Tag Archive | "Milwaukee Brewers"

Making The Winter Rounds In the NL Central

While much of the success that a team has comes from its own preparation, what goes on around them also plays a huge factor. The Cardinals have been among the most successful clubs at concisely addressing their needs this winter, but how has the rest of the National League Central done?

Washington Nationals v St. Louis Cardinals

What is for certain is that the margin for error was slim-to-none last summer in the heart of the National League. While the Cardinals succeeded in winning the division, they finished only three games ahead of the Pirates, and seven in front the third-place Reds. And this feat was achieved only by a September surge that pulled them out of a three-way race that was separated by less than a two games entering the season’s final frame.

Even below the upper tier of the division, the Brewers and the Cubs are both looking to develop a new phase for their respective fortunes. Amid the Ryan Braun Biogenesis fallout and the continued resurfacing in Chicago, both teams finished well outside of the race, but continue to look for ways to tweak the approach.

However, the NL Central has not been a division that has made a sweeping amount of substantial additions. In fact, many faces from each team have departed and the action to replace them has not been as loud as it has been in, say the American League East or West. Thus far, only the Cardinals have made any major additions of note, and when combined with what’s in place already, potential the NL Central gauntlet could be a thing of the past potentially.

Here is how the winter has gone for the Cardinals’ divisional neighbors thus far, and what could be to come before the winter turns to spring…

 

Pittsburgh Pirates (94-68 in 2013)

Gains: Clint Barmes (resigned), Chris Stewart, Edison Volquez

Losses: Marlon Byrd (Phillies), Garrett Jones (Marlins), Justin Morneau (Rockies)

The detail: The Pirates have let both of the main parts they added for the stretch run last year walk, which should come as no surprise. While the presence of Jose Tabata and Gaby Sanchez makes this bearable, the loss of Jones as well leaves a substantial loss in power potential. Add in the pending free agent status of AJ Burnett, and this is a team that has more than a few questions currently. The addition of Volquez is both an attempt to pad this looming issue, as well as to catch the same type of former All-Star lightning in a bottle they did with Liriano last summer.

What’s Looming: Burnett will either resign or retire most likely, and it is a decision that could linger into the spring. Pittsburgh is armed with a young core and could look to add some value priced veterans, but they are likely to take a step back in everyday potency as long as their first base situation is up in the air.

 

Cincinnati Reds (90-72 in 2013)

Additions: Brayan Pena, Skip Schumaker

Subtractions: Shin-Soo Choo (Rangers), Ryan Hanigan (Rays), Xavier Paul (Orioles), Dusty Baker (Fired)

The detail: The Reds have probably seen the most change of any team in the division, which started with the firing of manager Dusty Baker a day after their loss in the NL Wild Card Game. On the field, the expected loss of Choo came, and they flirted with the idea of moving Brandon Phillips as well, but were scoffed by the Yankees before it could go through. Their operation has been based in promoting from within (trading Hanigan to open up a full-time role for Devin Mesoraco), and rounding out the bench this offseason, with additions such as the former Cardinal Schumaker. They are very much a team that is not quite rebuilding, but is definitely retooling their approach on the run.

What’s Looming: As it stands today, the Reds are a wild card, and very much the definition of a third place-level club. They will return the majority of the top half of their staff and every day lineup, but the future of Bronson Arroyo and where he lands next year potentially removes a vital safety valve in their rotation. Billy Hamilton will take over the reins in the center field, and will be asked to slide into the leadoff spot that Choo masterfully performed in last year.

 

Milwaukee Brewers (74-88 in 2013)

Additions: None

Subtractions: Corey Hart (Mariners)

The Story: 2013 stunk for Milwaukee. They couldn’t get a steady effort on the mound, injuries and suspensions killed their offensive potential and they could never crack into the competitive mix in the division. On the heels of it all, they’ve been the quietest team in the division, without much coming or going. This is either a sign that they feel they can compete with a return to full strength, or that they are simply hamstrung by what is available in the market—and what fits their needs.

What’s Looming: The loss of Hart hurts, as they struggled to find a replacement for him last season, and now don’t have a clear successor for him now that he has officially moved on. They have had interest in Mets first baseman Ike Davis, but have been reluctant to depart with any of their young arms to do so. However, with either Sean Halton or Juan Francisco as their only viable replacements, their hand could be forced eventually.

 

Chicago Cubs (66-96 in 2013)

Additions: Justin Ruggiano, Ryan Roberts, George Kottaras, Jose Veras, Wesley Wright

Subtractions: Dioner Navarro (Blue Jays)

The Story: The Cubs have once again been mostly quiet, having their name thrown into the rumor mill before they quickly pull it back out themselves. However, they have steadily gone along adding parts to their shed, rebuilding their bench completely and adding a new closer in Jose Veras as well.

