The four things the Cardinals must do to break out of their horrible slump
More optimal lineup construction and bullpen usage is a good start
It feels like a lifetime ago that the St. Louis Cardinals rolled into Wrigley Field with the best record in baseball, ready to do battle with the Cubs for NL Central supremacy. That was a mere two weeks ago. The Cubs swept that series by the combined score of 23-10 and sent the Cardinals into a tailspin. Thursday's loss (ATL 10, STL 2) was the 10th in the last 13 games for St. Louis.
Going into Friday's series opener against the Rangers (stream regionally via fuboTV), the Cardinals are 23-21 with a plus-19 run differential. They have the sixth-best record in the National League and the third-best record in the division. The NL Central standings:
- Cubs: 25-16
- Brewers: 27-19 (1/2 GB)
- Cardinals: 23-21 (3 1/2 GB)
- Pirates: 21-20 (4 GB)
- Reds: 20-24 (6 1/2 GB)
This 3-10 skid -- it's actually a 3-11 skid, the Cardinals dropped a game to the Nationals prior to the start of that Cubs series -- hasn't buried St. Louis in the division. Trailing by 3 1/2 games in mid May is hardly the end of the world, especially with so many intra-division games remaining. That said, the Cardinals want to stop this skid as soon as possible. It's imperative.
"May's been weird for us," Adam Wainwright told reporters, including Brendan Schaeffer of KMOV4, following Thursday's loss. "... Baseball's a funny game. It's a weird, weird game. Month to month, you could see two totally different teams out there with the same guys. Hopefully we'll get this going, turned around here quickly, because we just haven't played good baseball in May."
Slumps happen. Every team goes through a bad stretch or three during the 162-game season, even the best teams. Sometimes the only thing you can do (and should do) is be patient and wait for things to straighten themselves out. Other times changes can be made to put the team in a better position to win. Here are four things the Cardinals should consider doing to help themselves going forward.
1. Make a change at leadoff
Forty-four games into the season, Matt Carpenter owns a .200/.321/.350 batting line that is 17 percent worse than league average once adjusted for ballpark. His 28 walks put him among the league leaders, so that's good, but the power hasn't been there (five home runs) and the batting average hasn't either.
Carpenter has batted leadoff in 40 of the team's 44 games this season despite his relative lack of production, so he's been getting more at-bats than everyone else. He started slow last year, remember -- Carpenter was sitting on a .140/.286/.272 batting line on May 15 last season -- before that monstrous finish that earned him MVP votes. That's somewhat reassuring.
That said, Carpenter starting slow and finishing strong last year isn't the best reason to keep him atop the lineup right now. Not when Dexter Fowler, a more traditional leadoff guy, is enjoying a career renaissance with a .288/.410/.405 batting line. Fowler is getting on base a ton and he's wrestled the center field job away from young Harrison Bader the last few weeks.
Here is manager Mike Shildt's standard lineup this season -- Shildt has used this lineup 17 times in 44 games, which qualifies as a ton these days -- and a lineup humbly proposed by this know-nothing CBS Sports scribe:
|Shildt's Standard Lineup||Axisa's Proposed Lineup|
1. 3B Matt Carpenter
1. CF Dexter Fowler
2. 1B Paul Goldschmidt
2. 1B Paul Goldschmidt
3. SS Paul DeJong
3. SS Paul DeJong
4. LF Marcell Ozuna
4. 3B Matt Carpenter
5. RF Jose Martinez
5. LF Marcell Ozuna
6. C Yadier Molina
6. RF Jose Martinez
7. CF Dexter Fowler
7. C Yadier Molina
8. 2B Kolten Wong
8. 2B Kolten Wong
9. Pitcher's Spot
9. Pitcher's Spot
There's also something to be said for flipping Ozuna (.231/.313/.525) and Martinez (.331/.386/.457), though that's another conversation for another time. Right now I want to focus on the leadoff spot, the guy setting the table for the middle of the lineup and getting more at-bats than everyone else.
