Cardinals Lurk In NL Playoff Picture

The St. Louis Cardinals continue to quietly lurk in the National League playoff race. While the Central-division leading Chicago Cubs continue to get all the oxygen in the room, from the media  to the trade market with Aroldis Champan and to the betting markets, the Cardinals are in striking distance as we come to the end of July. What's more, they are available at highly attractive prices, something not always the case for this proud and distinguished franchise.

St. Louis is 52-46, only a half-game out of a wild-card playoff berth and still a reasonable seven games behind Chicago. Yet the Cardinals, with a recent record of postseason success no one can match, are priced at 40-1 to win the World Series. If you want a more modest wager, you can go for 20-1 simply to take the National League pennant.

Nor is just nostalgia for recent Octobers that makes St. Louis a quality longshot bet. They have all the markings of the kind of a team that plays above its regular season form in the playoffs. It starts with established pitching that hasn't always been up to par this season, but if given a second wind, will be tough to handle.

Adam Wainright and Michael Wacha both have ERAs in the 4s. Wainwright is a 34-year-old veteran, while Wacha is still a young 24-years-old, but the one thing they have in common is that they're established postseason winners. Their worst performances of this regular season are already well into the rearview mirror and no playoff team would relish facing either one in October.

Carlos Martinez, the young starter with electric stuff, has come into his own this season. Martinez has posted a 2.83 ERA in 18 starts. He joins with Wainwright and Wacha to give St. Louis the kind of Big Three starting pitching you need to win in October. And we haven't even mentioned Mike Leake or Jaime Garcia, both more than competent at the back end of the rotation (or out of the bullpen in a short playoff series).

Speaking of the bullpen, St. Louis was hampered much of the year by the undoing of closer Trevor Rosenthal. Manager Mike Matheny finally made a change and went to 33-year-old rookie Seung-hwan Oh. Already a tremendous success as a setup man with a sub-2.00 ERA, Oh has closed out four games. The ninth-inning problems of the Cardinals are yet another early season liability they are now past. The rest of the bullpen isn't spectacular, but with Tyler Lyons, Kevin Siegrest and Seth Maness pitching steadily, Matheny has options.

St. Louis now has the 6th-best ERA in the National League after spending much of the first half of the season in the league's lower half. And if they pitch, scoring runs isn't going to a problem.

The Cardinals have the #2 offense in the NL in runs scored. Shortstop Aledyms Diaz and rightfielder Stephen Piscotty have come into their own as a complete offensive threats who can get on base and hit for power. Matt Holliday and Matt Adams provide competent muscle in the middle of the order. And even though Matt Carpenter is currently on the disabled list, he'll come back from his oblique injury and is the best of them all, with a .420 on-base percentage and .568 slugging percentage.

Not only is this a good offense, it has room to realistically get better. Holliday and Adams haven't done a job getting on base consistently. Yadier Molina hasn't swung the bat well all year. Any or all of these three could pick up the pace in the final two months of the season, to say nothing of a short burst through a couple playoff rounds.

There's a lot of "ifs" involved here, asking players to elevate their performance beyond what they've done for four months. But we see it happen every year in baseball. It's not often that you can find a group of players with a proven record of success in the postseason and bet them at 40-1 to win it all.


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