What’s Looming: In the end, they could potentially make the biggest name splash of any team in the division, as they are said to be major suitors for newly available Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka. If the franchise decides to go all in to add him (and he agrees to come to the lowly Cubs over the bigger names on the market), they would have a legitimate ace-caliber arm for the first time in years. Jeff Samardzija’s name has been often floated, but at this juncture, the club’s likely opening day starter as things stand now will likely stay in tow for a bit longer.

 

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Triple Play: Mike Trout, Joe Mauer, Todd Helton

In this week’s Triple Play, we look at the best all-around player in baseball, the best rookie in baseball, a retiring Rockie, and more (including our weekly Wainwright Walk Watch). Let’s dive in:

MikeTrout

Who’s Hot?

Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels

It’s become a popular theme this month, how well Trout continues to hit while Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera struggles (mostly due to injury). Specifically, Trout has hit .356/.540/.489 in September; Cabrera has hit just .179/.343/.214. However, that narrow-minded view completely ignores just how good Trout has been throughout the whole season. Trout’s 1.029 OPS in September is only his fourth highest mark this season. After leading the American League in stolen bases, runs scored and OPS+ as a rookie in 2012, Trout has been even better this year. He again leads the AL in runs scored (103 entering Sunday), walks (99) and his OPS+ is 181. He already has exceeded 2012’s RBI total and is all but certain to better the 315 total bases from last year.

In a year that has seen most everything go wrong for the Angels (horrible pitching, career-worst season for Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton’s awful first year in LA), Trout has been the only thing to go right. For the second straight year, Trout is worth 10 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), the only player to do that since Barry Bonds. He might not win the MVP this year, but he probably should. The Angels have been so bad this year, Trout is about the only thing separating the Angels from being the Milwaukee Brewers or the Minnesota Twins.

Who’s Not?

Joe Mauer, Minnesota Twins

Speaking of the Twins, they were officially eliminated from the postseason over the weekend. Unofficially, they were eliminated on Easter. Mauer certainly did his part, compiling a .324/.404/.476 slash line. So why is he in this section? Because of the concussion symptoms from which he continues to suffer. The injury supposedly occurred on August 19, when he took several foul tips off his catcher’s mask. But when you’re a catcher, absorbing foul tips and assorted other punishment is all part of a day’s work. Who really knows when the injury happened? He started light workouts several days ago, only to have the symptoms return and he was sent home on September 11. Is there any benefit to have their homegrown star rush back to the field this season? Absolutely not. Further, if there is any team in the majors that should be extra careful when it comes to a superstar with a concussion, it’s the Twins. Justin Morneau’s concussion issues were such that he has never returned to his MVP-caliber level once he sustained his. Here’s hoping that he is able to recover during the offseason and return to Target Field fully healthy for the 2014 season.

Playing the Name Numbers Game

Here are some interesting numbers from the 2013 season (entering Sunday’s games):

