SweetSpot: St. Louis Cardinals

Two statistical nuggets:
  • Felix Hernandez tied Tom Seaver's major league record with 13 consecutive starts pitching at least seven innings and allowing two runs or fewer.
  • Adam Wainwright has allowed zero runs in 10 starts this season, three more than any other starter.


So, which feat is more impressive?

To put Wainwright's nugget in context, since 1980 only three pitchers have had more than 10 no-run starts, all with 11: Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985 and Cliff Lee in 2011. Eight other times a pitcher matched Wainwright's total of 10: Roger Clemens (1997 and 2005); Pedro Martinez (2000 and 2002); Clayton Kershaw (2011 and 2013); Greg Maddux (2002); and Chris Young (2007).

(The Baseball-Reference Play Index goes back to 1914 and five other times a pitcher topped 11: Pete Alexander in 1916 with 16, all complete game shutouts; Sandy Koufax in 1963, Dean Chance in 1964 and Bob Gibson in 1968, all with 13; and Alexander again in 1915 with 12.)

SportsNation

Which feat is more impressive?

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    53%
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    47%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,099)

Anyway, in a way it's a question of consistent dominance versus dominance mixed in with a few bad or mediocre starts. Which is more valuable? But in evaluating the context of each pitcher's individual performance, you could conceivably factor in things like the strength of the opponent, the park and the pitcher's performance (strikeouts, walks, hits). Bill James actually just had a long series of articles on this where he examined every start of a pitcher's season for each of those areas (plus the run context of the season). Each start was then graded on a scale from 0 to 10. You can then use the data to break down each pitcher's season in total. It would be fun to compare Hernandez and Wainwright, but the numbers aren't publicly available.

Baseball Prospectus used to have a stat called support-neutral win-loss record, which assessed each pitcher's projected win-loss record given his innings and runs for each outing and average run support, but I don't see that on their site. (Felix has won just seven of his 13 starts, no fault of his.)

Interestingly, Hernandez has just two zero-run starts this season. But he's allowed more than four runs just once -- six against Houston on April 21 (and just two of those were earned) -- whereas Wainwright has had games of seven, six and six runs.

For the season, we can use a stat like to WAR evaluate each pitcher's overall performance. Felix leads Wainwright in FanGraphs WAR, 5.5 to 3.5, while Wainwright leads in Baseball-Reference WAR, 5.3 to 5.0. Felix leads in Baseball Prospectus' WARP, 4.0 to 3.3.

So which feat is more impressive? One thing about allowing zero runs: You're almost guaranteed to win the game. And, indeed, the Cardinals are 10-0 in those 10 games.

On the other hand, Felix has a chance to do something no pitcher has ever done -- 14 consecutive great starts.

What do you think? I'd probably give the slight edge to Wainwright's 10 scoreless games ... although the edge to Felix for the better overall season.




Eric Karabell and David Schoenfield answered your questions about this week's Power Rankings.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 27, 2014
Jul 27
5:34
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We honored some new Hall of Famers on Sunday (Why just one, Braves?), including the unique and powerful Frank Thomas. The Hall also announced that the eligibility period will be decreased, which can hurt some players and could be a mistake. Meanwhile, the Hall of Very Good remembers Luis Tiant and Tony Oliva). Let's recap the best of the week that was here at the SweetSpot Network, as well as the best from our member sites.

Oh, and the trade season is upon us (Jake Peavy to the Giants; Kendrys Morales to the Mariners) and plenty of other chatter as the deadline is fast approaching and the Rays won't lose.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
Prado once again finds patience is a virtue: Martin Prado is an unusual contact hitter in that he typically has one of the lowest swing rates in the majors. Jeffrey Bellone checks in on Prado's recent success. Follow on Twitter: @JeffreyBellone.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Who is the real Travis Wood? Noah Eisner takes a look at the performance of Wood compared to what we saw last year. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The AL Central in 2015: With the White Sox far out of contention, Nick Schaefer looks ahead to how the division race will look next year. You won't believe this: The White Sox team blog is optimistic about their team's future. Follow on Twitter: @TheCatbird_Seat.

Cleveland Indians: It's Pronounced "Lajaway"
Indians' best defender is ... Carlos Santana? Ryan McCrystal evaluates Santana's performance at first base, and how he's evolved into one of the more reliable defensive players on an otherwise shaky defensive squad.

Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
Rockies Zingers first-half highlights: From Doctor Who parodies and Hologram John Denver, to swing mechanics and breaking unwritten rules, Rockies Zingers recaps the analysis and silliness from the first half, with features such as Denver comic Adam Cayton-Holland's experience throwing out the first pitch, Jason Hirsh discussing arm care and Maury Brown's opinion on whether the Rockies should be scared of the Dodgers' payroll. Follow on Twitter: @RockiesZingers.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
Appreciating the amazing David Robertson: Katie Sharp breaks down just how dominant D-Rob has been this year in his first season manning the Yankee closer throne. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Cashman deserves props for recent moves: Brad Vietrogoski examines the recent trades made by the Yankees and gives Brian Cashman credit for bringing in solid-to-very good value without giving up much in return. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Outfield offensive production rather shabby: Cardinals outfielders haven't produced much at the plate, and to make matters worse, they waste chances when they do actually reach base through poor base running. Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Tampa Bay Rays: The Process Report
New Phil Hughes meets old Danks theory: The Rays continued their winning ways in the second half by using an unconventional lineup against the Twins' Phil Hughes as Tommy Rancel explains. Follow on Twitter: @TRancel.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

Cards patch catching hole with Pierzynski

July, 26, 2014
Jul 26
3:11
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With Yadier Molina out until the end of the season, you knew the Cardinals had to do something. Even if he can heal up in time for the back end of September, Molina probably won’t have the benefit of getting any rehab games in against live competition, because the minor leagues will have long since wrapped up their seasons. So the Cards had to make a move, and exploited one fun and obvious fix thanks to the Red Sox’s decision to release A.J. Pierzynski on July 16, signing the veteran for the remainder of the season.

Will Pierzynski meet the Cardinals’ need during Yadi’s absence? I suppose it depends on what you anticipate. AJP has been nothing if not durable, averaging 133 games played over the previous 12 seasons while catching and losing every conceivable popularity contest with opponents, who thus might have more than a little extra reason to take an extra shot at him on plays at the plate or when he’s on the bases. That either speaks to the superb state of sportsmanship in the game, or it might mean that Pierzynski is as reliably nimble as he is ornery, but if you don’t think it’s going to add a little bit of extra tension in those Cardinals-Reds or Cardinals-Brewers games down the stretch, guess again.

But the important thing is that he’s been sturdy and serviceable, and that’s a valuable commodity in itself, but perhaps even more so for catchers. Especially when the alternative is bench jockey Tony Cruz and his career .595 OPS -- whatever else you might say in Cruz’s defense, that’s something you don’t want more of.

As for the bat, Pierzynski will be useful. He may have been handed his walking papers by a Red Sox team deciding that it’s just as well to go young if they’re going to get anything down this season, but he was hitting .282/.319/.400 against right-handed pitching this season, and a team can use that, especially from a left-handed catcher with a long track record for providing some measure of offense. No, he doesn’t walk, but this isn’t a discussion of what he can’t do; he can provide some line-drive pop and a bat from the left side. Let’s not get too upset and look a gift horse in the mouth, just because he isn’t Mike Piazza.

