Just how good are these Cardinals?

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! The St. Louis Cardinals suck and the Chicago Cubs are unstoppable! Chicago Cubs: 2016 World Series champs. Let’s just give them the trophy and go home. I read an article the other day that said the Cardinals were closer to being a last place team than they were a first place team. Is anyone else tired of this crap or is it just me?

As the Cardinals prepare to play the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim tonight, they are just 32 games into the 2016 season. That’s 20% if you prefer to deal in percentages. There is quite a bit of angst around the Cardinals right now. Some of it deserved, some of it not. The Cardinals have been so good for so long that anything less than excellence is revolting to fans’ tastebuds.

Through those 32 games, the Cubs already find themselves with a nine game lead on May 9th. How will anyone ever catch them? Well, for one the Cardinals had a nine game lead as late as June 28th last season and, while they still managed to win the division by two games, I sure remember a lot of complaining about how they were going to lose the division pretty much the entire second half. So it’s possible.

Or is it? Cardinals fans only ever seem to think it’s their team capable of losing a division lead, even though their team was the recipient of one of the biggest choke jobs in history (thanks Milwaukee!).

I actually only had to go back to 2014 to find a season where the Cardinals had a larger than 9 game swing in the division. They were five games back after their 32nd game that year and on September 8th they finished that game up 4.5 games, a 9.5 game swing. That team was 16-16 after 32 games too. They had also lost a series to bad teams, something this team has yet to do.

So lets talk about that.

Let’s put the Cardinals’ opponents so far this season into three baskets. The great teams that we expect to not only compete for a division, but be World Series contenders. The good teams that don’t really have a good shot at their division, but should end up battling for a Wild Card spot into September. Then you have the bad teams that are rebuilding and don’t expect to contend. The Cardinals haven’t played any good teams yet.

They’ve played 12 games against teams that I would say qualify as great. You have the Cubs and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who won 97 and 98 games respectively last season, and got better over the winter. Then you have the Nationals who got better and are finally getting hype-matching performances out of Bryce Harper. The Cardinals are 2-10 right now against those teams, averaging just 2.7 runs per game.

The other 20 games are against teams that easily qualify as bad. The Cardinals are 14-6 in those games averaging 7.2 runs per game.

That’s a much better performance, but it tells us only that the Cardinals are much better than the bad teams, but not quite as good as the great teams. At least at this point everyone still has to grind their way through 130 more games, five more months of baseball, injuries and tests of depth. And we still don’t know where the Cardinals stack up against the good teams.

They start that this week with their trip out west.

If there was a positive note from this past weekend’s series against Pittsburgh is that the Cardinals looked much better than they did during the season opening series. To start, the managed to win one of the games and avoid a sweep. And to add to that, the Cardinals hit just .158 against them in April, but hit a much more robust .255 over the weekend.

Plus, wouldn’t you rather the team be losing to great teams rather than the bad teams? I know I would.

This Cardinal team still needs to get better. But the good news is that there is room to improve. You can’t honestly look up and down this roster and say, “The Cardinals are really playing as well as they can.” It’s just not the case.

Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake won’t finish the season with ERA’s above 6. That I know. And it’s their struggles that have hurt the most, primarily because they are the veteran arms that are supposed to throw innings, but also because that’s two of every five games that just became twice as difficult to win. You get them straight and that changes the equation for the offense.

I also doubt that Matt Holliday and Randal Grichuk will finish the year with below average offensive production as well. As much as we question Holliday’s role on the team, he is still valuable and one of these days will go off for a couple weeks, hit .400 and we will all forget about his April struggles. At least until it comes time to exercise that option in November.

They have gotten some outstanding performances from unexpected places. Aledmys Diaz has been amazing. Jeremy Hazelbaker, though I consider him lucky more than anything, is getting results and that’s ultimately what matters. Even Matt Adams has been a surprisingly valuable member of the team, hitting .306/.382/.551 against right handed pitching after many, including myself, were ready to dump him as soon as possible.

The problem, as many Twitter users like to so eloquently point out, is that without those guys in key lineup positions, or even bunched together, their overall impact to the lineup is minimized.

There’s been a lot of complaints about lineup order (a topic I’m sure that I will write on sooner or later), but ultimately, at the most, there’s about a 5% run output impact between what Matheny is running out there and a mathematically optimal lineup, assuming every player plays every game to their averages. Matheny’s lineups usually end up right down the middle of the best and worst lineup, as I’m sure most managers’ lineups do because no manager actually uses a mathematically optical lineup. Mainly because there are matchups, health, and a variety of other factors in play as well.

So the answer to the question I posited in the title is that I don’t know, you don’t know, and I don’t even think the team really knows (despite what Mike Matheny wants to say about being a good team that just hasn’t gotten hot yet).

The good news is that this team has both time and room to improve, and I believe they will. But I’m also one of the few who believe that this team is better top-to-bottom than the one that won 100 games last year. They just haven’t played better. But I believe that they have more than enough talent to get there.