Random Thoughts

  • Todd Helton told Troy Renck of The Denver Post on Saturday that he intends to retire after the 2013. “It just seems like it’s time,” Helton said. He is right. Although he reached the 2,500 hit mark, it has become clear that Father Time has caught up to the 40-year-old lifetime Rockie. The power is mostly gone, as is the bat speed that helped produce ten straight seasons with a park-adjusted OPS+ of at least 118. Helton’s slash line this year is just .244/.315/.408, with 13 homers, 52 RBI and 34 runs scored.
  • In his career, Helton sports a lifetime .317 average, .415 on-base percentage, .539 slugging percentage, 367 home runs, 1,397 RBI, and 1,394 runs scored.
  • According to the Post, those 1,394 runs scored represent eight percent of all the runs scored in Rockies franchise history.
  • Think about that for a moment.
  • Although he tarnished his name with the cement-headed decision to drive drunk earlier this year, Helton’s career will be defined by two iconic moments: 1) Sept. 18, 2007, a walkoff home run off Dodgers closer Takashi Saito that jumpstarted the improbable “Rocktober” run of 21 wins in 22 games, culminating in the team’s only World Series appearance; 2) the image of Helton exulting, fists and head lifted toward the sky as he caught the final out of the 2007 NLCS.
  • Helton probably could elect to continue his career as a reserve/DH, much in the way Jason Giambi has, but the Post story indicates that such an idea never seriously crossed his mind. Helton seems weary and ready to step away from the game. He is fortunate that he gets to do so on his own terms.
  • Five years from now, his Hall of Fame case will be a compelling one to watch.
  • In the short term, this is the best thing for the Rockies. His big salary comes off the books, they can shift Michael Cuddyer to first base and use those funds to bolster the ghastly middle relief.
  • Earlier this year, I wrote that the NL Rookie of the Year award was Yasiel Puig’s to lose. I was wrong. That award should go to Miami’s Jose Fernandez.
  • In his final start of the season last Wednesday, Fernandez shackled the division-leading Braves for seven innings, lowering his ERA to 2.19, with the 0.98 WHIP. His 5.8 H/9 and 9.7 K/9 are tops in the National League. Since his electric appearance at the All-Star Game, Fernandez seemed to get better each start. In his final 10 starts, he averaged seven innings per starts with 1.32 ERA, 84 whiffs, three homers allowed. A whopping 68% of his pitches were strikes and opposing hitters slugged a paltry .239. Here are some other numbers to chew on from his inaugural season in the big leagues:
  1. Surrendered more than five runs just twice in 27 starts
  2. 20 quality starts (at least 6 IP and less than 3 ER allowed)
  3. 10 home runs allowed in 172 2/3 innings pitched
  4. 187/58 strikeout-to-walk ratio
  5. Four starts in which he gave up two hits or less
  •  With apologies to Puig, Shelby Miller, Julio Teheran, and Hyun-Jin Ryu (all of whom would be strong contenders in any other year), this is a no-brainer. Fernandez is the Rookie of the Year. In fact, you could make a reasonable argument for him to win the Cy Young Award ahead of Clayton Kershaw.
  • Wainwright Walk Watch: Once Adam Wainwright started the 2013 season by pitching 37 innings before allowing his first walk of the season, we started a weekly tracker to keep track of how few free passes the Cardinals’ ace hands out this season. He has led the majors in strikeout-to-walk ratio all season, and it hasn’t been close. Last Friday, Wainwright spun another gem, an eight-inning, six-hit, one-run performance against Seattle (he did not factor in the decision). The outing lowered his ERA back below 3.00 (2.96), and his WHIP is down to 1.069. He has a 16-9 record, with 201 strikeouts and 33 walks. Although his K/BB ratio remains sterling at 6.09-to-1, he no longer leads the majors in that category. That honor now belongs to Matt Harvey (6.16). Wainwright likely has three more starts this season to raise that ratio and a favorable schedule in which to do so.
  • Which is more surprising, that the Kansas City Royals remain in the wild-card hunt on September 16, or that the Washington Nationals have crept to within four games of the Cincinnati Reds for the 2nd wild-card spot in the NL?
  • Texas’ Yu Darvish became the fourth pitcher in modern era to strike out at least 250 batters in his first two major-league seasons. The others: Herb Score, Dwight Gooden and Tim Lincecum. He has 12 starts this year in which he has fanned 10 or more batters.
  • Darvish has four 1-0 losses this year, including his past two decisions. Three of those losses have been at home, which is mind-boggling, given the hitters’ paradise in which the Rangers play.
  • Last Monday (Sept. 9), Darvish lost to Pittsburgh’s 23-year-old Gerrit Cole. Saturday, he lost to 40-year-old Bartolo Colon.
  • Saturday was the sixth time Colon did not allow a run in one of his starts.
  • The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw has done that eight times this season.
  • Raise your hand if you foresaw Ubaldo Jimenez stepping up to become the Indians’ stopper with Justin Masterson on the disabled list.
  • I wonder if Jimenez would be this effective if he were still pitching for the Rockies.
  • News: Dodgers allow 19 runs to the archrival Giants, the most the team has ever surrendered ever at Dodger Stadium. Views: San Francisco can celebrate that feat while watching Los Angeles play October baseball.
  • In news sure to enrage Crazy Brian Kenny: Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka wins his 25th straight start. He has won all 21 starts this season, plus his last four in 2012. Obviously, Japanese statistics do not count in the US, but 25 consecutive wins beats the major-league record of 24 straight starts without a loss set by Carl Hubbell in 1936-37.
  • At 24, Tanaka is a prime candidate to pitch in the majors in the next couple years.
  • Hopefully, Kenny will have to address this news on air.
  • We end this week with a feat achieved only once in baseball history: on September 14, 1990, the Mariners’ Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr. became the only father-son duo to club home runs in the same game (off Kirk McCaskill of the then California Angels). Not only that, they did it back-to-back. The elder Griffey was 40, Junior was 20. Both teams finished below .500, out of the playoff picture. But, as is the greatest thing about baseball, history can happen at any time.