The big question, especially with the Cardinals’ young staff in mind, is whether Pierzynski has a lot left behind the plate, not just at it. His throwing numbers are down again this year (pegging just 19 percent of would-be base stealers), although you can blame some of that on having to catch John Lackey (who’s allowed 15 of 16 stealers to get away with it) and Felix Doubront (a perfect 9-for-9), two guys who don’t do a great job of holding runners close. On this score, the one guy on the Cardinals who might have a problem forming a battery with Pierzynski is probably Shelby Miller, the one guy who’s been slow enough to inspire a number of attempts before Yadi broke down, but we’ll see how it goes in Pierzynski’s debut on Saturday. As for Pierzynski’s receiving skills, using Baseball Prospectus’ measures for evaluating catcher framing, he isn’t great, rating 75th among the 89 men who have caught this year as far as Fielding Runs added by count -- better than Jarrod Saltalamacchia or A.J. Ellis, and about as good (or bad) as Derek Norris. In other words, nothing so epically awful as to deter you from using him, especially when he was a receiver for a lot of young starters with the White Sox.

All in all, a nice pickup, even better because it effectively comes cost-free for the Cardinals. Add in how Pierzynski might help amp up the drama in the NL Central down the stretch, and I like it that much better for what it is: A useful patch to solve a multi-month problem on a contender that can’t afford to let a position add bupkis at bat.


Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.

Rays' long-odds comeback adds latest win

July, 23, 2014
Jul 23
11:54
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On June 9, the Tampa Bay Rays entered play with a record of 24-40. Earlier that day the team's eccentric manager, Joe Maddon, unleashed Bobby Henry, a Seminole medicine man who throws turtles in the air hoping to anger the gods into making it rain, on Tropicana Field in an effort to chase away the bad vibes. Shortly after Henry was done, the Rays lost to the Seattle Mariners 3-0. They lost the next night too, this time 1-0 to the St. Louis Cardinals. It was their 14th loss in 15 games.


Sitting at 24-42 on June 11, the Rays were 15 games behind in the American League East and 11 games out of the second wild-card slot. That evening they fell behind the Cardinals 3-0 and appeared to be on the fast track to another loss.


Perhaps baseball gods are slower to react than the ones who bring rain, but something awoke the Rays’ bats in the bottom of the fourth inning. The offense put together four runs on four hits and two walks to take the lead. They would add on two more runs en route to a 6-3 victory.


Since then, the Rays have been one of the best teams in baseball, with a 24-11 record since June 11. The run has taken them from the worst team in baseball to 4 1/2 games behind the Seattle Mariners in the wild-card chase. The much-maligned offense has produced the third-best team OPS over the stretch without much in the way of star power. Reigning American League Rookie of the Year Wil Myers has been sidelined with a fractured wrist while their franchise player, Evan Longoria, is having his worst season at the plate. In their stead have been players like Logan Forsythe -- traded for this offseason -- and Kevin Kiermaier, a 31st-round pick in the 2010 draft. The latter has been particularly impressive, hitting .306/.360/.553 in 53 games.


The Rays' pitching staff also has picked it up, holding teams to around three runs a game while striking out more batters than any other club in baseball. David Price, the subject of constant trade rumors, has been the tip of the spear. The ace has allowed just three earned run in 31 2/3 innings this month. Any plans to trade Price and/or Ben Zobrist have been put on hold, at least temporarily.

[+] EnlargeAlex Cobb
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesAlex Cobb's performance on the mound could be a big part of the Rays' second-half comeback.


On Wednesday night, the Rays met the same Cardinals team they faced when they started to turn things around. This time, Tampa Bay entered the game on a six-game winning streak and winners of 15 of their last 18, including a 7-2 victory over St. Louis on Tuesday.

Alex Cobb has been one of the Rays' best pitchers since joining the rotation full-time in 2013, but oddly enough, he has not been much of a factor during the team's resurgence. In his last five starts coming into Wednesday's game, he carried an ERA above 5.00 and was averaging less than six innings per start.


Locking horns with Lance Lynn, Cobb turned a much better performance on Wednesday. He tossed seven shutout innings while scattering five hits and striking out 10 batters without issuing a walk. The 26-year-old used his fastball and curveball to get ahead of the Cardinals' hitters before turning to his off-speed pitch to end plate appearances. The split-change was responsible for 14 of the 20 outs he recorded (a caught stealing was the 21st), including seven of the 10 strikeouts. St. Louis swung at the pitch a combined 33 times and came up empty on 13 of those swings.


Pitching in a National League park, Cobb was afforded the rare opportunity to contribute offensively. With Yunel Escobar on second base in the second inning, the right-handed pitcher lined an RBI double down the right-field line. It was his first career hit and run batted in. It also turned out to be the game winner.


Cobb was hit by a pitch on his right elbow in his second at-bat. After crumbling to the ground in pain and a lengthy check by team trainer Ron Porterfield, he remained in the game. He took the mound in the bottom half of the fourth inning and didn't miss a beat.

Brad Boxberger relieved Cobb in the eighth inning before passing the baton to the club's new-but-not-officially closer Jake McGee. The righty-lefty tandem affectionately known as "Jake in the Box" has become one of the most potent bullpen duos over the past month. No reliever in the AL posted a higher percentage of strikeouts than Boxberger over the past six weeks (47.1 percent); he added two more punchouts Wednesday. Not far behind him is McGee, the owner of a 99 mph fastball that he commands with ease, who struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve the shutout.


Even with the current run, the Rays' odds of making the playoffs are long. Aside from still being four games under .500, they are in heavy competition for a postseason spot in a crowded middle of the pack with upwards of six teams vying for one of two spots not held by the Oakland A's, Los Angeles Angels or Detroit Tigers.


But after a clean 5-0 road trip to start the second half of the season, Tampa Bay returns home this weekend for a three-game set with a wild-card competitor and division rival: the Boston Red Sox. Although all of the games will be played under the cover of Tropicana Field's roof, perhaps another visit from the rain man is in order.

Tommy Rancel blogs about the Tampa Bay Rays at the SweetSpot network affiliate The Process Report. You can follow him on Twitter at @TRancel.

OK, we're already a couple of days into the second half of the season, which actually begins well past the actual halfway point of the season, but here are the key players to watch for each National League team.

Atlanta Braves: Mike Minor
Well, we know it's not Dan Uggla. Minor began the season on the DL after a sore shoulder in spring training, and he hasn't been the same pitcher he was last season. The differences are small, but his stuff and command just haven't played up as well -- his swing-and-miss rate is down more than three percent and his overall strike rate is down 2 percent, and as a result his batting average allowed has increased from .232 to .295. The Braves are hoping that's simply tied to a high BABIP -- .348, seventh-worst among 124 pitchers with at least 75 innings -- but he's allowed 14 home runs in 83.1 innings.

Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper
He's hit .150 since coming off the DL and had two home runs in 123 at-bats at the All-Star break. Is the thumb healed? Is he still too young to be The Man in the Nationals' lineup? It will be intriguing to see what happens here.

New York Mets: Travis d'Arnaud
The Mets are counting on the rookie catcher as a big foundation piece for their future. He had trouble staying healthy in his minor league career and struggled at the plate early on, although hit well in his final 16 games before the All-Star break (.295/.338/.525), following a stint in Triple-A. He's proven he can hit in Las Vegas, but everyone can hit in Vegas. The question is if he can hit at the major league level.

Miami Marlins: Giancarlo Stanton
Must-see TV. The Marlins aren't going anywhere, so all eyes will be focused on Stanton. Could he win an MVP award if the Marlins don't even finish .500? Probably not. But I'm still watching.

