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Hochman: Assessing the state of the Cardinals after a particularly worrisome week

This may not be baseball hell, but we’re quite far from the self-proclaimed baseball heaven.

Losers of six of their past seven games (including a quartet of shutouts), the Cardinals are seldom hitting, they’re failing recently in high-leverage situations, they have three key position players on the injured list, one of their team leaders isn’t with the team, their skyrocketing rookies are coming back to earth, they’re fatigued — and they have no rest with games the next eight days, the first five against the dominating Phillies and Dodgers.

Oh, and there are many questions regarding the Cards’ starting pitching.

Oh, and they’re now out of a wild-card playoff spot if the season ended today. In fact, the Cards (45-42) are a game closer to .500 than to first place.

So the question is two-fold.

Can the current team improve?

Can the front office improve the team?

As for the latter — man, if there was ever a year to risk something, it’s this year. The St. Louis Cardinals have not won a game in the National League Championship Series since 2014. They have not played in the World Series since 2013. Sure, other teams can only wish that was their history. But other teams aren’t the St. Louis Cardinals.

In a quiet moment before Friday’s game, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak was asked about urgency for making moves by the trade deadline. After all, the Cardinals have two superstars clicking in Nolan Arenado and MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt. And they have two franchise icons in their last St. Louis season — Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols. Does this change the way the Cardinals approach the deadline, compared to other years?

“I think anytime you try to create a summary statement for how you approach the trading deadline, it’s just disingenuous,” Mozeliak told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “For example, I used to always joke about this when I became general manager — if somebody wanted to go trade for Albert Pujols back then, would you trade him? Like, 99% of the time the answer is — no, of course not. But what if someone said you could (somehow acquire) Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw, maybe you would. I think it’s impossible just to say how one is going to approach a deal.

“Now, do we understand there’s urgency because of all the things you just said? Of course. Those are very unique variables one doesn’t come across very often.”

The Cardinals historically don’t trade numerous prospects for a splashy player at the deadline. But this year with their starting pitching, the Cards have Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz still on the injured list and Andre Pallante rapidly approaching a career-high in innings (at any level since high school). And the Cardinals aren’t getting any offense out of the catcher position. And they could use an improved left-handed bat.

Is this a year the team may consider splurging on something it wouldn’t have in other years?

“We’re not going to blow up our model of how we think about player acquisition,” Mozeliak told the Post-Dispatch. “We certainly understand this is a really fun team to be around. Obviously, we’re coming off a tough road trip, but we still believe, as we get healthier, there are some things we could augment that would make us stronger. So that’s how we’ll improve.”

As for the former question — Can the current team improve? — there is cautious optimism here. A healthy Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill sure enhance the team. Same goes for Flaherty, though we’ll see about Matz. Even from a clubhouse standpoint, an injured Molina’s presence can help the team with game prep. Dakota Hudson showed Saturday that’s he’s not broken. And once all the guys finally rest up, they can restart after the All-Star break, so to speak.

And even though the Cardinals are 19-27 against teams above .500, the majority of their games after the All-Star break are against losing teams.

Before Saturday’s game, manager Oliver Marmol chalked a lot of this past week to being “just baseball.” That was in regards to fatigue of the team, the ill-timed injuries and the stud pitchers the Cardinals faced. But there’s no excuse for allowing Kyle Gibson to shove. There’s no excuse for letting Saturday’s Philadelphia starter and his 6.23 road ERA (and 4.91 overall ERA) pitch seven scoreless innings, while allowing only two hits and nary a walk.

“We’re just not playing good baseball,” said Arenado, the star who himself failed to put the ball in play in a crucial ninth-inning plate appearance in Saturday’s 1-0 loss.

Marmol seems to have the traits of a leader who can navigate the Cardinals through this. But this is his toughest test yet.

“It’s so easy to get frustrated during these times,” the first-year skipper said. “And then, what’s the message? Is it, try harder? Focus more? Be more prepared? Those are all three (bad) options — we already do all those, these guys are super prepared, they’re motivated and they’re trying really hard. The last thing you want to do is try to overdo any of those — then you really go downhill.”

Like Craig Berube, his coaching counterpart down Clark Avenue, Marmol’s success will come from pressing the right buttons, not the panic button. But Marmol will need help from the front office.

There is an awful lot of heat in baseball heaven.

The Cardinals' Juan Yepez reacts after striking out to end the sixth inning against the Phillies on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in St. Louis.

The Cardinals’ Juan Yepez reacts after striking out to end the sixth inning against the Phillies on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in St. Louis.

Benjamin Hochman

@hochman on Twitter

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