Things do not look good for the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball Prospectus gives them a three percent chance of making the playoffs, and part of that comes from some truly improbable Wild Card scenarios. (In one of them, San Diego is invaded by Zimbabwe, Gerald Ford is chopped up by the propeller of a commuter plane, and I'm gay.) Considering our own fan-confidence poll presently sits at 28/100, Cardinals fans might have even less faith in the team's success than BP's formulae.
But there's a month of baseball left in 2010, and you'll miss it when it's gone. Before 1993 there was no Wild Card; before 1969 there was no Championship Series; before 1903 there was no postseason at all, although Old Hoss Radbourn might dispute his 1884 championship's exhibition status. We don't have to do this often, as Cardinals fans, but it appears to be time to relearn the fine art of enjoying baseball when you're out of contention. Starting with these five reasons:
5. To see if Albert Pujols can earn his first RBI title.
The Triple Crown appears to be out of reach, thanks to Carlos Gonzalez's absurdly hot second half (and Omar Infante looming just out of qualifying range), but Albert Pujols remains in a position to win two legs of it—he's currently in line for his second consecutive home run title and his first-ever RBI crown.
The RBI mark has frustrated Pujols's Triple Crown ambitions on more than one occasion—big years from such luminaries as Preston Wilson and Vinny Castilla were enough to keep him from the top of the National League. Right now Pujols's 39 home runs are five ahead of Washington's Adam Dunn, while he's just a few RBI in front of Triple Crown nemesis Joey Votto.
4. To see if Kyle Lohse will stop sucking so badly.
The Cardinals are paying Kyle Lohse $12 million a year in 2011 and 2012 whether they use him or not. Whatever he does in 2010, the Cardinals would be foolish to rely on him as a load-bearing member of the rotation. If he succeeds down the stretch, the Cardinals will have a strong contender in their fifth starter competition come next March.
If he continues to struggle with such astounding consistence, the Cardinals will have to decide whether it's more depressing to pay Kyle Lohse to pitch in St. Louis or the Golden League.
3. To see if Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker, and Yadier Molina can get their numbers up.
Yadier Molina's seemingly perennial improvement—his OPS went from .595 to .749 from 2006 to 2009, improving every year—is out the window in 2010, just as he'd turned into an above-average hitter for a catcher. But in the second half he's climbed back toward respectability, hitting .298/.339/.380 since the All-Star Break. The same is true of Skip Schumaker, who seemed programmed to hit an empty .300 every year for the rest of his life. He hit just .255 in the first half, but is all the way up to .315 in the second.
For Brendan Ryan it's just a matter of seeing how near he can get to respectability after a first-half in which he joked about jumping out hotel windows. Ryan's defense remains above reproach, but his OPS—which currently stands at .576—has been as low as .532 in mid-July. A final number around .600 will at least bring him from incredibly bad to really bad.
2. To see just how well Jaime Garcia can end his rookie season.
I won't say who it was, I promise, but Jaime Garcia is currently having the Cardinals' best rookie pitching season in at least ten years, and in a weaker year he might have a shot at the Cy Young Award. Right now he's 13-7 with an ERA of 2.69, which leaves him tenth in the league in wins and sixth—still four tenths of a run out of first—in ERA.
But it's not just Garcia's shot at the Rookie of the Year award we have to watch. Rehabbing from elbow surgery, Garcia pitched less than 50 innings in 2009, and the jump he's made in 2010—he's sitting at 157 entering this week—is normally incredibly treacherous to make. The more innings Garcia successfully pitches in 2010, the easier it will be to rely on him as a vital part of the rotation in 2011.
1. To see if Colby Rasmus and Tony La Russa can get along.
Colby Rasmus's sudden return to first-half form can't hurt, but it seems like the shelf-life of the Colby Rasmus-Tony La Russa power struggle was shorter than I anticipated. And let me be the first to say: Thank goodness.
The St. Louis Cardinals need Colby Rasmus as much as they need any player on their roster—he's cheap, he has superstar potential, and he's the face of the side of the franchise that will have to support the enormous contracts on which this team's success is now dependent. There's no Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols without the promise of players like Colby Rasmus, and seeing how the two sides get along over this last uncompetitive month will be vitally important to competing for the next five years.