Philadelphia Phillies: Domonic Brown
The focus on the Phillies will be on their veteran assets and whether general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. will (or can) trade the likes of Marlon Byrd and others. But this might also be the most important two months of Brown's career. A year ago, Brown was an All-Star after hitting 23 home runs in the first half. In 2014, he was one of the worst players of the first half, with six home runs, a .279 OBP and poor defense -- a combination worth -1.4 WAR. Ouch. Can Brown salvage his season and give hope that he's part of the Phillies' future?

Milwaukee Brewers: Ryan Braun
After dominating the NL Central for most of the first half, the Brewers left the All-Star break with a slim, one-game lead over the Cardinals. They've been all over the place with hot months and cold months and have probably settled near their true talent. In going through their roster, there aren't any obvious "over his head" candidates or "should play better" candidates. The one guy who has the capability of ripping it up for the next 60 games, however, is Braun. He had a good first half but not near his 41-homer level of 2012. Yes, you can assume and conclude whatever you want, but Braun could easily go out and hit 20 home runs the second half and carry the Brewers to a division title.

St. Louis Cardinals: Matt Holliday
Two numbers tell the tale of the Cardinals -- or rather, two sets of numbers:

2013 runs per game: 4.83 (first in NL)
2014 runs per game at the break: 3.75 (14th in NL)

2013 average with RISP: .330
2014 average with RISP: .248

The point: David Price would certainly be nice, but the Cardinals are more likely to rely on improvement from within. Holliday, who homered Friday, is one guy who could improve his offense after hitting .265 with six home runs in the first half. Cardinals fans will remember that Holliday had a monster second half last year -- .348/.442/.552.

Cincinnati Reds: Jay Bruce
Joey Votto's injury issues have left him less than 100 percent and a question mark as he sits on the DL. That leaves Bruce as the guy who needs to power a Reds lineup that is also missing Brandon Phillips as the second half kicks off. At 27, Bruce is at the age that many players have their peak season; instead, after hitting 30-plus homers the past three seasons, he's struggling through his worst year, hitting .229 with 10 home runs at the break. Bruce's main problem is simple: He hasn't been getting the ball in the air. His fly ball rate is down 15 percent from his average since 2009. More grounders equals fewer homers and, against shift, not enough base hits to compensate.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Francisco Liriano
This one's easy. A year ago, Liriano went 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA and then won the wild-card game. This year, he's 1-7 with a 4.43 ERA in 16 starts after allowing an unearned run in five innings on Friday. The difference in performance is clear when looking at his year-by-year walks per nine innings:

2014: 5.1
2013: 3.5
2012: 5.0
2011: 5.0

Yes, wins are team dependent to some degree, but the Pirates need Liriano to pitch closer to the ace he was a year ago.

Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
Maybe it says something about the Cubs that the guy we care most about right now is in Triple-A. Then again, he entered the weekend hitting .350 with 32 home runs in the minors. Will we see him in September? He needs a higher league to give him a more difficult test.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Matt Kemp
Kemp began the second half with his agent Dave Stewart proclaiming that Kemp just wants to play every day and "his hope at some point is to get back to center." That's not going to happen, as the Dodgers finally realized Kemp's bad routes lead to too many bad plays in the outfield (he had the worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in the first half at any position). So that means Kemp will have to hit -- and play left field. He had a solid June, hitting .317/.375/.525. The Dodgers will happily take that at this point.

San Francisco Giants: Matt Cain
The fact that Cain is starting the Giants' fifth game after the break tells where he now sits in the San Francisco rotation. He has to do better than a 2-7 record and 4.15 ERA if the Giants are going to catch the Dodgers.

San Diego Padres: Andrew Cashner
Cashner is important because the Padres need him healthy for 2015. He's currently on the DL with a sore shoulder and is supposed to start playing catch again. It's not so much what he does the rest of the season, but that he returns at some point and proves the shoulder is sound.

Colorado Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki
Another lost season for the Rockies has turned ugly, as owner Dick Monfort told a disgruntled fan that "if it is that upsetting, don't come to the games," and then, when asked who was responsible for the Rockies' poor first half, said, "You would have to say it’s [assistant general manager] Bill Geivett. He’s responsible for the major league team." In the midst of this mess is Tulo, who is having an MVP-caliber season for a lousy team.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Ender Inciarte
Just kidding! But I'm struggling to come up with a good name here. Maybe Mark Trumbo, returning from his foot fracture? Aaron Hill or Martin Prado, to see if they bring anything in trade? Tuffy Gosewisch?

Count on seeing a great battle in NL Central

July, 19, 2014
Jul 19
12:26
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For years, the American League East has been considered the class of Major League Baseball. While that might have been true in the late '90s into the early 2000s, the past few seasons are proving to be a different story. While the AL East appears to be a shell of its former self (the top three teams entered play on Friday a combined 11 games above .500), the National League Central -- the only division that sent three teams to the postseason in 2013 -- may now be baseball's best group.

This year's version of the Central has four teams over .500 within a handful of games of each other. Currently, the division is paced by the Milwaukee Brewers, but the defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals are a game behind, while the next two teams -- the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates -- are a good week away from climbing to the top.

The Brewers top the division thanks to a potent offense. Led by Ryan Braun, the Brew Crew entered the second half of the season with the second-most runs scored in the NL. Braun is the star, but the club has six players with an OPS above .780, including four above .800. The bullpen is anchored by the resurgent Francisco Rodriguez but is also getting fine performances by left-handers Will Smith and Zach Duke.

Kyle Lohse has steadied the rotation, while prospect Jimmy Nelson will look to provide a late-season jolt. Top to bottom, the Brewers look to be the most complete team in the division.

If the Cardinals are to overcome Milwaukee, they will need to do the bulk of the work without All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. A torn ligament in his right thumb will shelve the backstop for the foreseeable future, leaving the heavy lifting to a trio of Matts: Holliday, Carpenter and Adams. NL All-Star starter Adam Wainwright is one of the best pitchers in the league, while Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez are two of the best young hurlers. The Cardinals have two more starters on the disabled list in Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia, who will miss the rest of the season.

Former starter Trevor Rosenthal has control of the ninth inning, while All-Star setup man Pat Neshek has revived his once-stagnant career. The Cardinals have the resources to fill holes at second base and in the rotation, should they choose to, but may let young players like Kolten Wong and Marco Gonzalez cut their teeth in a pennant race. When healthy, the Cards are the most talented team in the division, but if and when they can get healthy is their biggest question mark.

The Reds opened the second half with a loss to the New York Yankees and without the right side of their infield as Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips sit on the disabled list. Still, the club has Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco --both All-Stars this year -- and Billy Hamilton, who appears to be improving every day. They also have a three-headed monster at the top of their rotation with Johnny Cueto and his 2.13 ERA as the ace.

At the back end of their bullpen, Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Broxton have allowed a combined 11 runs in more than 60 innings of work. Mat Latos has made just six starts this season and could be the spark needed to make a move even without Votto and Phillips.

The Pirates needed two separate comebacks on Friday night in order to defeat the Colorado Rockies. Of the contenders in the Central, the Pirates need the most help. Ace Gerrit Cole sits on the disabled list, and the lineup has several holes, none more glaring than first base, which was all but ignored this past winter. General manager Neal Huntington has the chips to make a deal but might be reluctant to sacrifice the future on a team that's just four games above .500.