Partly because Carpenter has started slow, Goldschmidt has batted with a man on base in 83 of his 195 plate appearances this season, or 42.6 percent. That is exactly league average and ranks 125th (!) among the 245 players with at least 100 plate appearances. Grayson Greiner has taken a higher percentage of plate appearances with men on base than Goldschmidt. Hanser Alberto, Mike Tauchman, and the recently demoted Teoscar Hernandez too.
That shouldn't happen. The Cardinals should maximize Goldschmidt's plate appearances. Bat him second to get him that many more at-bats (Shildt has done that all year) and put a high on-base leadoff guy in front of him. That isn't happening with Carpenter. Fowler and his .400-ish on-base percentage is the better fit atop the lineup right now. Once Carpenter gets locked in -- I think it's a matter of "when" he gets locked in, not "if" -- then put him back in the leadoff spot.
2. Be more flexible with Hicks
Because the Cardinals have been stuck in a funk pretty much all month, closer Jordan Hicks hasn't pitched a whole lot in May. Three times. That's it. He's pitched three times in the team's last 16 games and these are the situations he was brought into:
- May 6: Ninth inning, runner on first, one out, Cardinals up six.
- May 10: To start the ninth inning with the Cardinals down one.
- May 16: Eighth inning, two outs, Cardinals down eight.
Hicks, who owns a 1.84 ERA and a .149/.259/.255 opponent's batting line this season, has pitched in one important situation in the last three weeks, give or take. That is the May 10 appearance in which he was asked to keep the game close. The May 6 appearance is a "let's just make sure this rally doesn't go anywhere" outing and May 16 is a classic "he needs work" game.
While Hicks has been enjoying his quasi-vacation, the rest of the St. Louis bullpen has allowed 28 runs (all earned) in 41 2/3 innings. That's a 6.05 ERA. During this 3-10 stretch the Cardinals have either blown a lead or let the opponent break a tie in the seventh inning or later three times. Hicks did not pitch at all in those games. He sat and watched other relievers cough it up.
There has to be a happy medium, right? A middle ground between locking Hicks into the closer's role and using him heavily in high-leverage spots. Hicks is a weapon, a very good one for Shildt, yet he's had basically no impact the last three weeks because his teammates aren't giving him save opportunities. High-leverage situations have come and gone during that time.
Even with Andrew Miller struggling with his control (nine walks and three hit batsmen in 14 1/3 innings), the Cardinals have two other very good relief options in John Gant and John Brebbia. They've combined for a 1.69 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 48 innings and have become Shildt's primary setup crew the last few weeks. Gant and Brebbia are good, but they're not Hicks.
There will undoubtedly be times when using Hicks against the other team's best hitters in, say, the seventh or eighth inning makes more sense than holding him back for the save opportunity. The May 12 loss to the Pirates sticks out like a sore thumb to me. The line score:
The Cardinals took a three-run lead into the seventh inning, Shildt went to Tyler Webb to face the middle of the lineup, and three batters later the lead was gone. Webb walked No. 2 hitter Bryan Reynolds and hit No. 3 hitter Gregory Polanco with a pitch, then Brebbia gave up the game-tying three-run homer to No. 4 hitter Josh Bell. Things spiraled out of control from there.
To me, that's an obvious situation where Hicks would be more useful in the seventh (or eighth) inning than as the closer. Use him against the other team's best hitters in that seventh inning to preserve the lead, then let the lesser relievers face lesser hitters in the eighth and ninth innings. That's how you optimize reliever usage. Your best reliever against the other team's best hitters.
This is easier said than done, of course, and it is ripe for second guessing. What happens if Hicks gets through the seventh inning in that May 12 game only for Brebbia to blow it in the ninth? It would look really, really bad. That doesn't make the strategy incorrect though. Hicks has been marginalized these last few weeks. He's a wasted weapon. There's a better way to do this.
3. Make room for Helsley
Speaking of the bullpen, the Cardinals could use more Ryan Helsley going forward. The hard-throwing right-hander -- Helsley averaged 98.1 mph and topped out at 101.9 mph with his heater in his brief MLB cameo earlier this year -- has been a starter throughout his minor league career, though the Cardinals sent him back to Triple-A last month to begin preparing for a relief role.