Follow me on Twitter: @ccaylor10

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St. Louis Cardinals need Lance Lynn in starting rotation despite struggles

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Lance Lynn may have saved his spot in the starting rotation with a solid six innings Wednesday when he held the Milwaukee Brewers to one run in a game the Cardinals eventually won 5-1.

LanceLynn

But his spot in the rotation should have been safe regardless, even if he might not have deserved it with his recent performances.

Lynn has a 13-10 record but had been awful or close to awful in his five previous starts before Wednesday as the second half of his season fell apart for the second consecutive season.

He began the season nearly the same way he did his rookie year in 2012. He won 10 of his first 12 decisions in 2012 and won 10 of his first 11 this season, but what happened next is what keeps Lynn from being a force in the rotation.

Lynn went 3-3 after the All-Star Break in 2012 until the Cardinals sent him to the bullpen in late August to rest and work on his mechanics.

That decision helped, as Lynn all four of his starts in September as the Cardinals made their push to qualify for the second wild-card spot. Of course, the Cardinals could afford to let Lynn regroup in the bullpen for a couple of weeks because they had a rotation that still had Kyle Lohse and Jaime Garcia, and Chris Carpenter was on the way back from the disabled list.

They had no such luxury this season when Lynn lost five of six decisions between Aug. 4 and Sept. 5 and saw his earned run average jump from 3.78 to 4.37.

Lohse signed with the Brewers in the offseason, Garcia blew out his shoulder in May and Carpenter never could get back from his arm injuries. Plus, manager Mike Matheny does not yet have enough confidence in Jake Westbrook to move him back into the rotation from the bullpen, which is where he’s been since he returned from a back injury.

The Cardinals also have two rookies already in the rotation with Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha, and their only other options are rookies Tyler Lyons or Carlos Martinez, who have both been inconsistent in their first seasons in the major leagues.

So Matheny must continue to give the ball to Lynn every fifth day regardless of his performance. The pressure in this situation is not on Matheny; it’s squarely on Lynn, who must consistently pitch well for the Cardinals to maintain their slight lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central Division to avoid having to play in the winner-take-all Wild Card Game, as they did against the Atlanta Braves in 2012.

Lynn often gets frustrated when his outing does not go perfectly. For example, he gave up three homeruns and four runs total in five innings Sept. 5 against the Reds in Cincinnati, and his body language after each was terrible.

It’s fine to be frustrated. The Cardinals certainly wouldn’t want their pitchers to be happy after they give up a homer, but they also need their pitchers to refocus immediately and get the next hitters out to avoid a bad at bat becoming a bad inning and a bad game. The Cardinals lost Lynn’s latest start against the Reds 6-2 in part because he struggled to bear down and push through the adversity that is part of nearly every Major League Baseball game.

He was much better Wednesday against a much weaker lineup. The Brewers don’t have near the quality hitters of the Reds, who could easily be a playoff opponent for the Cardinals this year.

But the Cardinals don’t necessarily need Lynn to be a postseason starter. They can find three pitchers to take care of the starts in October. They instead need Lynn to be at his best in September so they are positioned for success once the playoffs begin.

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St. Louis Cardinals will have little excuse not to win NL Central

The St. Louis Cardinals have played as tough of a schedule as any team in Major League Baseball this season. They spent the majority of the first half on the road and then came back from the All-Star Break to face 10 playoff-bound teams in their next 15 series.

CardsWin2012

After six games to open the second half against the lowly San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Philles, the Cardinals faced the Atlanta Braves twice, the Los Angeles Dodgers once, the Pittsburgh Pirates four times and the Cincinnati Reds three times, for a total of 33 out of 48 games.

The Cardinals have survived that difficult stretch, going 25-24 headed into Sunday’s game against the Pirates, and they will soon reap the benefits of completing facing all of those potential playoff teams as the schedule balances out through the rest of September.

St. Louis will have 19 games left in the 2013 season after they finish their final three-game set with the Pirates on Sunday, and they will face just one team with a winning record, the Washington Nationals, who visit Busch Stadium Sept. 23-25.

Otherwise, the Cardinals face the likes of the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners and Colorado Rockies through the end of the regular season. Those teams were a combined 63 games under the .500 mark headed into play Saturday.

So the Cardinals will have every opportunity to win the National League Central Division, especially since the Pirates face the AL West-leading Texas Rangers to begin this next week and still have six games against the Reds, which are the third contender in the NL Central.

Of course, a light schedule to finish the season is far from a guarantee of success. Sometimes the worst teams play well against playoff contenders late in the season as they bring up young players from the minor leagues and try to play the spoiler role.

The Cubs could be particularly troublesome, which is a problem considering they come to St. Louis for a three-game series to finish the season.

