The Cincinnati Reds took great strides in their run for a playoff spot in the last week, gaining serious momentum by losing 3 of 4 to the worst team in the National League and bolstering their squad by sending one of their best pitchers to the 15-day DL. They caught a nice, timely overnight flight towards the Mississippi River after a short all-day butt-kicking of a doubleheader at the rigors of high altitude, and cruised into St. Louis fresh and ready to begin a 3 game series of mild importance against their division rivals.
It's a good thing the Reds have had success in Busch Stadium, too, where they've actually won a series once and split another there in their last twenty trips through town.
Quit rolling your eyes.
The only way to sugarcoat the last week of the Reds season is to say that it's probably not the worst week the team has had since the All-Star break. So, they've got that going for them. The Drew Stubbs walkoff after Aroldis Chapman's implosion in game 1 of Sunday's doubleheader against the Colorado Rockies may not have sounded the death knell for the Reds season, but it certainly was a pop-up ad saying the death knell ringtone was on sale for 90% off. The trouncing in game 2 was merely the door hitting the Reds on the butt as they left town.
Now, the Reds are left in season saving mode as they roll into the scariest house of horrors they see all year. The Cardinals have won 18 of the last 20 series they've hosted against Cincinnati, and their freshly overhauled roster comes in at 9 games over .500 and winners of four of their last five games.
To get some insight into the current state of affairs in St. Louis, I e-spoke with Aaron Finkel (@Aaron_Finkel) of Viva El Birdos since the guy knows the Cardinals like Chris Carpenter knows rubbed baseballs.
Red Reporter: Baseball as a whole has been plundered by the injury bug this year, and the Cardinals have obviously been no exception. What have the injuries to the pitching staff and Yadier Molina taught you about the franchise's depth? Any one player surprisingly stand out in their stead?
Aaron Finkel: It's been such a brutal year across baseball. Going into the season, depth certainly appeared to be a strength, but Atlanta's horror show of a preseason and the Cardinals' recent history with injury were warnings. Our site manager Ben Humphrey wrote a prescient piece called "Jaime Garcia and the illusory nature of depth" before the year began, and boy howdy was he right. It's not just been the expected guys like Garcia, but Wacha's injury was totally out of the blue, and when Joe Kelly went down, his replacement Tyler Lyons also went down. One other note here: I think Adam Wainwright is pitching hurt. He missed a start earlier in the year with elbow tendinitis and has been pretty uneven ever since. So, yeah. Depth. Illusory. As ever. Regarding the last question, Lance Lynn's outstanding year has surprised some, but he's been really good his whole career, so Jhonny Peralta has probably been the most surprising player as a positive key this season. He's been terrific.
RR: St. Louis hit .994 with an OPS that had a few commas in it with RISP in 2013, and that fueled an offense that scored an NL-high 793 runs. This year, the Cardinals have scored the 2nd fewest runs in baseball. A lack of Beltran, Molina's injury, and Allen Craig's regresion certainly aren't the lone culprits, so what's truly fueled the drop-off?
AF: It's been a mix of things. First of all, as you pointed out, the RISP performance last season was due for massive correction, and that's happened. As far as the players, losing Beltran isn't the problem. Matt Adams has been just about as good as Beltran was the last two years, albeit a little differently. But Craig was absolutely terrible. Not just regression, but the bottom falling entirely out. Matt Carpenter is still a marvelous hitter, but he's hitting with less power than last year, which isn't too surprising. As good as he is, 2013 is probably a bit of an outlier for him. Matt Holliday is aging, and there been some decline, especially with power. Same for Yadi, who was merely good before his injury. And Kolten Wong and Oscar Taveras are still figuring out big league pitching, though the former has been making strides in that regard. On top of that laundry list, the team has been a bit unlucky. They're middle of the pack as far as team wOBA and wRC+, but as you pointed out, second worst in runs. I expect some positive regression in that regard.
RR: You now have A.J. Pierzynski to root for on a day to day basis. How's that going for you?
AF: Man, that was an unexpected move. He's actually been a model citizen thus far, and I have to admit I'm entertained imagining grim-as-death Mike Matheny dealing with AJ behind the scenes. I'll add that it was pretty weird being the NL's most hated team last year, because the team was quite low on players worth disliking for any reason except their laundry. No Chris Carpenter, no La Russa, no Pujols. So it's been nice bringing in AJ and Lackey (and I suppose Jhonny if your favorite team has been PED clean for a while) to give the opposition a few players worth gnashing teeth over.
RR: On a frustratingly similar note, what's your opinion on Skip Schumaker as a Red? Aren't you flippin' excited that he's under contract for 2015 with an option for 2016, too? If I have to ask you this question about Daniel Descalso in two years, please, stick my head in a blender.
AF: I've never liked him so much. By the way, Descalso would look fabulous in Cincinnati's particular shade of red.
