Walton on twitter, click here.

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