I’m not going to be one of those people who try and tell you I thought the St. Louis Cardinals would fall apart without the great Albert Pujols. Then again, it was hard to imagine that they would not only not skip a beat, but flourish even more without perhaps the greatest player in franchise history.
Before we drop any other names here, let’s give a tip of the cap to general manager John Mozeliak, who has assembled one of the league’s deepest teams, a team fully-equipped to withstand the loss of even a player as great as No. 5. With some of the game’s best young arms and a lineup that has virtually no weak spots, the Cardinals have looked as strong as anyone in the season’s first half.
First, the offense. Let’s start at the top. Who exactly is Matt Carpenter? A 13th-round draft pick in 2009, Carpenter has established himself as the Cards’ leadoff man, hitting .324 through 62 games. Hometown hero David Freese, he of the recent 20-game hitting streak, came over in a trade in 2007 for the beloved Jim Edmonds.
Yadier Molina, perhaps the most valuable Cardinal, was a fourth-round draft pick in 2000 (admittedly before Mozeliak’s time, which began in the fall of 2007). The free agent pick-ups aren’t too shabby either, with Carlos Beltran (team-leading 14 home runs) and Matt Holliday anchoring the outfield. But what about that big hole at first base?
Enter Allen Craig. An eighth-round pick out of UC Berkeley in 2006, Craig did not crack the big leagues until 2010. He had some clutch hits during the 2011 World Series, but few knew how Craig would respond as the everyday first baseman filling the shoes of a future Hall of Famer. The answer? Just fine.
After hitting .307 with 22 home runs and 92 RBI last season, Craig is a run-producing machine in 2013. While his power numbers have dipped (just six dingers in 62 games), he is hitting .312 with 48 RBI. And can you say clutch? The 28-year-old is hitting an absurd .471 with runners in scoring position and two outs and .409 with RISP overall, and the Cardinals are hitting an off-the-charts .341 with RISP.
It doesn’t hurt that the pitching staff may be as talented as any in baseball, making the offense that much scarier. It starts with veteran Adam Wainwright, who missed all of the Cards’ 2011 championship season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Wainwright is a Cy Young-caliber pitcher, and his numbers this season would support that: 9-3, 2.34 ERA.
After Wainwright, it only gets better, with power arms a plenty. Lance Lynn is 8-1 with a 3.00 ERA, and former first-round pick and top prospect Shelby Miller is in the running for NL Rookie of the Year with a 7-4, 2.21 line. Jaime Garcia, a more finesse pitcher, isn’t chopped liver either, at 5-2, 3.58.
The loss of closer Jason Motte hurts, but Edward Mujica has stepped up admirably, converting all 18 of his save opportunities while posting a 1.57 ERA. He has no previous closing experience, but then again neither did Motte. Setting up Mujica is young Trevor Rosenthal, who can hit triple-digits on the radar gun and has 46 strikeouts in 32 innings while posting a 1.69 ERA.
Take out some utter meltdowns by the once-dependable Mitchell Boggs (0-3, 11.05 ERA) and the Cardinals’ impressive record would look even better. The pitching staff has few holes, and the lineup has virtually none. When Albert Pujols split town for Los Angeles, did that statement seem possible?
Indeed, the Cards are doing just fine.