On the other hand, Andrew McCutchen is in the prime of his career, and stud prospect Gregory Polanco is now fronting the lineup.

Each contender to the Central's crown has flaws. At the same time, each has something on which to stake their claim to the throne.

The Brewers' rotation has underperformed in spots, but the lineup has outscored every non-Rockies team in the Senior Circuit. The Cardinals' staff has been infected with the injury bug and the offense is without its best player, but they have a guy named Wainwright, a bunch of live arms and a talented group of hitters, even in the wake of Molina's injury. Cincinnati is also missing its best player; however, it owns a quality rotation, a few mashers remaining and speed on the bases and in the bullpen. The Pirates might be the least talented group. Meanwhile, they have the best player in McCutchen and the system to make moves.

Milwaukee -- with the division lead -- appears to have the best shot, but this race is shaping up to be the best of them all.

Tommy Rancel writes for The Process Report blog on the Rays and contributes to GammonsDaily.com.
Crash Davis: You be cocky and arrogant, even when you're getting beat. That's the secret. You gotta play this game with fear and arrogance.

Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Right. Fear and ignorance.

Crash Davis: No. You hayseed. It's arrogance not "ignorance."


Yes, it's that time of year to start playing with fear and arrogance. Time to let it all out on the field. Time to start looking at the scoreboard. Pennant races will start to build in intensity. It's the second half, and we open with four great series between playoff contenders. (Pay special attention to that Saturday night Mariners-Angels matchup.)

Milwaukee Brewers at Washington Nationals
Friday: Kyle Lohse (9-4, 3.26) versus Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.46)
Saturday: Matt Garza (6-6, 3.69) versus Gio Gonzalez (6-5, 3.56)
Sunday: Yovani Gallardo (5-5, 3.68) versus Doug Fister (8-2, 2.90)

Are we going to see the good Brewers or the bad Brewers? The Brewers have had wide swings all season -- they were 20-7 through April 27, went 10-15 through May 26, then had a 21-10 stretch before going 2-11 heading into the All-Star break, including a brutal four-game sweep at home to the Phillies. They had held sole possession of first place from April 9 until the Cardinals caught them July 12. A victory in the final game before the break put the Brewers back in first, but a one-game lead is disappointing, considering they had a 6-game lead on July 1.

Three Brewers questions:

1. Jonathan Lucroy leads all major league catchers in plate appearances. How will he hold up after an MVP-caliber first half?

2. Will Jimmy Nelson be an improvement over Marco Estrada in the rotation? (Well, he'll certainly allow fewer home runs.)

3. Does Ryan Braun have a monster second half in him?

On paper, the Nationals are the team to beat in the NL East -- FanGraphs' projected playoff odds gives the Nationals an 81 percent chance to win the division and the Braves a 19 percent chance. This irritates Braves fans to no end, who believe everyone keeps overrating the Nationals and underrating the Braves. And maybe they're right. The Nationals have their lineup back and healthy, so no excuses the rest of the season.

Three Nationals questions:

1. Bryce Harper has hit .150 with one home run and two RBIs in 40 at-bats since his return from the DL. What's he going to do?

2. Jordan Zimmermann left his previous start with biceps tendinitis. Will there by any lingering issues in the second half?

3. Strasburg's ERA in the first half was 3.46. But his FIP was 2.72 and his xFIP 2.48. In other words, his base numbers suggest a guy who should have an ERA a run lower. Can he do that the final two-plus months?

Los Angeles Dodgers at St. Louis Cardinals
Friday: Dan Haren (8-6, 4.23) versus Lance Lynn (10-6, 3.14)
Saturday: Zack Greinke (11-5, 2.73) versus Joe Kelly (1-1, 3.44)
Sunday: Clayton Kershaw (11-2, 1.78) versus Carlos Martinez (2-4, 4.43)

Interesting that manager Don Mattingly will wait until Sunday to pitch Kershaw, who last started on July 10. He did pitch one inning in the All-Star Game, but this means he'll have nine days between starts. Compare that to manager Bruce Bochy's approach with Madison Bumgarner, who started on Sunday and will start the Giants' second-half opener. The Dodgers took 3 of 4 from the Cardinals in late June, shutting them out twice and holding them to one run in the third win.

Three Dodgers questions:

1. Where has Yasiel Puig's power gone? Since May 29, he has hit .269 with one home run in 42 games.

2. With Carl Crawford back the DL, who gets the playing time in the outfield and will prospect Joc Pederson eventually be part of that picture?

3. Will David Price move to the West Coast?

Everybody keeps wondering if the Cardinals will pony up for Price and I keep pointing out that the Cardinals need to score more runs. They're 14th in the NL in runs scored and Price isn't going to help that. They also now have to contend with the thumb injury to Yadier Molina that will leave him sidelined eight to 12 weeks; it's no surprise that they've been a much better club when Molina has started in recent years.

Three Cardinals questions:

1. Without Molina, will the Cardinals pursue a guy like Kurt Suzuki of the Twins?

2. Who steps it up on offense?

3. Will Michael Wacha return to the rotation at some point?

Baltimore Orioles at Oakland Athletics
Friday: Chris Tillman (7-5, 4.11) versus Jeff Samardzija (3-8, 2.78)
Saturday: Wei-Yin Chen (9-3, 4.15) versus Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.01)
Sunday: Kevin Gausman (4-2, 3.29) versus Sonny Gray (10-3, 2.79)

The Orioles have played excellent baseball since May 31, going 26-15 and outscoring their opponents by 40 runs. A lot went right in the first half -- see Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce -- but a lot went wrong with the season-ending injury to Matt Wieters, the struggles of Chris Davis and Manny Machado and the disappointing numbers from Tillman and Ubaldo Jimenez. But the O's also seem to have some of that 2012 magic -- they're 9-3 in extra innings.

Three Orioles questions:

1. Will they finally leave Gausman alone and let him stay in the rotation?

2. Davis won't hit .199 in the second half ... right?

3. What happens if Cruz and Pearce slow down?

A's general manager Billy Beane already made what may be the season's blockbuster trade in acquiring Samardzija and Hammel (the team won one of the three games those two have started). They were acquired in large part to help hold off the Angels but that division lead is down to 1 games. On the bright side: After this series, their next nine games are against the Astros and Rangers.

Three A's questions:

1. How will Gray (first full season) and Scott Kazmir (hasn't pitched more than 158 innings since 2007) hold up?

2. Will they make a move to get more offense at second base?

3. Can Sean Doolittle cut down on the wildness and walk one batter instead of two in the second half?


Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
Friday: Hisashi Iwakuma (8-4, 2.98) versus Jered Weaver (10-6, 3.45)
Saturday: Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) versus Garrett Richards (11-2, 2.55)
Sunday: Chris Young (8-6, 3.15) versus Tyler Skaggs (5-5, 4.50)

How good is the Hernandez-Richards showdown on Saturday? The Mariners aren't as good as the A's or Angels, so realistically their playoff race is really with the Royals, Indians and the AL East runner-ups for the second wild-card spot. Obviously, they'll be looking to add a hitter or two -- All-Stars Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager and the currently disabled Michael Saunders have been the only above-average hitters and they've been relying on ancient Endy Chavez as the leadoff hitter.

Three Mariners questions:

1. Marlon Byrd? Josh Willingham? They've got to do something to improve a league-worst .300 OBP and get some offense in the outfield and/or DH or first base.

2. With Roenis Elias suddenly struggling and Taijuan Walker unproven, will the fourth and fifth rotation spots be a problem?

