NL Central scouting report: St. Louis Cardinals vs. Pirates
The Cardinals and Pirates open a critical four-day, five-game series Monday, which could mark a pivotal point in the National League Central race.
The Pirates trail the Cardinals by 1.5 games. Winning the division is critical as wild-card winners face each other in a one-game playoff to advance in the postseason. The Pirates have an eight-game lead over the Diamondbacks, who trail the Reds for the final wild-card spot.
The following is a scouting report on the two clubs entering this week's series:
Pirates: Much of their success is tied to starting pitching. The Pirates have enjoyed a breakout season from Jeff Locke and a bounce-back year from Francisco Liriano, and A.J. Burnett has continued to pitch like a top-of-the rotation arm since leaving the Yankees. Gerrit Cole is one of the most promising young arms in the game. The Pirates also have enjoyed depth, having employed 11 starting pitchers while still maintaining the best ERA in the NL. The biggest knock has been their inability to pitch deep into games.
Cardinals: Earlier this season, all five of the Cardinals' starting rotation members appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That tells you all you need to know about the quality and depth of their starting staff, which had owned the game's best ERA until slumping over the past month. Still, Cardinals starters are allowing the third-fewest runs per game (3.62) in the NL. Like the Pirates, the Cardinals have overcome injuries to significant starters in Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter. Rookie Shelby Miller has pitched like an ace, and Adam Wainwright is a legit No. 1. Lance Lynn is another quality homegrown arm, though he has struggled recently.
Pirates: What has been a strength — the bullpen — is in jeopardy of being destabilized as closer Jason Grilli was placed on the 15-day DL last week with a strained forearm. The Pirates' bullpen has been among the best in baseball. Two weeks ago, Grilli became the first Pirate to make the cover of Sports Illustrated since Barry Bonds in 1992. Mark Melancon has been one of the premier setup men. Lefty Justin Wilson is a versatile asset, as he has increased his velocity, touching 100 mph several times.
Cardinals: They dealt with instability in their bullpen when closer Jason Motte was injured before the season. Edward Mujica does not fit the prototypical closer profile, with a league-average strikeout rate and essentially one pitch, a splitter he throws 66 percent of the time. But he has been effective because of his command. Behind Mujica is hard-throwing righty Trevor Rosenthal, who looks like a future closer.
Pirates: Their offense has ranked below average the entire season, in the lower half of runs and OPS. While Pedro Alvarez has enjoyed a breakout season after an awful April, the Pirates have struggled to find power in other areas while striking out at a high rate. Neil Walker has struggled and dealt with injuries. Starling Marte has been up and down since his sizzling April, and right field had yielded an MLB-worst OPS. As a whole, the team has struggled to hit with runners in scoring position. Finding another bat is likely atop the front office's to-do list prior to the trade deadline.
Cardinals: They have four of the NL's top 15 batters in OPS in Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig, Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter. While Matt Holliday and David Freese have performed below their career levels, the lineup is deep and balanced. One glaring weakness is the production at shortstop, which could be an area the Cardinals try to upgrade prior to the trade deadline. The Cardinals have benefited from a likely unsustainable average with runners in scoring position (.337 entering last week).
Pirates: They have an elite defense, leading the majors in defensive efficiency, which is the measure of turning batted balls into outs. The Pirates are converting 73.4 percent of batted balls into outs as of July 23. The Pirates have a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder in Andrew McCutchen and a left fielder in Starling Marte who could be an above-average center fielder. The addition of Russell Martin at catcher has benefited the team with his ability to frame pitches, his throwing arm and pitch sequencing. The team lacks elite infielders, but the Pirates' increased use of shifts has aided the defense. The Pirates shifted 271 times in the first half, tops in the majors.
Cardinals: The defense is one of their few flaws. The Cardinals lack elite defenders and rank 18th in baseball in defensive efficiency (70.4). The Cardinals have an aging outfield that has lost athleticism and are playing a converted third baseman, Matt Carpenter, at second base. But they have perhaps the best defensive catcher in the game in Molina, who can shut down an opponent's running game and is an excellent pitch framer and handler of pitching staffs.
Pirates: This is one of their greatest vulnerabilities. Catcher Michael McKenry has struggled to throw out runners, and his offense has regressed from last season. Clint Barmes lost his starting shortstop job because of an empty batting line, and Brandon Inge produced a .442 OPS before being designated for assignment last week. The club lacks power bats off the bench.
Cardinals: They have one of the top bench bats in the game in Matt Adams, a young slugging first baseman who has not found a place in the starting lineup. But like most teams, the Cardinals have depth issues. They lack right-handed power off the bench.
Pirates: It will be interesting to see how the Pirates perform as stakes grow greater. The Pirates have wilted in each of the past two seasons, losing winning records in the second half. Will those experiences strengthen this group or serve as added pressure?
Cardinals: Playing meaningful baseball after the break is familiar ground for the Cardinals, who have plenty of postseason experience, particularly in their everyday lineup. St. Louis is accustomed to playing on big stages and figures to be loose entering this series.