The Cardinals are 9-7 against the Cubs this season, but luckily those final three games will be played in St. Louis, where the Cardinals were 42-25 headed into play Saturday, compared to a 39-35 record on the road.

Along with the bevy of opponents with poor records, the schedule also helps the Cardinals in that 12 of the final 19 games are at Busch Stadium, and that could also give the Cardinals momentum headed into October.

The Cardinals are in a three-way battle for the division title with the Pirates and Reds, and they have held the first wild-card spot for much of the second half, but it is crucial they at least hang on to that position if they don’t win the division because they have played so much better at home.

One of the staples of the clubs managed by former manager Tony La Russa was their ability to play well on the road. The 2013 Cardinals still have a winning road record, but they have not played well away from St. Louis at all in the second half, going 9-15 since the All-Star Break, so home-field advantage could be particularly important for this ballclub.

They’ll have every opportunity to win that advantage given their remaining schedule, and they’ll have no one to blame but themselves if they have to open the postseason with a one-game wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh or Cincinnati.

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John Axford not enough for St. Louis Cardinals to give up Michael Blazek

St. Louis Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak made his first and only trade of the season Friday when he got right-handed reliever John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers.

Jun 25, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay (19) celebrates with relief pitcher Michael Blazek (67) after defeating the Houston Astros 13-5 at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Axford is a nice pickup for the Cardinals. He brings a veteran presence to the team’s young bullpen and has shown flashes of dominance in the past. The problem is the Cardinals gave up right-handed rookie Michael Blazek in return.

Blazek pitched in 11 games for the Cardinals this season and gave up eight runs in 10.1 innings, but he is the 24-year-old who has the tools to be an effective major-league reliever for years to come.

Sure, he had an earned-run average of 6.97 with the Cardinals, but Blazek allowed runs in just four of his 11 appearances and allowed more than one run in only two of those games. Otherwise, he averaged a strikeout per inning while he dealt with getting called up to the big leagues and sent down to the minors three times in one season.

It would be tough for any young pitcher to find consistent success while in such a tenuous position. Even highly touted rookies such as Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have struggled at times as they’ve taken the road back and forth between St. Louis and Memphis several times this season.

Yes, Blazek also walked 10 hitters to nearly match his number of strikeouts, but the Cardinals have had plenty of pitchers who struggled with their control but steadily improved as they matured at the big-league level.

For example, Jason Motte came to St. Louis as a 26-year-old in 2008, and it wasn’t until 2010 that he got his career ERA below four. However, the Cardinals stuck with Motte and he became the pitcher who not only closed out the 2011 World Series but also the team’s closer who saved every one of the team’s 42 save opportunities in 2012.

But, perhaps the Cardinals though Blazek would not grow out of his control issues and decided to cut their losses. Unfortunately, they got a pitcher who is not substantially better.

Axford was much better at one time, but not anymore. He broke into the big leagues with Milwaukee in 2009 and by 2011 was one of the best closers in Major League Baseball, with 46 saves, a 1.95 ERA and 86 strikeouts in 73.2 innings.

Those were the good days. The more recent days have not been so nice.

Axford’s ERA ballooned to 4.67 in 2012, and he gave up twice as many homeruns (10) during that season than he had in his entire career (five) and lost the closing job in the process as the Berwers fell from a team two games from the World Series in 2011 to a third-place team that barely finished above .500 in 2012.

Axford has given up long balls even more frequently in 2013. He already allowed 10 in 62 appearances for the Brewers with a month yet to play.

Cardinals officials figured they needed veteran depth in the bullpen, and that’s exactly what they got. Axford is nothing more nor nothing less at this point in his career.

Maybe he will fill the role Octavio Dotel held during the 2011 run to the World Series championship. He could be a knowledgeable reliever who gets crucial outs during the late stages of a ballgame that is packed with the pressure that is certain to come with September games when the top three teams in the division are separated by fewer than three games.

But he could also be the 4.50-ERA pitcher who gives up back-breaking homeruns late in those same games while Blazek becomes an integral part of the bullpen renaissance the Brewers sorely need to return to relevance in the National League Central Division.

The Cardinals took a gamble not only for the rest of the 2013 season but also for many years to come.

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The St. Louis Cardinals Acquire Reliever From Milwaukee

BREAKING – The St. Louis Cardinals have acquired John Axford from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for a player to be named later, according to the team and first noted by Kary Booher of the Springfield News Leader.

