Recently, I was having a conversation with a good friend of mine, and intern for Yahoo sports. He was telling me about how his boss is a big Cubs fan, and has been riding really high throughout this season during the Cubs monstrous run of success. However, he is “deathly afraid” of the Cardinals making the playoffs, regardless of how weak they may seem to be.
Guess what, his fears may be coming true.
Seemingly forgotten by just about everyone throughout the course of this season, the Cardinals have silently hovered around .500 and treaded water in the shadow of the Chicago Cubs empire. Comfortably living underneath the enormous amount of hype being put on the Cubs, St. Louis has trusted their ability to get hot at the right time and their veteran and playoff experience.
The sentiment throughout the clubhouse has consistently been, ‘we will do what is necessary when it is necessary.’ And, sure enough, here we are in late August, looking up at the standings and seeing the Cardinals holding onto a playoff spot and starting to get hot.
And that should be scary to every other team in the national league.
When I was looking at St. Louis before the season and trying to get a beat on the type of team they would be trotting out on a nightly basis, one thing always stuck out. Depth; St. Louis has it in spades. Teams like Washington or Chicago or even Miami may be able to put out a stronger starting 9 than the Cardinals, but St. louis has the 25 man – and even 40 man – roster to compete with anyone.
Having won 6 of their last 7 games following a woeful stretch of series against the lowly Reds, Braves and the mighty Cubs, something has clicked in the Cardinal clubhouse. The much maligned St. Louis bullpen has given up 2 runs in their last 21 innings, and the offense has put up 38 runs over the last 7 games. And this is all without, by and large, the best offensive player in the lineup being healthy since late July.
The Cardinals are just beginning to hit their stride, and they still have an extra gear.
So, when I say that St. Louis has the 25 man roster to compete with any club, what, exactly, does that mean and why should that raise their status as a true contending club? There’s one player in particular that I want to use to highlight my point, and who is, by himself, a microcosm of the St. Louis season.
Jedd Gyorko came over from the San Diego Padres during the offseason as the return package for Jon Jay. At the time, I thought, “Okay, a little move for some infield depth and flexibility with maybe some added power. Well done, Mo.” Turns out, Gyorko has been far more than just ‘a little move’.
While playing all 4 different infield positions and batting in every single lineup spot 1-9, Gyorko has turned in his best all around season, and has a case for being the Cardinals finest offensive player. And, keep in mind, this was a simple depth move that was supposed to strengthen the bench.
Gyorko hit his 20th home run of the season on Sunday in Philadelphia – good for 2nd on the team behind Brandon Moss’s 23 bombs, we’ll get into that – and has not yet eclipsed the 300 at bat mark. His 2.5 WAR is nearing a career high and is good for 4th on the team. Again, this is a depth player that doesn’t even have 300 at bats. And since July 1st, Gyorko is slugging .581, with 13 home runs in 136 at bats and a WRC+ of 146. With the rash of injuries that has hit St. Louis since late June, Gyorko’s surge has been incredible.
Yet another example of the Cardinals ‘next man up’ mentality. And, to even further Gyorko’s remarkable season, he plays good defense. Between his 4 infield positions – highlighted by a +6 at third base – Gyorko has 9 defensive runs saved.
Furthering the Cardinals depth is Brandon Moss. Coming into the season, the thing that Gyorko and Moss had in common was that both of them didn’t have a set role with the team. They were both sort of in limbo, not knowing when they would be called upon, but knowing that they would be called upon. Come August, both are vital cogs in the Cardinal machine, and Moss has re-asserted himself as one of the premier power hitters in all of baseball.
During the same game that Gyorko his his 20th bomb of the year, Moss mashed his 23rd, something that I would have expected at the start of the season, but am still in shock and awe of.
That team leading 23rd home run now has Moss averaging one home run every 12.6 at bats. For players with at least 300 at bats, this is the best rate in all of baseball. And Moss’ monstrous .570 slugging percentage on the entire season ranks 2nd in the national league behind Daniel Murphy (boo this man).
Now, what does this all have to do with the Cardinals chances in the playoffs? Every team has some surprises that come along and do big things, why are they special?
I’m highlighting these two players because they are a glimpse into why the Cardinals serve as a dangerous and scary beast one the playoffs arrive. The home run has been the primary weapon of choice in the Cardinal arsenal throughout this season, but those home runs come in wave after wave after wave.
St. Louis has 9 players with at least 10 home runs, and one – Tommy Pham – that should easily eclipse 10 and even has an outside shot at 20. And, as dangerous as the lineup may seem right now, just wait until Aledmys Diaz returns from a thumb injury. Adding a .912 OPS back into a lineup that sits 3rd in all of Major League Baseball with 631 runs scored can’t possibly hurt.
On a statistic-less note, St. Louis serves as a dangerous playoff team just because of their experience. As good as the Chicago Cubs or Washington Nationals are, those two teams just haven’t ‘been there’. The core of the St. Louis clubhouse has won a World Series and been to the playoffs for 5 straight seasons. This is a club that simply knows how to get the job done.
And, considering the random, free-for-all style of baseball that the playoffs often give us, St. Louis is as good a bet as anyone. When you throw everything out the window and put the Cardinals in the playoffs, their lineup, pitching staff, and bullpen match up favorably with anyone.
Let’s take Los Angeles, for example.
Match up the two lineups and St. Louis has scored 82 more runs and features a team OPS that is 57 points higher. On the starting pitching side, LA has a slight edge with an ERA of 4.09 in 673 innings while St. Louis sports a 4.23 ERA in 731.1 innings. However, the 673 innings pitched by Los Angeles’ pitching staff are only better than Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, while St. Louis’ 731.1 innings are good for 6th best in baseball. Which leads us into the bullpens, where Los Angeles ranks 3rd in all of baseball with at 3.25 ERA, while St. Louis sits right behind them, in 4th, at 3.30. But, considering all the innings that the Los Angeles rotation has thrown, the Dodger bullpen has shown signs of wear and tear of late with a 5.27 bullpen ERA during the month of August.
Los Angeles isn’t the only example I could use, but it just shows that St. Louis – even with all of their perceived flaws – can match up with anyone in a playoff scenario and be dangerous. Just a month ago, I was clamoring for John Mozeliak to sell, wave the white flag, and look towards next season with a clearer picture. Not only did Mozeliak not do what I told him to, but his club has now gotten hot, and is in somewhat secure control of a Wild Card spot.
Baseball is random, the Cardinals are random. When hot and healthy, this is not a team to be messed with, and the Cardinals are getting both hot and healthy; and that should scare the rest of baseball.