3. The bullpen led the majors with a 2.39 first-half ERA. Can it hold it together for another 68 games?

Is it just me, or have the Angels been too widely ignored this year? There's a strong case to be made that they're the second-best team in the majors right now, and that's even with some concerns in the rotation and the bullpen. Of course, it helps to have the best player in the game and a deep lineup that led the AL in runs scored in the first half. But they've gone 19-4 since June 20 and they open the second half with a 10-game home stand -- and they're 32-15 at home.

Three Angels questions:

1. Can Richards repeat in the second half? Well, if anything, he seems to be getting better. In his past eight starts, he's 7-0 with a 1.27 ERA and .163 average allowed.

2. Does Jason Grilli establish himself as the setup guy for closer Joe Smith?

3. Will Josh Hamilton deliver more power? He has three home runs in 38 games since coming off the DL.

There you go. We also get Reds-Yankees and Indians-Tigers and others to whet your appetite. We've had four days without a game that matters. It's been too long.
OK, we're actually well past 81 games, but we tend to divide the season at the All-Star break, even if that's not the true halfway point. Here's my list of the 10 biggest stories of the first half:

1. The rash of Tommy John surgeries.

On the heels of Matt Harvey going down late in 2013 and missing this season, this year's Tommy John surgeries have included Jose Fernandez, Kris Medlen, Patrick Corbin, Matt Moore, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Brandon Beachy, Ivan Nova, Bronson Arroyo, David Hernandez, Bobby Parnell, Josh Johnson, Luke Hochevar and Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon. Plus there's the possibility that Yankees rookie Masahiro Tanaka will need the surgery if six weeks of rest doesn't help his elbow. That's a devastating loss of talent and has led to much discussion on how to better prevent all these injuries.

2. Best-in-baseball A's make huge trade.

Even with the season-ending injuries to Parker and Griffin and the offseason departure of Bartolo Colon, Oakland had soared to the best record in baseball with easily the best run differential. And Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray had been terrific at the front end of the rotation. But, worried about depth and fatigue, Billy Beane stunned everyone by trading prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (and pitcher Dan Straily) to the Cubs for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. Beane made the move to help hold off the hard-charging Angels; but at the break Oakland's lead was down to a slim 1.5 games.

[+] EnlargeHallion
Mark Cunningham/Getty ImagesHas instant replay helped? The answer, at least from players, isn't all positive.
3. Confusion over new instant replay rules.

Catchers blocking home plate, the outfield "transfer" rule, the neighborhood play, managers challenging plays they're not supposed to be allowed to challenge -- expanded instant replay has hardly been a smooth transition. Longer-than-expected delays and inconsistent application has left everyone a little confused at times. Last week, after a play at home plate was not overturned despite evidence that a tag was missed, Jose Bautista said, "This whole replay thing has become a joke in my eyes. I think they should just ban it. They should just get rid of it. I don’t really understand the purpose of it, but getting the right call on the field is not the purpose. That’s pretty obvious and evident."

4. New stars emerge.

Besides Tanaka, we've seen White Sox rookie Jose Abreu crush 29 home runs in the most impressive power display by a rookie since Mark McGwire in 1987. Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton has hit far better than anyone expected while stealing 38 bases and impressing with his defense in center field. George Springer of the Astros didn't make his debut until mid-April and didn't hit his first home run until May 8, but has still clocked 19 home runs, several of light-tower prodigiousness. Yordano Ventura of the Royals has gone 7-7 with a 3.22 ERA while displaying his upper-90s fastball. Yankees reliever Dellin Betances failed as a starter in the minors but has been one of the game's most dominant relievers with 84 strikeouts in 55.1 innings while holding opponents to a .124 batting average.

Those guys aren't just good; they’re exciting. Then we've had breakout non-rookies like Gray (who emerged late last season), Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber, Anthony Rizzo, Devin Mesoraco, Dallas Keuchel, Anthony Rendon, Marcell Ozuna and others. The young talent keeps on coming -- and that's before we get to minor league mashers Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Joey Gallo of the Rangers, two guys we can't wait to see reach the majors.

5. Pitchers continue to dominate.

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Even with all the injuries, offense has still gone down -- if only slightly -- to 4.14 runs per game, which would be the lowest total since 4.12 in 1992. We enter the break with 21 qualified starters holding an ERA under 3.00, and that doesn't include Clayton Kershaw, who is two outs short of qualifying for the leaderboard.

Kershaw (11-2, 1.78 ERA), Adam Wainwright (12-4, 1.83) and Felix Hernandez (11-2, 2.12) highlight a season with many top pitching performers. Those three all have a shot at finishing with 20 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA, a feat accomplished just three times since 1980 -- Roger Clemens in 1990 and Dwight Gooden and John Tudor in 1985. Hernandez enters the break with 11 consecutive starts in which he's pitched at least seven innings and allowed two runs or fewer, the longest such stretch since Mike Scott had 12 for the Astros in 1986. Kershaw had a 15-strikeout no-hitter with no walks, perfect other than a fielding error behind him. Wainwright hasn't allowed a run in nine of his 19 starts. Brilliance.

6. The Red Sox and Rays both struggle.

The defending champions and the team many expected to win the World Series both hit the break nine games under .500 and 9.5 games out of first place in the AL East. The Rays actually had the worst record in baseball on June 10 at 24-42. They’ve at least played better since then, going 20-11, but it may be too late to fend off the inevitable David Price trade. As for the Red Sox, one of baseball's richest and supposedly smartest franchises is headed for a second losing season sandwiched around its World Series title.

7. The NL Central race.

With four teams separated by 3.5 games, I have no idea who is going to win. But I know it's going to be fun.

[+] EnlargeTrout
AP PhotoHaven't seen much of Mike Trout's strikeout face lately.
8. The Dodgers catch the Giants.

On June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and led the NL West by 9.5 games. Since then, they've gone 10-22 -- only the injury-depleted Rangers have been worse -- and the Dodgers lead by a game. Collapses in June get ignored, but blowing such a big lead in the span of a month is brutal. It sets the stage for what should turn into another classic Giants-Dodgers pennant race.

9. Remember when we were worried about Mike Trout's strikeouts?

On May 19, Trout's average dipped to .263 and he was striking out like Dave Kingman in a bad slump. In 46 games since then, he's hit .356/.440/.701 with 31 extra-base hits. He's on pace for 38 home runs, 126 RBIs and 17 steals while playing good defense in center. He leads the AL in OPS and total bases. He's the best player in the game, he's going to win the AL MVP Award and we should finally see him in the postseason -- and maybe for more than just the wild-card game.

10. The collapse of the Rangers and Phillies.

The Rangers were supposed to be in the midst of a dynasty. The Phillies had become one of the game's power players with their run of division titles. Instead, both teams have declined into oblivion, the Rangers due to an unnatural number of injuries (including season-ending neck surgery for offseason acquisition Prince Fielder) and the Phillies due to the predictable affliction of age. It may be a long time before either is competitive again.

Wainwright has the edge over Kershaw

July, 12, 2014
Jul 12
9:44
PM ET

The St. Louis Cardinals may have lost their leader behind the plate, but they haven't forgotten how to win.

With Saturday's 10-2 victory over the slumping Milwaukee Brewers, the Yadier Molina-less Cardinals pulled into a first-place tie with Milwaukee in the NL Central.