Helsley, part of the (Triple-A) opening-day rotation, will now be utilized as a multi-inning reliever. The idea, pitching coach Mike Maddux outlined, is to sharpen Helsley in Memphis for the role he's most likely to have should he return to the Cardinals this season.
"Keep him stretched out for the purpose of what he did for us," Maddux said. "He competed very well. Good live arm. One of the better fastballs you'll see in the game. If we didn't have Jordan Hicks on our team, we'd be talking about Ryan Helsley's fastball."
Both Baseball America ("the Cardinals prefer him as a reliever") and MLB.com ("some have thought Helsley was destined to land in a bullpen") have noted the bullpen is likely his long-term home as well. Helsley, 24, struck out seven and allowed two runs in 6 1/3 relief innings with the Cardinals earlier this year. He's struck out nine in 10 2/3 relief innings since being sent down and in only one of his five games did he allow a run(s).
The analytics check out. Helsley has an upper-90s fastball with a very high spin rate and a hard curveball that also features an above-average spin rate. He also throws a cutter. Walks have been an issue at times throughout his career, though you can survive in the bullpen with a higher than ideal walk rate as long as you can overpower hitters, and Helsley certainly has the stuff to do that. He could be the 2019 version of 2018 Jordan Hicks.
The Cardinals are carrying eight relievers at the moment and three stand out as candidates to be replaced by Helsley. The three:
RHP Luke Gregerson
RHP Dominic Leone
LHP Tyler Webb
Gregerson returned earlier this month from a shoulder problem that had sidelined him since last summer. The 35-year-old is in the second year of a two-year, $11 million contract. He has a 7.36 ERA in 18 1/3 total innings with St. Louis. Webb is a classic up-and-down lefty specialist type and, to his credit, he's been great against lefties this year. Two hits in 24 at-bats (.083).
Leone has the ugliest numbers and the largest sample size of the trio. I also feel like he has a better chance to be a solid bullpen option going forward that late-career Gregerson or the limited Webb. Leone's cutter/slider hybrid gets a ton of swings and misses and there's enough velocity on his fastball to keep hitters honest. That said, the numbers are the numbers, and wow is an 8.02 ERA one-quarter of the way into the season an eyesore.
Leone and Webb both have a minor league option remaining, meaning they can be sent to Triple-A without passing through waivers. Gregerson is owed $5 million this season plus the $1 million buyout of his $5 million club option for next year. Once upon a time, that guaranteed money meant his job would be safe. Not so much these days. Case in point: Addison Reed and his $8.5 million salary was cut loose by the Twins earlier this week.
The Cardinals expect Carlos Martinez back this weekend -- Martinez will pitch in relief, and gosh, having him around for the ninth inning sure would make it easier to use Hicks in the seventh or eighth, wouldn't it? -- so they need to clear a roster spot for him. Recalling Helsley would mean opening another spot. Optioning Leone and Webb to Triple-A would be the easy moves and also give Gregerson more time to show he can contribute following the shoulder injury.
Either way, the point is St. Louis has a live and exciting arm in Helsley, who has touched 102 mph and could give what is presently a sketchy middle relief crew a real shot in the arm. If things go well in middle relief, Shildt and Co. can begin to use Helsley in higher leverage situations. Getting him on the roster and in the bullpen is the first step though. Let's start there.
UPDATE: Friday afternoon the Cardinals announced they have activated Martinez off the injured list and called up Halsley. Leone was optioned to Triple-A and Gregerson was designated for assignment in corresponding moves. Similar to Reed, Gregerson's salary wasn't enough to save his roster spot.
4. Replace Hudson in the rotation
I have to think that, if Martinez were coming back as a starter rather than as a reliever, it would be Dakota Hudson losing his rotation spot. Miles Mikolas and Jack Flaherty are going nowhere. Wainwright has mostly struggled this year but is a legacy player, and taking those guys out of the rotation is always complicated. Michael Wacha has struggled as well but he offers an awful lot of upside. We've seen it in the past.
