The Cardinals have arrived at the All-Star break with a 49-43 record, tied with Milwaukee for first place in the NL Central. Considering all of the obstacles the team has had to endure in the first half of the season, it really is a remarkable achievement – even in a less-than-stellar division.
It will not be easy, however, for the Cardinals to stay in that spot the rest of the season. Whether or not that can happen will no doubt be a team, and an organization, effort – but there are some individuals whose performances likely will matter a little more than others.
Here then is the list of the 10 Most Important Cardinals for the second half of the season:
The Cardinals are used to having Pujols carry them, but that has not happened so far this year. If anything, it is the Cardinals who have carried Pujols. Even if Pujols’ poor start to the season and his absence for two weeks with a broken arm have left him in a tough spot to extend his streak of hitting 30 homers, driving in 100 runs and hitting .300 or better, he still can carry the Cardinals to a division title.
1. Albert Pujols.
What Pujols needs to do is forget about what has happened so far, forget about any statistical goals and forget about his contract status – none of which will be easy. He needs many more moments like his key eighth-inning home run on Saturday night. If Pujols can come out and let his talent and ability take over, he can be the dominating player the Cardinals need him to be – and then everything else will take care of itself.
2. Chris Carpenter.
His 1-7 start was well documented, even if he was pitching better than his record. A three-game winning streak followed, but then he was roughed up by the Diamondbacks on Saturday night.
For the Cardinals to win, they must have an ace in the starting rotation, a pitcher who can go out and stop losing streaks. With Adam Wainwright out for the year, Carpenter has to be that pitcher. Jaime Garcia does not have the experience to do it, even if he has the ability, and it isn’t fair to expect it from any of the team’s other three starters,
Carpenter does not have to have a John Tudor-like season from 1985, throwing 10 shutouts and finishing with a sub-2.00 ERA, but he has to be the leader and the hammer on the staff. Like Pujols, he can’t let his personal situation – wondering if the Cardinals will pick up his option for next year – get in the way of pitching, and winning, the way he can.
3. Fernando Salas.
Barring a trade for a more proven closer, Salas is going to be the guy. He had a solid first half, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities, and showed composure like a veteran. Trying to close out games in a pennant race in August and September, however, is a challenge he has never experienced before.
As the Cardinals saw when Ryan Franklin was struggling at the start of the year, nothing can deflate a team quicker than blowing leads in the ninth inning. Blowing one game is one thing, but a closer has to have the ability to forget about it immediately and not let it become a habit. Whether Salas has the ability to do that, as a rookie, will be one of the main factors determining the team’s success or failure the rest of the season.
4. David Freese.
When you look at the Cardinals’ lineup, and the performances of those players in the first half of the season, there are only three who really can be expected to produce at a higher level in the second half – and the most important to the team’s success might be Freese.
If he can stay healthy, and hit for a high average and drive in runs as he has done in the past, Freese will help take some of the pressure off the Cardinals’ main offensive threats in Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman. Freese also should be able to pick up some of the slack if any of those should go into some kind of slumps.
5. Colby Rasmus.
The player other than Freese who needs to produce more in the second half of the season than he did in the first is Rasmus. He also has the pressure of worrying that he might lose some playing time to Jon Jay if he does not produce on a more consistent basis. If he struggles, he is also more likely to hear his name start to pop up in trade discussions, which might create a big distraction if he lets that bother him.
Hitting either second or sixth in the lineup most of the time, Rasmus will find himself at the plate in a lot of crucial situations. Hitting second, he has to be able to consistently get on base in fromt of Pujols, and if he is hitting sixth, RBIs have to become his major focus.
6. John Mozeliak.
The only non-player on the list is one of the Most Important Cardinals because he will be the person who determines what moves the team makes or doesn’t make before the July 31 trading deadline.
The team might try to add a proven closer, or they might decide to add a starting pitcher. For the first time in many years, the Cardinals have players in their farm system which other teams want. Mozeliak cannot be so short-sighted and focused on this season, however, that he makes a trade which will have a negative impact on the organization for years to come.
7. Kyle McClellan.
The converted reliever got off to a great start after moving into the starting rotation, but has struggled lately. He has to prove he can go deeper into games and come out on the winning side. Any struggles in the bullpen will increase the pressure on the Cardinals to move McClellan back to a relief role, and if he wants to remain a starter, for this year and beyond, he has to prove he can do the job.
8. A lefthanded reliever.
At the moment, the Cardinals do not have one on the roster who inspires confidence that he can come in and retire a lefthanded hitter at a key moment in the game. Whether Trever Miller, Raul Valdes, or Brian Tallet, when he comes off the disabled list, can become that reliever remains to be seen. More than likely, the pitcher who will be asked to fill that role in August and September is not currently on the roster.
9. Lance Berkman.
No doubt the biggest surprise of the first half for the Cardinals, there is little expectation that Berkman can repeat his success in the second half. He should not have to, if the team can get increased contributions from Pujols, Freese and Rasmus. What he will be called upon to do, however, is continue to be the motivating influence who has had such a positive impact on the team’s attitude and camaraderie.
10. Jon Jay.
He might be the player who puts the most pressure on manager Tony La Russa in the second half, trying to figure out a way to keep him in the lineup on a consistent basis. The fact he is a better defensive center fielder than Rasmus, at least right now, is going to make it even tougher to have him sitting on the bench. The battle for playing time between Rasmus and Jay could become one of the more intriguing story lines to watch the rest of the season.
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