Adam Wainwright had another brilliant outing, holding the Brewers to two runs over seven innings, adding to his stellar résumé in a bid to be the NL's starting pitcher at Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Wainwright relied on his signature curveball to silence the Brewers' bats, throwing it a season-high 33 percent of the time. He threw 31 curves, netting him nine outs with only one baserunner allowed; six of the seven curveballs put in play resulted in grounders.

The Cardinals' ace fell behind early and often against the Brewers, but that mattered little. Wainwright went to a 1-0 count on 13 of the 27 batters he faced, but only one of those 13 batters reached base. (Carlos Gomez got hit with a pitch in the third inning.)

A nine-year veteran with a trio of top-three Cy Young finishes already to his name, Wainwright is having the best season of his career, with a sparkling 1.83 ERA and 12-4 record in 19 starts.

[+] EnlargeAdam Wainwright
AP Photo/Jeffrey PhelpsThe Cardinals' Adam Wainwright is 6-1 with a 1.03 ERA in his last seven starts.
This first-half performance is one of the best in Cardinals history and has earned him a place alongside a Hall of Famer. The only other St. Louis pitcher with at least 12 wins and a sub-2.00 ERA heading into the All-Star break was Steve Carlton, who went 12-5 with a 1.65 ERA over 18 starts prior to the break in 1969.

Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a tough choice to make in deciding who will be on the mound for the senior circuit to start the All-Star Game. Clayton Kershaw has been equally dominant, but it is hard to ignore the fact that Wainwright leads the NL with 138 innings while Kershaw has not yet reached the century mark this season.

That workhorse mentality and consistency are what set Wainwright apart. Consider this comparison:

On Saturday, Wainwright notched his major league-leading 15th start of at least seven innings pitched and no more than two runs allowed. That's nearly twice as many as Kershaw (8) has thrown this season. Wainwright also has nine outings of at least seven scoreless innings; Kershaw has only five.

Though Kershaw has the slightly better ERA (1.78 vs. 1.83), Wainwright has the better mark when adjusting for a pitcher's ballpark, and he has also faced much tougher competition than Kershaw.

Entering Saturday's game, Wainwright's opponents had a collective .693 OPS for the season, and that number only increased after he faced the powerful Brewers. The teams that Kershaw has faced have a combined OPS of .680, which is roughly the equivalent of pitching against the Mets every game.

With the injuries to Jaime Garcia, Joe Kelly and Michael Wacha, combined with the general ineffectiveness of Shelby Miller, Wainwright has been the clear staff ace and the glue that has held together the Cardinals' rotation this season.

Wainwright's performance was not the only noteworthy one on Saturday for the Cardinals, who appear to be breaking out of their season-long offensive slump. For the first time this season they scored at least seven runs in back-to-back games and went 7-for-14 with runners in scoring position.

The Cardinals got contributions throughout the entire lineup, with the 1-2 batters (Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong) combining to go 3-for-9 with three RBIs and the 7-8 batters (Tony Cruz and Jon Jay) going 5-for-10 with four RBIs.

Wong has been on tear recently, with five homers in his past seven games. This is an unprecedented display of power from the light-hitting second baseman, who had homered only once in his first 77 career major league games.

Another nice surprise was catcher Tony Cruz driving in a career-best three runs. Cruz will never be able to match the pitch-calling skills or the arm of Molina behind the plate, but the Cardinals will have a lot less to worry about if Cruz can improve on his career .600 OPS and give them some timely hits.

On Sunday, the Cardinals will go for their first sweep of the Brewers since last May and a chance to claim first place outright in the NL Central for the first time this season.

With Wainwright at the peak of his game, the Cardinals' bats finally showing signs of life and the Brewers in complete free fall, it appears that St. Louis has put itself in prime position to capture yet another division title.

The first few months have been a struggle for Mike Matheny and this Cardinals team, but now it seems inevitable that they'll end up exactly where the experts predicted they'd be at the start of the season -- looking down at the rest of the NL Central.
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The Milwaukee Brewers looked so out-of-sync and vulnerable in losing four straight games to the Philadelphia Phillies at home this week, it's only natural that St. Louis and Cincinnati would aspire to reach the All-Star break in first place.

They're certainly not going to arrive in one piece.

Injuries have a way of mucking up the storyline and altering the conventional wisdom in sports, but Thursday unfolded in an especially chaotic way in the National League Central. The carnage began when the Cardinals lost catcher Yadier Molina for 8-12 weeks with a torn ligament in his right thumb. Shortly thereafter, the Reds announced that second baseman Brandon Phillips will miss six weeks with a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Phillips' absence, coupled with the loss of Joey Votto to the DL, will put an additional crimp in a Reds offense that has had trouble getting much traction. Even though his .701 OPS this season is the lowest of his 8 -year run with Cincinnati, Phillips has hit second, third and fourth in the Reds' lineup and made a cameo appearance in the fifth spot. He's averaged 150 games a season since his arrival in Cincinnati in 2006, and he's a four-time Gold Glove Award winner with an aggregate defensive runs saved of plus-55 since 2007.

But the loss of Phillips still pales in comparison to the impact and potential fallout of Molina's injury in St. Louis.

The numbers and Molina's settling influence behind the plate combine to place him near the top of baseball's "most indispensible player" list. Since 2011, Molina leads big-league catchers in WAR (17.5) and batting average (.309) and ranks second to Buster Posey with an .827 OPS. During that span, the Cardinals have a 275-203 record (for a .575 winning percentage) when he starts and a 50-51 mark (.495) when he doesn't.

As the Elias Sports Bureau notes, the Cardinals have a staff ERA of 3.53 with Molina and 3.81 without him over the past five seasons. They've erased 40.9 percent of opposing base stealers during that time frame, compared to 31.9 percent with all their non-Molina catchers.

So when Molina stood at his locker at Busch Stadium on Thursday and told reporters that he "almost cried" when he learned the extent of his injury, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, his teammates and the front office all could relate.

"It's the equivalent of losing Adam Wainwright," said an American League scout. "Yadi is one guy in the lineup, but this affects 12 guys on the pitching staff. Tony Cruz is a great backup and I guarantee you he's learned a ton from Yadi just by osmosis. But there's no way he can replace Yadi offensively, and Yadi is by far the best defensive catcher in all of baseball. It's going to be a challenge."

Like several of his front-office peers, St. Louis GM John Mozeliak is aiming at a moving target in his quest to make upgrades by the July 31 deadline. There was an on-line frenzy this week over the possibility of a Jake Peavy-to-St. Louis trade. But the reality is, the Cardinals' rotation is second in the National League with a 3.20 ERA and a .238 batting average against, and Joe Kelly should give the team a lift when he returns from a hamstring injury Friday against the Brewers. The Cardinals will also have a better handle after the All-Star break whether Michael Wacha can return from a stress reaction in his right shoulder and help them in August and September.

Of late, Mozeliak has given just as much thought to upgrading an offense that ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored. But where do the Cardinals make changes? They're awash in outfielders, and first baseman Matt Adams and shortstop Jhonny Peralta aren't going anywhere. One possible scenario involves shifting Matt Carpenter to second base and making a run at, say, Chase Headley, to play third. The Cardinals could also leave Carpenter at third and try to add a second baseman. But Kolten Wong is 6-for-14 with three homers since his return from the disabled list last weekend, so maybe he's part of the solution at second.

Asked about the team's next course of action in an email exchange, Mozeliak replied, "We have time to determine our next step." But Mozeliak will almost certainly be on the lookout for a veteran catcher to help take some pressure off Cruz. There aren't an abundance of options.