JohnAxford

Axford, the once mighty closer for the Brewers, has served as the team’s eighth-inning guy for the majority of the 2013 season.  His performance has been far from his former, dominant self.  He is allowing greater than 1.5 runners per inning pitched and has already surrendered as many home runs this year as he has in any other year.  His strikeout rates are down, though his walk rates appear to be steady.  He is a work horse type pitcher that has already appeared in 62 games this season and does add some veteran relief to the back end of the bullpen.  He does produce a solid ground ball rate just below 44% and the Cardinals are probably hoping to catch lightning in a bottle by putting him back into meaningful ball games.

Axford is in his arbitration years as a “Super Two” player, which leaves him under team control through 2016.

Far from the move that most fans or pundits believe to be the one the Cardinals needed to make, it does inject a new and steady arm to the bullpen for a relatively low cost, depending on the prospect heading to Milwaukee.

Bill Ivie is the founder of i70baseball.
You can find his work on Yahoo!InsideSTL, and here on i70.
Talk baseball with him on Twitter @poisonwilliam

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St. Louis Cardinals will be fine, maybe better, without Jake Westbrook

The St. Louis Cardinals have used 10 different starting pitchers in the first four-and-a-half months of the 2013 season, and they will now likely have to play the rest of the season without Jake Westbrook, who started the pitching carousel when he originally went on the disabled list in May with elbow inflammation.

cardinals_westbrook640

However, the Cardinals have shown they can withstand injuries to just about any position outside of catcher, where Yadier Molina has an incredibly large influence on the team, and they should be able to make it through the rest of the season and playoffs without Westbrook.

In fact, there’s a decent chance they could be better.

Westbrook has been the Cardinals worst starter by far in the second half of the season. He won his first two starts after the All-Star Break, but then the proverbial wheels fell off. Westbrook allowed 28 runs in his next five starts, all of them losses except the final game against the Milwaukee Brewers when the Cardinals won 8-6 even though Westbrook nearly gave up a 7-0 lead in fewer than five innings.

Now Westbrook is on the disabled list again, this time with a back injury that could keep him out for the rest of the season and end his career with the Cardinals, because his contract has a mutual option for 2014 the Cardinals might not pick up.

Westbrook’s injury is not nearly as blatant of an excuse to remove a struggling pitcher as when Jason Isringhausen supposedly injured his pitching hand in 2008 by punching a television in the clubhouse, but it could have similarly unexpected, positive consequences.

Isringhausen had struggled to a 5.70 earned-run average with just 12 saves through 42.2 innings that season before he went on the disabled list in August, which led Ryan Franklin to the job, and he went on to save 65 games the next two seasons, including a trip to the postseason in 2009.

The 2013 Cardinals are probably in an even better situation to replace a struggling veteran because they have a pool of talented young pitchers that would easily surpass any of the team’s minor-league reserves during the Isringhausen Era that lasted from 2001-08.

Second-year pitcher Joe Kelly has already become a force in the rotation since manager Mike Matheny finally released him from bullpen purgatory and let him start July 6 against the Miami Marlins.

Kelly allowed four runs through six innings that day against Miami, but he has allowed more than two runs in a start just once since and has improved his record from 0-3 to 5-3 after another stellar performance Thursday against the National League East Division-leading Atlanta Braves when he held them to two runs through six innings as the Cardinals won 6-2.

Rookie starter Shelby Miller has also pitched well, going 11-8 with a 2.94 ERA in 24 starts, and second-year starter Lance Lynn has been in the rotation all season, posting a 13-7 record with a 3.97 ERA.

But now the Cardinals will need one more inexperienced pitcher to exceed expectations as the team enters the final month of the season in a three-way race for the NL Central title with the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

Its first option will be rookie left-hander Tyler Lyons.

The Cardinals first called up Lyons from Triple-A Memphis in May to fill in for injured starter Jaime Garcia, who underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Lyons was good in his first two starts, but his ERA exploded from 1.29 to 5.51 in his next four starts before the Cardinals sent him back to the minors.

Lyons came back to pitch the second game of a doubleheader July 30 against the Pirates and allowed three earned runs through six innings in a 6-0. It wasn’t a bad outing, and the Cardinals were in the middle of a seven-game losing streak at the time, but Lyons will get his third opportunity of the season when he takes the mound to start Monday against the Reds.

Plenty of uncertainty will surround that start and probably each of the rest of his starts through September, if the Cardinals stick with Lyons and don’t move to Carlos Martinez or Michael Wacha, but he now has both positive and negative experiences as a big-league player that should help him this time around.

And if he pitches well, he could add his name to the list of pitchers that includes Adam Wainwright and Shelby Miller who turned late-season call-ups into steady jobs at the top of the Cardinals rotation.

If nothing else, Lyons at least might be able to say he became a large contributor to a team that has a chance to make a deep run in the playoffs.