RR: Michael Wacha, Shelby Miller, and Carlos Martinez have each battled through injuries, role changes, or something of a combination so far in 2013. They're all still young and highly rated - as they well should be - but which do you see emerging as the best in the long run? Say they're going to end up as Latos, Bailey, and Cueto and I'm gonna hang up and not listen.
AF: It's easy. I have no idea!
Michael Wacha is an ace if his shoulder problem doesn't become chronic. His fastball-changeup combo is devastating, and his curveball is getting better and better. The rare injury he suffered has been chronic with Brandon McCarthy, though he's been able to pitch a fair amount of innings anyway.
I don't know what to make of Shelby Miller. Maybe he needs to rebuild his mechanics. His fastball doesn't move like it did last year and his curve just isn't much of a weapon at this point. He's a work in progress, and for the moment I don't have any specific expectations for him.
Carlos Martinez needs polish. He also has one of the best collections of pitches I have ever seen a Cardinal throw. If he stays healthy and can gain fair command, he'll be very good. If he gets excellent command, he will be one of the best pitchers in baseball. If his command stays erratic, he should be a useful bullpen piece.
RR: John Mozeliak rolled the dice a bit at the trade deadline this year by bucking the "prospects for established big leaguers" mantra in favor of trading from within the 25-man roster. What's your opinion of his deadline philosophy? Did anyone see that coming?
AF: I don't think he has an overarching deadline philosophy. He certainly values the farm highly, but I think he'd be adaptable enough in his vision to try to take advantage of anything he viewed as an opportunity to receive good value. I did not see the two trades he made coming. The cost of pitching looked so high that I was terrified he was going to mortgage a significant part of the future to try to reinforce a mediocre club. The Ramsey for Masterson trade made sense because Ramsey was unlikely to sniff playing time in St Louis and Masterson's outstanding 2013 made him a good guy to try to fix for the stretch run at a low cost. The Lackey trade shocked the hell out of everyone. I think it was a very good trade because Lackey is going to be very valuable next year at just $500K, Kelly is not (yet) nearly so good as his career ERA indicates, and Allen Craig is a mess. But under the surface, the trade is full of intrigue. John Mozeliak wanted Carlos Martinez to start out of spring training; Mike Matheny chose Joe Kelly. John Mozeliak expressed frustration that Oscar Taveras wasn't getting used in the majors; Mike Matheny stuck with Allen Craig. Of course any motivations related to those conflicts have been repeatedly denied, but I still think that if Jon Jay sees John Mozeliak walking toward him with a crowbar this off-season, Jay better run the other way.
RR: Here is where you get full opportunity to wax poetic on the decision to let Albert Pujols leave for Los Angeles:
AF: It's a terrible shame Albert Pujols perished in that boating accident in November 2011, but at least he ended his career on a high note.
But really, what is there to say? I wanted a story book, and that kind of thing rarely happens. I was surprised, then sad, but honestly now I rarely think of him unless I boot up mlb.tv to watch Garrett Richards pitch or Mike Trout hit, but I wish him well.
RR: The Cardinals keep getting sneakily connected with a trade for Troy Tulowitzki this offseason, which scares the bejeebers out of me right until I look at his games played per season. Think there's any legitimacy to those flirtations, or will St. Louis look at a different avenue for offensive upgrades this winter?
AF: I think the odds there are legitimate discussions this winter are above 90% and the odds anything happens are below 10%. The Rockies clearly should move him, and the Cardinals can probably manage a good deal of that contract and have the chips to send to the Rockies, so they'll talk. Tulo would play short, Peralta 3rd, Carpenter 2nd, and Wong to the bench unless one of them (Wong probably?) was part of the deal. Clearly the Rockies would want a lot of pitching back. Something like Carlos Martinez and one of the two exciting youngsters Rob Kaminsky or Alex Reyes. But I don't think it will happen. I actually suspect the Cardinals don't do too much. Holliday, Yadi, Carpenter, and Adams aren't going anywhere. Bourjos/Jay is cheap and solid, and they just got Peralta. Growth from Oscar and Kolten would go a long way to making the team above average offensively in short order. Matt Adams could use a platoon partner, and I expect there will be an upgrade to the bench via FA or a smaller trade.
RR: We may only have, like, one more year to make unfettered jokes about the Chicago Cubs, so go ahead and get one in before Theo and his shortstop Dinobots make the rest of the NL Central put the lotion in the basket.
AF: Oh man, I'm terrified. Then I remember they're the Cubs! (No really, I'm terrified. Allow me to plug my Game of Thrones Baseball mash-up: http://www.vivaelbirdos.com/2014/8/15/6004231/dugout-thrones-a-song-of-grounders-and-flies It's full of Cubs fear. The Reds haven't been featured yet, but they will be soon. They'll look awful of course, but so will everyone else, Cardinals included.)
Many thanks to Aaron for conjuring up this Q & A exchange. You can read the responses I had to his questions over at VEB.