A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by Boston, is not on the Cardinals' radar, according to a baseball source. Although the Red Sox probably aren't keen on the idea of moving David Ross after dumping Pierzynski (and irritating free-agent-to-be Jon Lester in the process), one NL scout thinks Ross would be an ideal fit in St. Louis.

"He won't hit much and he can't catch every day, but he handles pitchers as good as anybody in the major leagues," the scout said. "That's who I would go after in a heartbeat."

John Buck, cut loose by Seattle earlier this week, is a possibility. Carlos Ruiz is on the disabled list with a concussion and has more than $20 million left on his contract with the Phillies, so he's not an option. Kurt Suzuki would be a wonderful fit, but one baseball source said the Twins aren't ready to trade him "just yet." Suzuki is also an American League All-Star who's hitting .303 with a 2.1 WAR this season, so it wouldn't be out of line for the Twins to ask for a Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk from St. Louis' ample supply of outfield prospects. Good luck with that.

The Cardinals aren't the only NL Central team in shopping mode. Cincinnati was already in need of a left-field upgrade before Votto and Phillips went down and further weakened the lineup. Pittsburgh could use a veteran starter, and Milwaukee made the decision Thursday to shift Marco Estrada to the bullpen and summon top prospect Jimmy Nelson from Triple-A Nashville, where he was 10-2 with a 1.46 ERA and 114 strikeouts in 111 innings. Brewers GM Doug Melvin has maintained that he has no plans to trade for another starter, but he's likely to at least try and fortify the bullpen for the stretch run.

That's where things stand at the moment. But in a tightly-bunched Central, the four contenders know they're just an awkward slide, a pulled hamstring or an achy elbow away from seeing their best-laid plans altered. For the division's general managers, the three weeks leading up to the trade deadline will be a waiting game and a chess match. For the players, it's a war of attrition.

The St. Louis Cardinals won at least 86 games each season from 2008 through last year. They haven't made the playoffs every season, but they've been competitive every season. The one constant in those years, of course, has been All-Star catcher Yadier Molina. He's now out 8-12 weeks with a thumb injury that will require surgery.

How much will this hurt the Cardinals?

Well, the easy answer is: We don't know. Maybe the Cardinals were due to play better anyway. Maybe backup catcher Tony Cruz will play well. Maybe they'll sign A.J. Pierzynski, just designated for assignment by the Red Sox, and he'll hit for two months.

There's another way to examine this: How have the Cardinals fared in games Molina has started versus games he hasn't started? Here are the team's yearly records since 2008:

2008
Molina starts: 62-54
Molina doesn't start: 24-22

2009
Molina starts: 79-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-14

2010
Molina starts: 72-58
Molina doesn't start: 14-18

2011
Molina starts: 72-60
Molina doesn't start: 18-12

2012
Molina starts: 76-57
Molina doesn't start: 12-17

2013
Molina starts: 83-48
Molina doesn't start: 14-17

2014
Molina starts: 44-38
Molina doesn't start: 6-4

Totals
Molina starts: 488-372 (.567 winning percentage)
Molina doesn't start: 100-104 (.490 winning percentage)

There are various factors that could cause this, besides Molina being much better than his backups. Maybe he caught most of Adam Wainwright's starts or Chris Carpenter's starts, for example.

Still, that's a big discrepancy, and you can understand why Molina is so revered in St. Louis. He has started 130-136 games each year since the start of the 2009 season. The difference between a .567 winning percentage and a .490 winning percentage is about 10 wins over 135 games. Of course, Molina isn't missing 135 games. If he misses 10 weeks, we're talking through about a Sept. 18 return, or 60 games on St. Louis' schedule.

The difference between a .567 winning percentage and .490 over 60 games is about 4.5 wins.

Of course, the Cardinals haven't been a .567 team this year, even with Molina. They've played .537 ball when he starts. The difference between that level and .490 is three wins over 60 games.

That sounds about right to me -- anywhere from three to five wins if he misses those 10 weeks. The Cardinals may not be punished quite that much in some of the projection systems, but clearly Molina provides value that doesn't show up in all the numbers those systems can measure, things like calling pitches or pitch framing or just the confidence he gives to pitchers. We know Cruz or call-up Audry Perez won't hit like Molina (Cruz is pretty much the definition of replacement level, with a minus-0.8 WAR in his career). What's more difficult to measure is Molina's impact behind the plate.

It's a huge loss for the Cardinals, and it likely will have a big impact on what should be a tight four-team race in the NL Central. The Brewers lead the division, but many still considered the Cardinals the favorite to win it. I'm not sure that's the case now.

ICYMI: SweetSpot hits of the week

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
4:08
PM ET
Quite a week, eh? We've seen a massive "go for it" trade that paid quick dividends for the A's, some unfortunate DL news for the Yanks' Masahiro Tanaka and the Reds' Joey Votto, and a couple of disappointing vets were DFA'd. Although Carlos Beltran's facial fractures off a BP ricochet off his own bat and the screen takes the "freak injury" award this week.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Inside the 'Zona
D-backs' slap-hitter offense decent but unusual: Though good overall, the Diamondbacks offense is among the worst in the majors in walks and "hard-hit average." Ryan P. Morrison draws from a quote from Bill James in wondering whether slap hitters are an inefficiency Arizona could exploit. Follow on Twitter: @InsidetheZona.

Wade Miley is the canary in the coal mine: The D-backs are sellers, but their moves so far have been short-term oriented. Jeff Wiser looks at Miley's value as a trade chip, and makes the case that what the team decides to do with Miley will tell us a lot. Follow on Twitter: @OutfieldGrass24.

Atlanta Braves: Chop County
Mississippi Braves game report from 6/24/14: Photos and scouting reports on several of the Braves top prospects, including speedy second baseman Jose Peraza. Follow on Twitter: @gondeee.

Baltimore Orioles: Camden Depot
Examining Steve Pearce's fantastic, unexpected first half: Matt Kremnitzer dives into the play of Pearce, who has been a major reason why the Orioles currently reside in first place in the AL East. His season has been a wild ride of being designated for assignment as well as delivering outstanding play at the plate. Follow on Twitter: @CamdenDepot.

Boston Red Sox: Fire Brand of the American League
It's time for the Red Sox to sell: Alex Skillin writes that the Red Sox need to consider trading players such as Jake Peavy, Jonny Gomes and Koji Uehara to allow the team an opportunity to evaluate its younger talent, like Jackie Bradley Jr, Mookie Betts, and others who could benefit from full-time work. Follow on Twitter: @firebrandal.

Chicago Cubs: View From The Bleachers
Why you should be in favor of the big trade: Joe Aiello talks about the weekend deal that sent Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to Oakland and why Cubs fans should be happy with the result. Follow on Twitter: @vftb.

What the Samardzija and Hammel trade means for the rebuild: Noah Eisner breaks down the deal further and looks at what it means going forward for the Cubs' farm system. Follow on Twitter: @Noah_Eisner.

Chicago White Sox: The Catbird Seat
The White Sox are not a bullpen away from being contenders: The White Sox bullpen is terrible, yet the team floats around near .500; would they be contenders if they could get some relievers? James Fegan says no. Follow on Twitter @TheCatbird_Seat.


Colorado Rockies: Rockies Zingers
The 2014 Colorado Rockies: What went wrong?: Eric Garcia McKinley looks at the Rockies' first-half performance so far and discusses why the Rockies are doing so badly. It turns out that they weren't that good in the first place. Follow on Twitter: @garcia_mckinley.

