Cardinals off to fast start, but don't call them baseball's best just yet
Few teams have been as successful as the Cardinals in the 21st century. Since 2000, St. Louis ranks behind only the Yankees in most wins and playoff appearances and behind only the Giants and Red Sox in most World Series championships. However, it's been far longer since the last time the Cardinals were off to this hot a start: 1889, to be exact, when they were called the Browns and managed by Charlie Comiskey, their 29-year-old first baseman.
At 20–6, the Redbirds have the best record in the major leagues and also boast the best run differential in the NL at +44. St. Louis enters Wednesday's game against the Cubs having won eight straight and 17 out of 20, expanding its lead in the NL Central to 6 1/2 games over Chicago, the largest advantage in any of baseball’s six divisions. But as impressive as all of that is, it doesn't mean that the Cardinals are the best team in the National League.
To begin with, St. Louis has had a relatively easy schedule thus far. Of the six teams it's played this season, only the Cubs start play on Wednesday with a winning record, and more than one-third of the Cardinals' games (10 of 26) have come against the two worst teams in the National League, the Brewers (8–19) and Phillies (10–18).
The Cards also have yet to find a proper replacement for ace Adam Wainwright, whose season was ended by a ruptured Achilles tendon on April 25. Lefty Tim Cooney got the first shot at doing so last Thursday, but he gave up three runs in just 2 1/3 innings in his major league debut and was swapped out for fellow lefty Tyler Lyons, who started against the Cubs on Tuesday. Lyons didn't fare much better, giving up four runs in 4 1/3 innings to push his ERA in 13 career major league starts to 5.91. St. Louis managed to win both of those games, but it can’t expect to overcome poor outings like that every fifth day.
Fortunately for St. Louis, lefty Marco Gonzales is due to return from a strained left pectoral muscle to start for Triple A Memphis this Saturday, and fellow southpaw Jaime Garcia is due to begin a minor league rehab assignment on Sunday. Getting anything from Garcia at this point would have to be considered a bonus—he's made just 16 starts over the last two years due to an array of shoulder injuries. But Gonzales, a first-round pick in 2013 and a valuable reliever in last year’s postseason, is expected to have a significant future in the Cardinals' rotation, perhaps starting as early as next week.
That’s just another example of St. Louis’ impressive organizational depth. Since winning their last World Series title in 2011, the Cardinals have turned over the majority of their roster without missing a beat. From that team, only catcher Yadier Molina and outfielders Matt Holliday and Jon Jay remain in comparable roles. Meanwhile, infielders Matt Adams, Matt Carpenter, Pete Kozma and Kolten Wong, catcher Tony Cruz and pitchers Cooney, Gonzalez, Lyons, Mitch Harris, Lance Lynn, Seth Maness, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Miguel Socolovich and Michael Wacha have emerged from the farm system, as did late outfielder Oscar Tavares, who was considered the best prospect of all of them. St. Louis has also fortified itself through trades, acquiring starting pitcher John Lackey, reliever Jordan Walden and outfielders Peter Bourjos, Randal Grichuck (who is on the 15-day DL) and Jason Heyward for other homegrown players (first baseman Allen Craig, pitcher Shelby Miller and third baseman David Freese).
That turnover has helped the Cardinals avoid the ravages of age that tend to visit teams that enjoy sustained success. And while Molina (32 years old), shortstop Jhonny Peralta (33) and Holliday (35) are entering dangerous territory in terms of age, the team's offense as a whole is close to league average in age, and their pitching staff is the fourth-youngest in the NL, weighted by playing time. It could get even younger if the 23-year-old Gonzales becomes a permanent feature and ultimately replaces the 36-year-old Lackey, an impending free agent, upon Wainwright’s return next year.
Still, there are other areas of concern for St. Louis. Since going 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles on Opening Day, Heyward has hit .204/.260/.301 with just five more extra-base hits. He is a complete mess at the plate, abandoning his typically patient approach to post the worst walk rate of his career (6.7%) and beating balls into the ground, producing easy out after easy out. That would at least seam correctable. Molina’s poor start (.244/.300/.293), however, looks more like a case of a heavily-worked catcher aging out of what proved to be a brief peak. Back in the rotation, Wacha’s strikeouts are way down, going from 7.9 per nine last year to 5.0 this season, a fact masked by his considerable luck on balls in play (.229 BABIP) through his first five starts. Martinez, meanwhile, has problematic walk and home run rates (4.2 and 1.5 per nine, respectively) and received a big correction in his last start, giving up seven earned runs and four walks in 3 2/3 innings.
In the short term, Wacha and Martinez are of greater concern given Wainwright’s absence and the uncertainly still surrounding his replacement. Over the long term, an early decline by Molina could be trouble for the Cardinals, who lack a notable catching prospect and owe him another $30 million over the next two years. St. Louis does have top prospect Stephen Piscotty lurking in Triple A as Heyward’s potential replacement, be it next year or before, but their thinning options in the rotation and behind the plate suggest that their vaunted depth is finally starting to dry up. All of which is to say that St. Louis isn't as well positioned to dominate the NL as its hot start and recent history might suggest.