THEY JUST KEEP COMING AND COMING—GAME AFTER GAME, YEAR AFTER YEAR—AND WHEN ONE FALLS, ANOTHER RISES TO TAKE HIS PLACE. NO, THE CARDINALS ARE NOT A ZOMBIE SWARM. BUT THEY ARE THE MONSTERS OF A STACKED DIVISION—AND THEY'RE COMING FOR YOU IN OCTOBER
This is an article from the Aug. 24, 2015 issue
BY NOW the rest of baseball can be forgiven for viewing the Cardinals as an unstoppable zombie horde, hell-bent on eating their brains the Right Way, in front of loyal crowds of the Best Fans in Brain-Eating.
Surely, this should have been the year the Cardinals' inexorable march slowed. They lost their longtime ace (Adam Wainwright, torn Achilles) and their top setup man (Jordan Walden, shoulder strain) in April and May, respectively, and have played much of the season without the sluggers who batted number 3 (Matt Holliday, strained quadriceps) and number 5 (Matt Adams, torn quadriceps) in their Opening Day lineup. Moreover, the franchise's reputation was damaged by the shocking and potentially distracting revelation in June that members of its front office were under federal investigation for hacking the internal database of the Houston Astros; the Cardinals fired their scouting director, Chris Correa, last month, and the investigation is ongoing.
And yet, St. Louis, with a five-game lead over the Pirates in the NL Central, is virtually assured of its fifth straight postseason appearance and its 12th in the last 16 years. With a majors-best record of 75--42, the Cardinals are on pace to become baseball's first 104-game winner since—well, since St. Louis won 105 in 2004. Nom, nom, nom.
Like any zombie army worth its putrefying limbs, the Cardinals have been able to continue their assault thanks in part to their unmatched depth. Even after their front line goes down, there's plenty more where that came from. Wainwright's season-ending rupture, which occurred while he was batting on April 25, hit them hard. "When you look at these types of injuries, you have the pity party, it might last a day or two, but you ultimately know you're going to have to play tomorrow," says John Mozeliak, now in his eighth year as GM and 20th with the organization. St. Louis, though, has maintained its dominance by assiduously anticipating such losses, rather than scrambling to address them after they occur. "Bill DeWitt"—the team's owner—"and I have always talked about understanding not just what you look like today, but where you need to be three to five years from now," Mozeliak says.
Even without Wainwright, the Cardinals' staff boasts an ERA, 2.60, that would be the best of any club's since 1972. That is largely due to a league-best bullpen and the well-balanced rotation Mozeliak assembled behind Wainwright—which features veterans John Lackey and Lance Lynn as well as youngsters Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha—but also to a bit of luck that only the Cardinals seem to consistently experience. Jaime Garcia, the 29-year-old sinkerballer, underwent his second shoulder surgery in as many years last summer, and Mozeliak admits, "We were not thinking he was going to contribute to this club at all." Through 11 starts, though, Garcia, who returned to the rotation in May, has a 1.57 ERA.
IT WAS harder still to see how the Cardinals' lineup would continue to function once its heart was cut out, but the club had planned for that possibility, too. Back in November 2013, St. Louis traded its 2011 World Series hero—third baseman David Freese—and reliever Fernando Salas to the Angels for a pair of outfielders, Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. At the time, Grichuk was best known for two things: appearing in SI's FACES IN THE CROWD as a 13-year-old in 2005, and being the Texas high schooler whom the Angels selected one slot before they picked Mike Trout in the first round of the 2009 draft. His first few seasons in the minors were unpromising, ruined by a series of injuries, and he seemed destined to become little more than the answer to a trivia question. And yet, says Mozeliak, "we really needed him to be in that deal to do the deal," even if he was only seventh on his organization's outfield depth chart entering last spring.
It turned out that even though the 24-year-old Grichuk stands 6'1" and weighs 195 pounds—not exactly a Ruthian build—he swings with the type of power that sends what at first appears to be a pop-up clanging into the seats eight rows back. "The best thing I can tell you is a visiting hitting coach in spring training said the last time he saw a ball come off the bat like that was with Mark McGwire," says Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry. Adds Mozeliak, "He almost reminds me of Bam-Bam. You remember the Flintstones?"
This season, as he was pressed into regular duty with Holliday in and out of the lineup, the average exit velocity of Grichuk's batted balls, according to StatCast, is 93.45 miles per hour—the fourth fastest in the majors, right below Miguel Cabrera's and a tick above Trout's, who ranks fifth. If Grichuk has not yet gained much support as a potential NL Rookie of the Year in a loaded class, he should. Though he has made at least 150 fewer plate appearances than front-runners Kris Bryant and Joc Pederson, he already has 15 home runs (Pederson has 23, Bryant 16), and he leads all rookies with an .894 OPS. Grichuk, for one, doesn't seem too excited about his feats of strength: "I enjoy working out, getting after it," he says with a shrug.
IT IS, of course, one thing to be strong, and another to be an elite major league hitter. Grichuk has also turned in a batting average (.284) and an on-base percentage (.333) higher than any he has produced since A ball. One explanation for Grichuk's sudden rise is, yes, the Cardinal Way, the organizational philosophy whose mention induces cynical cringes among opponents. The Cardinals want their prospects to rise to the majors not by a series of disjointed stops in Palm Beach and Springfield and Memphis, but via a seamless progression in which the same lessons are being taught at each level. "Even down to the point of knowing a lot of our plays defensively and offensively," says Mike Matheny, the big league club's manager.
Once he reached St. Louis, Grichuk's education did not end. "I feel like in the minor leagues I didn't really know how pitchers were trying to pitch to me," he says. "I might have been up there just hunting a pitch and just going with it. Up here, with all the veteran leadership we have, you can go up and ask them anything. What is a pitcher trying to do to you? Is he coming in? Is he showing you in to go away? How is he setting you up?
"The big guy, I would say, who has helped me in all aspects is Jon Jay."
Jay is a 30-year-old outfielder whose ongoing employment with the Cardinals is currently being threatened, partially by the fact that he is batting .223 and partially because he is on the 15-day disabled list with a wrist injury—but mostly due to the emergence of Grichuk, the player he has taken under his wing. "Every day," says Matheny, "during the game, mentioning something to him. I mean, constantly. This is a guy that could potentially get in the way of [Jay's] future. But the reason this has been successful is these guys have all realized, just do the right thing. When I see it, when one of the staff members sees it, we go out of our way to say, What you're doing is right. You've been on the DL for 15 days already, but you're making our team better."
For the Cardinals, a diligent assembling of consistent depth is only half the battle. The rest of their success lies in an ingrained organizational culture—even if outsiders are sick of hearing about it—that can, among other things, lead incumbent veterans to nurture their successors, even if the future benefits to themselves are nebulous.
While this year's Cardinals seem built, against the odds, to be a superteam, Grichuk says that the chain down to the minors remains unbroken—which is a good thing, as Grichuk himself landed on the 15-day DL with a strained elbow on Monday. "I feel like there are definitely guys down there that are chomping at the bit to get up here."
Just what the rest of baseball needs: more chomping Cardinals.