Judging by the standings, the Cardinals are in a good spot heading to the quarter mark of the season. They’ve proven to be a resilient and competitive bunch while remaining among the NL Central leaders even though three regulars have been stuck in a tailspin at the plate.
As the Cardinals prepare to enter the second quarter of the season Thursday, though, there’s no denying that some will start to wonder if Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Kolten Wong will cost hitting coach John Mabry and assistant hitting coach Bill Mueller their jobs before the All-Star break.
Carpenter and Fowler are established veterans who shouldn’t need Mabry and Mueller to pull them out of their funks at this stage in their careers. Wong is still relatively young, but he proved last season that he can hit much better than he has shown this year.
It’s usually unfair to blame coaches when veterans such as Fowler and Carpenter fail. You may have heard by now that life, as the trite saying goes, isn’t fair.
If you look at the calendar, you’ll notice that in three weeks it will be the one-year anniversary of the first midseason staff shakeup of manager Mike Matheny’s tenure.
Last June 9 the Cardinals reassigned third base coach Chris Maloney and brought in Mark Budaska to take over the assistant hitting coach’s role after Mueller took a leave of absence. The staff turnover continued in the offseason when the pitching coach and bullpen coach were replaced by Mike Maddux and Bryan Eversgerd, third base coach Jose Oquendo returned, and Willie McGee was added to the staff.
Despite some defensive limitations at first base when the inexperienced Jose Martinez starts and some other rare miscues, the defense and fundamentals have improved with the return of the Secret Weapon, Oquendo. The pitching staff has also been strong despite numerous injuries.
The offense, however, has been a problem. That’s putting it nicely.
“Well, I think I’d be tone deaf if didn’t recognize it and wasn’t worried,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. “I also have a level of confidence that this team can come together and start doing better.”
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When you look at the Cardinals’ lineup, Tommy Pham, Yadier Molina, who is on the disabled list, and Martinez are the only regulars who can say they’ve lived up to expectations at the plate. Shortstop Paul DeJong has turned it around after a slow start. Jedd Gyorko has hit well enough to deserve a regular spot in the lineup, but he hasn’t exactly been a regular until recently.
Either way, Mabry and Mueller have not found the key to unlock Fowler, Carpenter and Wong or push Marcell Ozuna to his or the team’s expectations.
Is it Mabry or Mueller’s fault that Carpenter and Fowler cannot hit their weight? Entering Tuesday night’s game against the Twins, Carpenter (.145) and Fowler (.146) were hitting nowhere close to their listed weights of 215 pounds for Carpenter and 205 pounds for Fowler.
Wong entered the night with a .186 batting average, which at least was higher than his listed weight of 185. Unfortunately for Wong, a .185 batting average is way below the .285 average he had last year and his career average of .256.
If they hope to remain competitive in the division, the Cardinals must get Fowler, Carpenter and Wong going at the plate. Some would argue that the Cardinals would be better off with Harrison Bader in right field instead of Fowler and Gyorko and Martinez starting at third and first respectively instead of Carpenter.
Even if that’s true, that’s not the point. With so much invested in Fowler and Carpenter, the Cardinals need hitting coaches who can get these men right.
“I take a step back and use spring training as a proxy of how I thought that group (of coaches) came together,” Mozeliak said. “I certainly thought there was a lot of progress. As you enter this phase of the season and there are certain areas or concerns, at what point do you put it on the coaching staff or put it on the players?
“Last year we made a few in-season changes. I’m certainly hopeful that is not the path that we have to go down this year. I’m confident this staff will continue to work hard and try to find areas of improvements.”
Mozeliak was clearly defending his coaching staff, which is commendable. He didn’t exactly rule out making coaching changes, though, if the offense doesn’t improve.
Matheny has kept the Cardinals near the top of the standings despite the offensive woes, but it’s difficult to judge this team while Fowler, Carpenter and Wong struggle.
“I think when someone asks me the question, ‘How would you grade the Cardinals?’ I would grade the Cardinals as an incomplete,” Mozeliak said. “I feel like there’s been a lot of positives from individual performances to certainly some guys that have gotten off to slow starts.
“You don’t win your division in the first months. Sometimes you can lose it. We haven’t. As we look to the next few months of the season, expectations are still very high and the expectations are for us to make improvement in those areas that have not played up to expectations.”
Fairly or unfairly, Mabry and Mueller are on the clock along with Fowler, Carpenter and Wong.
Jose de Jesus Ortiz
@OrtizKicks on Twitter