The St. Louis Cardinals jumped out to a 28-16 record through roughly the first quarter of the regular season, and while that is the best record in the National League, the team still has noticeable room for improvement.
The roster started to round into form nicely in early May as the hitters such as centerfielder Jon Jay and third baseman David Freese improved their swings, and the bullpen stabilized to provide reinforcements late in the game for a starting rotation that was by far the most dominant in all of Major League Baseball.
But then right-handed starter Jake Westbrook went on the disabled list May 12 with a sore elbow, and left-handed starter Jaime Garcia’s probably ended Friday when he left the game with left shoulder pain and is likely headed for surgery.
The Cardinals called up left-handed pitcher John Gast to fill Westbrook’s spot, and Gast has done well with wins in each of his first two starts. Gast has a 4.76 earned-run average, but that’s largely because he ran into trouble in the sixth inning after pitching five scoreless innings in each game.
Another lefty, Tyler Lyons, will start Wednesday in San Diego against the Padres in place of Garcia. Lyons had a 4.47 ERA through eight starts with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, but neither Lyons nor Gast should be the Cardinals’ largest worries.
If Gast continues to pitch well, the Cardinals could keep him in the rotation when Westbrook comes back and send Lyons back to the minors, but the bullpen is still more of a concern.
Mitchell Boggs returned to the Cardinals on Monday in San Diego after a nearly three-week long banishment in Memphis to straighten out his pitching since he racked up an ERA above 12.00 in his first 14 appearances of the season.
Boggs gave up a homerun to the first hitter he faced Monday, which was Padres centerfielder Will Veneble, but then settled in to retire the next six hitters in a row.
Before Boggs, Fernando Salas entered Monday’s game in the sixth inning to relieve right-handed rookie starter Shelby Miller, who held a 2-1 lead at the time but left with two runners on base. Salas promptly gave up a single to center by outfielder Chris Denorfia, walked catcher John Baker and hit pinch hitter Jesus Guzman to allow the Padres to take their game-winning 4-2 lead.
The bullpen doesn’t have to be perfect every game. That’s an unrealistic expectation, but the inconsistency is frightening now that the starting rotation is down to three of its original five members.
The relievers’ workload could quickly skyrocket if Gast and Lyons can’t make it past the sixth inning. Right-handed starter Lance Lynn tends to run up a high pitch count fairly regularly, and Miller hasn’t made it past the sixth inning in his two starts after the complete-game shutout he threw May 10 at Busch Stadium against the Colorado Rockies.
That, in turn, puts more pressure on right-handed ace Adam Wainwright to pitch deep into every game he pitches because the bullpen will likely be either overworked or on the verge of being overworked until Westbrook returns and Chris Carpenter completes another surprising comeback.
Wainwright will also have to pitch very well in his starts because the offense has yet to consistently put up large run totals this season. The lineup has produced more than four runs in a game three times in the last 13 games.
However, the Cardinals’ lineup is packed with five hitters who have combined for more than 3,000 RBIs in their careers, so any scoring droughts likely won’t last very long.
Given their start, the 2013 Cardinals have the potential to put together one of the best records in franchise history, but they currently still have a few too many questions on their roster to make that prediction become reality.