Is St. Louis A Playoff Team?
ARE THE ST. LOUIS CARDINALS DESTINED FOR THE PLAYOFFS/
Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were the surprise World Champions of Major League Baseball. They qualified as a Wildcard in the National League, but got hot at just the right time and surged all the way to the champagne supernova. This year's team was supposed to fall back to earth because of the loss of Albert Pujols. Heading into tonight's nationally televised game in Detroit...the Cardinals are in a kind of purgatory where they HAVE fallen back to earth but are STILL a strong playoff contender.
First, the bad news...
St. Louis entered the Detroit series with a 34-33 record. That's not exactly a launching point for a run at 90 or 95 wins. The Cardinals have to lift their game in the second half of the season...or this is just going to be a generic 82-82 type year.
St. Louis played its best baseball of the year in the first 4-5 weeks of action. The Cards peaked at a 20-11 record, which seemingly had them on pace for an easy playoff return even without Pujols. Obviously, they were 14-22 in the stretch from that peak to the start of the Detroit series. St. Louis is trending in the wrong direction...and has been playing at less than a .500 pace for well over a month now.
Lance Berkman will probably be out until the end of July as he recovers from meniscus surgery. There's no guarantee he'll be ready then either. We've seen many guys in their mid-30's get off to slow starts this year. Berkman, 36, might take a while to get his bat going even after he returns.
Pitcher Jaime Garcia was put on the shelf about 10 days ago to rest his shoulder. The Cards said he'd be out at least a month and possibly two. Obviously, if the rest doesn't do the trick, he's out for the year.
Pitcher Chris Carpenter is a question mark to come back too. He's about a month away from giving it a go based on recent reports.
Cincinnati took awhile to get going, but how has the look of a division champ. Even if St. Louis does get hot again, they may have trouble catching the Reds at the top of the NL Central. That leaves only a Wildcard as an option...and there are many good Wildcard contenders at the moment.
The shorthanded Cards really aren't a playoff team. The 14-22 record over the past several weeks makes that very clear. If healthy, they ARE a clear contender based on this year's evidence. The key will obviously be getting healthy as quickly as possible. If 2012 is just going to be a long episode of M*A*S*H*, then we're looking at a 75-87 finish. Possibly worse.
Now, the good news...
Heading into Tuesday Night's action, the Cards were still tied for first place in the National League in run differential. That's usually a great indicator for future success.
St. Louis +53
LA Dodgers +53
San Francisco +15
Maybe the won-lost record is understating things...and this team is still an NL power.
St. Louis is 6-11 in one-run games, which means bad luck has been hitting this team repeatedly. There is some skill involved in winning toss-ups, but they generally get decided by the whims of fortune. More evidence here that the Cards aren't as bad as their recent slump would be suggesting.
The NL Central has some bad teams this year in the form of Chicago, Houston, and even Milwaukee. Pittsburgh has been a surprising positive...but we've seen that story before. The Pirates could be destined for another collapse too based on their history. The unbalanced divisional schedules will give the Cards a very easy pathway after the All-Star Break in terms of padding their record and at least making a run at a Wildcard. Sure, Cincinnati will enjoy the same unbalanced schedule. But, the Eastern Wildcard threats will have it very tough. Bottom line, it will be easier for St. Louis to reach 90 wins than it will for many of the others in the Wildcard race. They're just a hair out of the Wildcard position now even with their recent slump. They have a much higher upside given the remaining schedule and the potential they have to get healthy.
We started with the question of whether or not St. Louis was a playoff caliber team. After working through the positives and negatives, the answers shape up like this:
Shorthanded: No way
Reasonably Healthy: Clear Wildcard threat because of schedule
Best Possible Health News: Yes, definitely, a true World Series threat
That run differential impresses us, and the team is due to catch some breaks in close games the rest of the way. We'll be watching tonight's game in Detroit very closely, as well as this weekend's Interleague finale at Kansas City. If the Cardinals don't impress vs. losing AL Central teams, then they should probably stay on your go-against list for the time being. The market has clearly mispriced them during this extended slump...and will likely keep doing so. A defending champion often gets the benefit of the doubt in pricing. But, if the Cards get things going...and then start getting some bodies back...then you may be looking at a team that will compete with the Dodgers, Reds, and the best of the NL East as the elite in the senior circuit. A lot of volatility with this team...and volatility is a dear friend of handicappers while being the mortal enemy of oddsmakers.
Cards/Tigers might be part of JIM HURLEY'S slate Wednesday Night. You already know that we're in a very good sequence of games right now in Interleague action. There are a few day games today that could create the opportunity for split investment sessions.
Atlanta at NY Yankees (on the MLB Network)
Kansas City at Houston
Toronto at Milwaukee
Seattle at Arizona
WEDNESDAY NIGHT HIGHLIGHTS
St. Louis at Detroit (on ESPN)
Cincinnati at Cleveland
Tampa Bay at Washington
Baltimore at NY Mets
Miami at Boston
Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox (on WGN)
San Francisco at LA Angels
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Back with you Thursday for our stat preview in what promises to be a very exciting Game Five of the NBA Championship series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat. Friday and Saturday will be devoted to baseball as we gear up for the final weekend of Interleague 2012. There are several great rivalry matchups on tap. Be sure you're with us EVERY DAY here in the NOTEBOOK so you know what's really going on in the world of sports!
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