A fragile lineup
and weak pitching have transformed St. Louis from an NL force to a club
battling to hold its division lead
On a muggy
afternoon at Wrigley Field last Friday the military jets preparing for the
weekend's Air and Water Show weren't the only things soaring through Chicago
airspace: The Cardinals launched six home runs and drubbed the Cubs 11-3. Two
days later St. Louis won again to take the three-game series and left town
feeling good about itself. After all, the middle-of-the-order triumvirate of
Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds-who had started together in only 63
of 123 games this season-would be complete again this week with Edmonds's
return from postconcussion syndrome, and lefthander Mark Mulder was expected to
rejoin the rotation after two months on the DL with a left-shoulder injury.
But this season
hasn't played out the way it was supposed to for the Cardinals. After earning
the reputation in 2004 and '05 as the most fearsome team in the National
League, St. Louis was presumed to be the only NL club outside the Mets capable
of giving the American League pennant winner a run for its World Series money.
But with a 5-14 performance from July 27 through Aug. 16, the Cards aren't even
a lock to win their division. "Last year they were a lot stronger,"
says Rangers leftfielder Carlos Lee, who saw them as a member of the Brewers.
"They were unbelievable-their pitching, hitting, everything was going good
at the same time. This year I think Cincinnati has a chance."
After putting up
a .618 intradivision winning percentage over the last two years, St. Louis this
season was only 29-32 against NL Central teams through Sunday, a testament to
the division's modest overall improvement and the Cards' decline. Says Reds
leftfielder Ryan Freel, whose club was 21/2 games behind St. Louis, "I
think we are the best team in the division."
St. Louis has
been riddled with injuries this season: In addition to Edmonds and Mulder,
Pujols (strained oblique), Rolen (sore shoulder, back spasms), shortstop David
Eckstein (strained oblique) and righthanded starter Chris Carpenter (right
shoulder bursitis) have all been sidelined by injury. And the pitching has
dropped off measurably, with the staff ERA jumping from a league-leading 3.49
in 2005 to 4.53 (eighth). In fact, the return of Mulder (6.09 ERA) may not be
much to get excited about.
"I thought he
had something wrong with him his last year in Oakland," says an AL scout.
"He didn't seem the same, and he still doesn't." The trade in December
'04 that brought Mulder to St. Louis looks more and more like a big mistake.
The A's not only received righthanded starter Dan Haren-who is three years
younger than Mulder, is paid a fourteenth of his salary and since the deal has
won 25 games with a 1.18 WHIP and 3.61 ERA (to Mulder's 22, 1.43 and 4.38)-but
also solid setup man Kiko Calero (1.19 WHIP and .215 batting average
could have used that talent; the injuries and drop-off in performances have
been magnified by the fact that they don't have the complementary players they
once did. "They're not as deep as in the past," says Milwaukee G.M.
Doug Melvin, whose Brewers were 71/2 games out of first after finishing 19 and
37 1/2 games behind in 2005 and '04, respectively. "They lost some [key]
veterans to free agency- Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek, Matt
By tying up more
than 60% of their payroll on five players (Pujols, Rolen, Edmonds, Mulder and
closer Jason Isringhausen), St. Louis has been forced to fill out its roster
with cut-rate castoffs such as starters Sidney Ponson (released in July) and
Jeff Weaver (5-13, 6.07 ERA), reliever Jorge Sosa (3-10, 5.15 ERA), second
baseman Aaron Miles (.261, two home runs in 299 at bats) and outfielder Larry
Bigbie (on the DL since June 5).
"What you do
is take your best shot," says manager Tony La Russa, "and see if
[that's] good enough." The Cardinals' best shot this year may get them back
to the playoffs, but they won't have much left after that.