New York Yankees: It's About The Money
The real Brandon McCarthy: Katie Sharp gives Yankee fans on primer on their newest starting pitcher. Follow on Twitter: @ktsharp.

Power-hitting Brett Gardner: Katie examines how Gardner's game has changed and power has become a part of it. Follow on Twitter: @IIATMS.

St. Louis Cardinals: Fungoes
Matt Adams' secret: Better strike-zone discipline?: Since returning from the disabled list, Adams has been beating the shift and pretty much everything else that opposing teams have thrown at him. He credits improved strike-zone discipline. But is that really the case? Follow on Twitter: @fungoes.

Texas Rangers: One Strike Away
The case for trading Alex Rios: Brandon Land examines the possibility of the Rangers trading Rios to retool for 2015 or 2016. Follow on Twitter: @one_strike_away.

Jason Rosenberg is the founder of It's About the Money, a proud charter member of the SweetSpot Network. IIATMS can be found on Twitter here and here as well as on Facebook.

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I once heard John Mozeliak, the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, say that perhaps the most important thing an organization can do is properly evaluate its own talent.

The Cardinals have done this extraordinarily well in recent seasons. Back in 2011, they were comfortable trading Colby Rasmus because they believed Jon Jay could hold down center field defensively and hit enough to justify a regular spot in the lineup. They were right, and they got hot in October and won the World Series. They let Albert Pujols walk as a free agent, believing in Allen Craig. He drove in over 90 runs each of the past two seasons. Last year, they tried the unorthodox move of switching Matt Carpenter from third base to second base, trusting in his work ethic and that his athleticism was better than advertised. It worked out perfectly, and the Cardinals reached another World Series. They trusted rookies Michael Wacha in the rotation and Carlos Martinez for late-inning relief work.

The Cardinals are reaching a similar crossroads right now. Injuries to Wacha and Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller's struggles have left the rotation a little thin behind Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright and workhorse Lance Lynn. St. Louis has been a front-runner in the David Price trade rumors, which of course is different from being the front-runner for actually acquiring him.

My ESPN colleague Jim Bowden just proposed a blockbuster trade idea: The Cardinals acquire Price, Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings and Joel Peralta from the Tampa Bay Rays for Martinez, Oscar Taveras, Kolten Wong and Peter Bourjos.

We can debate the merits of that deal (Jim suggested St. Louis would do it only contingent upon Price's signing an extension), but even if such a trade discussion were to happen, the key element is how the Cardinals view Martinez, Taveras and Wong. Are these three young players -- two rookies and Martinez, who barely exceeded his rookie eligibility last season -- building blocks for the next generation of Cardinals teams?

It all comes down to proper evaluation. The core of the Cardinals, although not necessarily old, is getting older. Matt Holliday is 34 but is headed to the worst season of his career, hitting .260 with five home runs; Yadier Molina turns 32 next week and has a lot of mileage behind the plate; Craig turns 30 in a few days and is having a bad season; shortstop Jhonny Peralta is 32.

That's an offensive group that could be ripe for collapse in the near future; in fact, it hasn't been good this year as is. The Cardinals are 14th in the National League in runs per game and, despite walk-off home runs the past two days, last in the league in home runs. Even the Padres have more power.

So, although there is concern about the rotation, isn't the offense the bigger problem? That's certainly why Jim suggested a huge deal involving Zobrist and Jennings, but those two aren't impact players like Price and wouldn't drive the offense back to the heights of 2013.

The Cardinals' best chance for improving in the second half isn't in making a big trade but simply getting better production from the guys they already have. Holliday and Molina need to hit better, and Craig and Wong need to hit a lot better. If those guys don't improve, Price isn't going to carry this team to the top. If those guys start hitting, the Cardinals have a good chance of winning the division without trading their young (and inexpensive) players.

But that circles back to evaluation. If the offensive core is starting to age, the Cardinals will need a new wave of talent. Matt Adams continues to make his mark at first base, although I still don't like the 56-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. If Mozeliak & Co. believe Taveras will live up to his hype and Wong will develop into a solid contributor, the Cardinals need to keep those guys to supplement the aging veterans.

To me, the Cardinals are in a different position from that of the Oakland Athletics. Billy Beane doesn't know when the A's will be this good again; that gave him added incentive to make the "all-in" trade for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel while trading away a potential star in Addison Russell. But the Cardinals are about consistent excellence. Their recent World Series titles in 2006 and 2011 also give the club a little more leeway, less need to risk the future for the present. The St. Louis market and payroll allow the team to add free agents the A's can't afford, players such as Peralta.

Plus, with Joe Kelly expected to be activated Friday, the rotation will get another solid starter back. A Wainwright/Lynn/Kelly/Martinez/Miller group is still pretty good, and that doesn't include Wacha, who remains an uncertainty with his shoulder (he hasn't been cleared to start throwing yet).

Then there's this: The Cardinals have 13 games remaining with the Brewers.

Yes, David Price would make the Cardinals better. But I think their smartest solution is patience and relying on the guys they have already. There is enough talent already here to win the division.
An early theme of the 2014 season was parity: Through the first two months, just about every team could still sell themselves on a potential playoff chase. But the last month changed all that, especially in the National League, which has sorted itself into contenders and bad teams. A lot of bad teams.

The two groups:

Contenders: Brewers, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Giants, Cardinals, Reds, Pirates.

The bad teams: Diamondbacks, Rockies, Cubs, Phillies, Padres, Mets.

That leaves only the Marlins in the mediocrity of the middle.

Some of those bad teams are likely to get worse. The Cubs just traded Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The Diamondbacks lost Bronson Arroyo and traded Brandon McCarthy. The Rockies' pitching staff has been decimated with injuries. The Phillies are some form of unwatchable wretchedness right now.

All this means the remaining schedule for the playoff contenders could play a vital role in who wins the divisions and who wins the wild cards. So let's see how many games each of the contenders has remaining against our six bad teams.

Nationals (33) -- Mets (13), Phillies (13), Rockies (3), Padres (4).
Braves (27) -- Mets (8), Phillies (9), Cubs (3), Padres (7). They also have three against AL weakling Texas.

Brewers (19) -- Mets (4), Phillies (2), Cubs (10), Padres (3).
Cardinals (26) -- Phillies (3), Cubs (10), Padres (7), Rockies (3), Diamondbacks (3).
Reds (18) -- Mets (3), Cubs (8), Rockies (4), Diamondbacks (3).
Pirates (23) -- Phillies (4), Cubs (6), Padres (3), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (4).

Dodgers (31) -- Cubs (7), Padres (13), Rockies (6), Diamondbacks (5).
Giants (37) -- Mets (4), Phillies (7), Cubs (3), Padres (7), Rockies (7), Diamondbacks (9).

Strength of schedule can be overrated, but you can clearly see the potential ramifications here. With four good teams, the NL Central teams have much tougher remaining schedules than the Nationals/Braves and Dodgers/Giants. The NL Central teams may beat up on each other, opening the door for the two wild cards to come from the NL East and NL West.

Digging deeper into the NL Central, here's how many games each has remaining against the other three contenders:

Brewers (28) -- Cardinals (13), Reds (9), Pirates (6).
Cardinals (31) -- Brewers (13), Reds (10), Pirates (8).
Reds (28) -- Brewers (9), Cardinals (10), Pirates (9).
Pirates (23) -- Brewers (6), Cardinals (8), Reds (9).

Something tells me those 13 remaining Brewers-Cardinals games will go a long ways towards deciding the division title.

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