McNeal: Five key issues facing Cards in second half of season
JUL 01, 2013 3:43p ET
Which brings us to this: Should the Cardinals be more content or concerned about the 81 games left in their regular season?
Let's look at five key issues before answering:
Even after their rocky June, the Cardinals own the best rotation ERA (3.18) in the majors. But that's about the end of the good news. Entering July, the Cardinals' second-best starter looks to be Joe Kelly, and he's not even in the rotation.
As well as Shelby Miller, Lance Lynn and Jake Westbrook pitched at the start of their seasons, history says their June struggles are more likely to continue than not. Miller is, after all, a rookie. Lynn's season is starting to look like a repeat of 2012, when he made the All-Star team and then lost his spot in the rotation for a time in the second half. His off-season weight loss, could -- and should -- make a difference down the stretch, though. Westbrook has been around too long to believe he's much more than a .500 pitcher with an ERA around 4.00, which means his ERA is far more likely to rise than remain at 2.95.
I expect the Cardinals to shop for rotation help before the trade deadline but I would be surprised if they set their sights on, say, a Cliff Lee, rather than a Scott Feldman-type. Pairing Lee with Wainwright would give the Cardinals a 1-2 to match Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer in October but the price would be exorbitant. Besides at least three high-end young players, Philly isn't likely to eat much of the $62.5 million Lee is guaranteed on a deal that runs through 2015.
While the Cardinals can afford to make such a blockbuster move now, the cost would limit their future moves. And as good as Lee would look in a red October, the Cardinals do not need him to achieve their primary goal -- make the playoffs. Though they have fallen out of first in the N.L. Central, they still own an eight-game advantage in the race for a wild card spot.
All they need to end the longest streak of losing seasons in U.S. pro sports history is to finish 30-51. That, I believe, they will do. They finished better than that -- by one game -- in their 2011 second-half crash.
Still, while their pitching continues to improve and the experience gained from past struggles figures to help, the disastrous manner in which their seasons have disintegrated the past two years can't be dismissed. The Pirates will have to actually make the playoffs before convincing me they're a playoff team.
3. Pete Kozma
Specifically, Pete Kozma's bat. Though his defense was directly responsible for a loss against the Rangers, Kozma's glove has been better than advertised. His range and his arm have impressed.
His hitting is slipping steadily but the Cardinals probably didn't project him to hit much better than .244, his current average. His overall average should not drop much more but his .329 average with runners in scoring position probably will. Still, the Cardinals' playoff chances do not hinge on Kozma's hitting.
4. Carlos Beltran
Through the Cardinals' first 81 games last year, Beltran was the team's best hitter: .304, 20 homers, 63 RBIs. This first half has been just as impressive: .308, 19 and 50.
But Beltran faded last July and August when he hit .206 and dealt with a right-hand injury. To hopefully keep him strong for the stretch, Mike Matheny has managed to rest Beltran for seven games this year, compared to four at the same point last year. If the extra down time can help keep him healthy as well as fresh, Beltran should be able to remain more consistent this year.
Edward Mujica saved the Cardinals' season as much as any player by moving into Jason Motte's job and converting his first 21 save chances. But the stakes will rise as the season goes on and Mujica's inexperience in the closer's role could come into play.
The Chief doesn't appear to let much bother him, though. While he isn't likely to stay perfect, there's little reason to believe he will succumb to any pennant pressure, either.
So content or concerned? Which way should the Cardinals be leaning about the next 81 games? Only one of their five biggest issues really is significant but that issue is starting pitching. When your starting pitching isn't where it should be, you must be concerned.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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