Hudson, 24, broke in as a reliever last year and posted a 2.63 ERA in 27 1/3 innings, though he walked nearly as many batters as he struck out (19 K and 18 BB), and that's usually a bad sign. Despite that, the Cardinals stuck him in the rotation this year. The good news: Hudson has improved his K/BB ratio from 1.06 to 1.55. The bad news: Hudson's allowed 29 runs in 41 innings. A quality start is a pretty low bar and Hudson has cleared it only twice in eight starts. Yeah.
Although he was a strong prospect coming up through the minors, there have long been questions about Hudson's long-term viability as a starter. Two reasons for that: One, his command is just okay. Not as good as it needs to be for a guy with swing-and-miss limitations. And two, he doesn't have anything to neutralize lefties. His changeup is a distant fifth pitch behind his two fastballs (four-seamer, sinker) and two breaking balls (curveball, slider). Hudson's career platoon splits are drastic:
Oof. The stat line matches the scouting report. Hudson's iffy changeup created uncertainty about his ability to handle left-handed batters and we're seeing it at the big league level. Lefties have crushed him in an admittedly small sample. It's difficult to remain a starter long-term with a platoon split like that. Teams aren't oblivious. They'll stack their lineup with lefties when Hudson is on the mound and exploit that weakness.
The Cardinals are an excellent pitcher development organization and they deserve the benefit of the doubt, and normally I am totally cool with sticking with the young kid and letting him go through the growing pains. They are part of baseball. In this case though, St. Louis might be trying to force a square peg into a round hole. Hudson, at this point, is not well-suited to go through a lineup multiple times, especially a lineup with lots of lefties.
Okay, so it's easy to understand why Hudson should not remain in the rotation. At least not right now given how much the Cardinals are struggling and how important every game is in the rugged NL Central. The question now is how do they replace him? St. Louis could sign Dallas Keuchel, but that seems unlikely. Maybe once the draft passes in three weeks and everyone can keep their precious draft pick. Right now though? Nah.
The more realistic option is staying in-house. Gant has been a revelation in the bullpen and I don't see the Cardinals moving him back into the rotation. The club has decided Martinez is a reliever for the time being given his shoulder woes, so that's out too. There are two obvious 40-man roster call-up candidates sitting in Triple-A. Their Triple-A numbers:
LHP Austin Gomber
Both Gomber (4.44 ERA in 75 innings) and Ponce de Leon (2.61 ERA in 38 innings) have big league experience -- Ponce de Leon made a spot start earlier this year (one run in five innings against the Brewers) -- and it would be up to the Cardinals to pick one to replace Hudson. I am certain the Cardinals hoped Alex Reyes would emerge as a rotation option by now, but he's out with a broken finger on his non-pitching hand after punching a wall. He cost himself a potential opportunity to replace Hudson.
Change for the sake of change is a bad idea. In this case, Hudson has been exposed as a starter the first seven weeks of the season. Perhaps the Cardinals could get creative and pair Hudson with an opener -- Martinez as an opener would be pretty funny, no? -- or piggyback starters every fifth day, meaning two guys who go through the lineup once each and no more than that. They have the pitching depth to make it work. Whatever the solution, Hudson is miscast as a starter.
Now that we're in the back-half of May, the "it's still early" excuse doesn't really apply. Carpenter hitting .200/.321/.350 on April 17? Meh, who cares. It happens. On May 17 though? Then maybe it's time to start thinking about a lineup change. The Cardinals don't have to overhaul their roster -- this is still a really good team -- but some tweaks could help, especially as the club tries to snap out of the collective slump they've been stuck in these last few weeks.
"The reality is right now, no one's gonna feel sorry for us. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves," Shildt told reporters, including Brendan Schaeffer of KMOV4, following Thursday's loss. "We're moving forward, that's as simple as I can make it. We're gonna move forward from here on. We're not gonna get stuck in this, whatever this might be. We're always looking for ways to do different, but this is a group that I stand behind and love and trust completely."
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