It might be an unlikely scenario, but as Tony La Russa learned in 2008, the decision to put Westbrook on the disabled list might be the best one Matheny could have made for the long-term health of his team.

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David Freese could be right-handed version of Matt Adams for St. Louis Cardinals

The moments of brilliance for St. Louis Cardinals third baseman David Freese come in flashes.

MLB: NLCS-San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals

He hit one of the most memorable home runs in franchise history in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers and just Monday he delivered a vital pinch-hit, two-run double to extend the Cardinals lead to 8-5 in the eighth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers.

But those moments are not enough for a player who the Cardinals have tried to make a cornerstone at the third base position. They are more fitting of a pinch hitter, such as first baseman Matt Adams, who has been a left-handed, pinch-hitting weapon for the 2013 Cardinals.

Sure, Freese is a good guy, he is considered a good teammate and he combined for a .295 batting average in 2011 and 2012, topping out with 20 home runs and 79 runs batted in during the 2012 season, but he has since become an average player, at best.

He started the 2013 season in a horrible rut. He bottomed out with a .163 batting average April 29 and a 20-game hitting streak between May 17 and June 11 raised his average to .284, but he is now back down to .265 with just six home runs and 46 RBIs.

Those aren’t horrible numbers and were good enough when the Cardinals did not have a replacement infielder outside of the .255-hitting Daniel Descalso, who also has a paltry .310 on-base percentage.

However, Freese also has a -0.4 Wins Above Replacement value, meaning he has played slightly worse than would be expected from a typical third baseman, and the Cardinals now have a replacement, although he comes in the form of a second baseman.

The team called up second baseman Kolten Wong from Triple-A Memphis last week, and manager Mike Matheny has started him in three of his first four games.

With Wong getting regular playing time at second, regular second baseman Matt Carpenter has had to move elsewhere. At first, Carpenter got a needed day off, but Matheny has continued to put Wong in the starting lineup so Carpenter has moved to his original position at third base and Freese has moved to the bench.

Freese isn’t buried on the bench, however. Matheny has given other regular starters extended time off throughout the season. He sat center fielder Jon Jay for several consecutive days in April and early May when he was struggling to fix his swing, and shortstop Pete Kozma didn’t play for several days in a row in late July and August when he went in an extended slump at the plate.

But a long-term view of the Cardinals infield suggests Freese could be the odd man out if Wong takes the starting job as second baseman and Carpenter becomes the everyday third baseman.

Carpenter plays solid defense and occasionally replaced Freese late in games in 2012 because Matheny wanted a stronger defensive player at that position in the late innings. Plus, Carpenter has hit .312 with 61 RBIs and has a WAR value of 5.1.

More than anything, the Cardinals figure to get more consistent production with Wong and Carpenter in the lineup than Freese, who has always been a streaky hitter.

Yes, he hit .390 in the 2011 postseason and was the Most Valuable Player in the National League Championship Series and World Series that year, but his batting average had also dropped from .326 to .297 in the six weeks that led up to the playoffs.

Instead of the everyday third baseman, Freese could take on the role Adams has for the Cardinals throughout the season. Adams has played in the field in just 46 of the 76 games he has played in during the 2013 season, but he has hit .277 with nine home runs and 34 RBIs while primarily coming off the bench.

Freese has some power and could give the Cardinals a reliable right-handed pinch hitter, which has been a lacking aspect of the team for much of the season.

Freese is a good player, but his value to the Cardinals might be higher in the late innings off the bench than throughout an entire game at third base.

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Difficult Start To Second Half Could Help St. Louis Cardinals In October

The St. Louis Cardinals have unquestionably played their worst baseball of the season the past three weeks, going 4-11 against the four best teams in the National League, but that rough stretch could be a large dose of the medicine the team needs to be ready for the playoffs.

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Despite the awful finish to July and start to August, the Cardinals still entered play Saturday in the first wild-card spot and 6.5 games from falling out of a playoff position. Therefore, they have little reason to stress over making the playoffs, but a little frustration could add an edge any team needs to succeed in the postseason.

Sure, the Cardinals had their fair share of injuries during the first half of the season. Starting pitcher Chris Carpenter never recovered from his arm injury, closer Jason Motte underwent Tommy John surgery during spring training, Jaime Garcia had season-ending shoulder surgery in May and Jake Westbrook missed significant time while on the disabled list, but none of those problems were big enough to keep St. Louis from jumping out to the best record in Major League Baseball.

The Cardinals cruised to a 57-36 record in the first half while primarily playing teams that are not going to come anywhere close to making the playoffs. Their combined 28-11 record against the Milwaukee Brewers, Houston Astros, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants largely accounts for why the team was more than 20 games above .500 by the All-Star Break.

