Why are they here?
Back in the days when we all were fighting the winter doldrums and eagerly anticipating those magical words of “pitchers and catchers report”, various projection systems were forecasting mediocrity from the Cardinals. CHONE projected the Cardinals to win all of 83 games. PECOTA pegged them from 80. THT had them down for 85. Marcel, 83. All of them projected the Cubs to win the division in back to back years, but the Cardinals ended up with the flag. The reason is pretty simple. The Cardinals were the benefactors of unanticipated and terrific seasons from several players while making a key addition mid-season in Matt Holliday. The Cubs were hit with some key injuries, but more so, they just flat underachieved, no thanks to the likes of Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto and others.
Chris Carpenter went from the shelf to Cy Young contender (5.6 WAR), Adam Wainwright is also in Cy discussions (5.7 WAR), and Joel Pineiro (!) magically morphed into a strike-throwing sinker-baller (4.8 WAR).
Yadier Molina continued his surprising progress as a hitter while continuing to be the best defensive catcher in the NL (3.4 WAR, not factoring his defense) and former scrub Brendan Ryan blossomed into one of the best fielding shortstops in the majors (12.2 UZR, 3.3 WAR). Ryan Franklin even joined the act, proving to be an effective closer for most of the season. Oh, and they got a broken-down Hall of Famer in John Smoltz for nothing, and it took Dave Duncan and the Cardinal staff all of five seconds to fix him.
Matt Holliday largely is credited for turning around the Cardinals, and while his presence was definitely felt (2.6 WAR), he was just one of the many reasons the Cardinals vaulted their way to 91 wins. And of course, there was this guy named Albert Pujols, who had just another MVP caliber, nay, numinous type of season (8.5 WAR). Ho-hum.
That was the good, now the bad
At the all-star break, Ryan Franklin had a 27-7 K/BB ratio over 34 innings, and had held batters to a .217 on-base percentage. Then he suddenly remembered he was Ryan Franklin again, posting a 17-17 K/BB ratio, allowed a .380 on-base percentage over 27 innings. It’s also a little more than disconcerting to Cardinal fans that Jason Motte (4.81 FIP) and Kyle McClellan (3.97 FIP) are the two pitchers who are supposed to be setting Franklin up, and neither have done anything to distinguish themselves as pitchers their manager can trust in leveraged situations. I would not be surprised to see LaRussa go with Smoltz in crucial situations while using Kyle Lohse as the team’s fourth starter, who has fallen off after a career year, and has spent time on the DL with forearm tightness and a groin injury.
The Cardinals will also have to run the lefty gauntlet, something they failed at during the regular season, mustering a .233/.312/.362 line against lefties for the year. They will face Randy Wolf and Clayton Kershaw in games one and two. If the Cardinals are fortunate to beat L.A., they could face an even nastier group of southpaws in Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and JA Happ should the reigning champs make it past Colorado.
LaRussa will be counting heavily on his big three at the top of the rotation to go deep into games, and Pujols-Holliday and Co. to do enough damage so that he doesn’t have to fear when turning to an unstable bullpen. Also, because of the Cardinals surged so far ahead of their competition, they took to playing on auto-pilot for the month of September. It will be interesting to see whether or not they can ‘flip the switch’.