They began the second half of the season 5-1 in six games against the lowly Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, who were each 11 games under .500 heading into play Saturday, but then they went out to play the good teams in the National League.

And they got smoked.

The Atlanta Braves, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and Los Angeles Dodgers would fill out the postseason bracket along with the Cardinals if the season ended anytime soon, and those teams won 11 of 15 games against St. Louis.

Of course, catcher Yadier Molina went on the disabled list with a sprained right knee less than a week into that stretch and that has certainly affected the offense considering he was second in the league with a .330 batting average when he got hurt.

Yet, the Cardinals’ problems have been bigger than just Molina’s absence. The team has hit .260 since the All-Star break, which is 16 points lower than it hit before the break.

The pitching staff’s earned-run average has ballooned from 3.40 to 3.98 in the second half as the team struggles to mix and match starters to fill in gaps left by an intense schedule and more injury problems such as Shelby Miller’s sore elbow that could cause him to miss a start after he took a line drive directly off it on the second pitch of his outing Wednesday against the Dodgers.

But more than anything, the team needs to relearn how to win, particular against good teams it will likely face in the playoffs.

Remember, the 2013 Cardinals are a young team. They have a second baseman (Matt Carpenter) and shortstop (Pete Kozma), who are in their first seasons at those positions at the major-league level, and they have used 11 rookie pitchers. All but four of those 13 players were on the postseason roster in 2012 and many had never spent a day in the big leagues until earlier this season.

Also, every team, good or bad, goes through a rough patch in their season. The 2006 World Series championship Cardinals team lost eight games in a row in late June, and the 2011 world championship team lost seven in a row in early June, along with a 3-8 stretch in mid-August before it caught fire through the rest of the season.

The 2013 team had not had a losing streak of more than three games in a row at any point before the seven-game losing streak a couple of weeks ago. The team had battled around injuries, but it had yet to develop the resilience that only a stretch of losing baseball can provide.

Plus, the team now knows the level of play required to compete with the best teams in the league.

It certainly isn’t fun for Cardinals fans to watch their team struggle, but the recent run of losses seemingly night after night could help the team develop the mental and emotional toughness it will need to make a run at the 2013 World Series championship.

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Aaron Rodgers Disappointed In Ryan Braun

Earlier today we brought to light the extreme support Aaron Rodgers showed Ryan Braun during the initial reports of Braun using performance enhancing drugs (you can read about Rodgers betting his salary on his friend here).  It appears that Rodgers plans to distance himself from that support now.

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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel caught up with Rodgers at training camp for the Green Bay Packers and asked him about the Ryan Braun situation and his support of his friend.

“I was shocked, I really was, just like many of you were.  I was backing up a friend. He looked me in the eye on multiple occasions and repeatedly denied these allegations and said they were not true.  So, it is disappointing, not only for myself as a friend, but for obviously Wisconsin sports fans, Brewer fans, really baseball fans. It doesn’t feel great being lied to like that and I’m disappointed in the way it all went down.”

Rodgers seemed to express the same thoughts that many Milwaukee Brewers fans are sharing currently.  A fan favorite that everyone rallied behind during accusations that he vehemently denied, Braun now seems to be a fallen hero that is spiraling downward.

It’s hard to fault someone for rushing to the aid of a friend, especially one that they believe in and have no reason to believe is lying to them.  Rodgers responses right now are quite measured and exact, sounding like a wounded friend but also an athlete that is very protective of his own image:

“I don’t regret backing a friend up. Obviously, in hindsight a more measured approach would obviously be a better course of action. I definitely believe in forgiveness and moving forward. He has a tough task in front of him moving forward with his career, on and off the field.”

Rodgers refused to commit to any business decisions based on the duo’s joint restaraunt in Milwaukee, 8-twelve MVP Bar And Grill.  When pressed for an answer, Rodgers stayed focused on things within his control:

“As far as the business goes, right now I’m focused on football and I have people who can help me with those issues.”

Braun has stated that he is legally bound from commenting on the situation until MLB closes the investigation of the Biogenesis situation.  That silence is seemingly hurting him worse than anything right now as it leaves his fans, his teammates, and his friends searching for answers and jumping to conclusions.  While it is unlikely that the entire truth comes out at any point, I am sure people will be listening when Braun approaches a microphone to express his thoughts when this is all said and done.

Getting the fans, and his friends, to believe what he says might be his biggest challenge.

Bill Ivie is the editor here at i70baseball.
You can follow him on Twitter by 
clicking here.

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