Six Cardinal questions as second half gets ready to start

St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, second from right, looks down while waiting for relief pitcher Junior Fernandez to arrive during the sixth inning of the team’s baseball game against the Chicago Cubs in Chicago, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

ST. LOUIS- The Cardinals had just returned to Busch Stadium following a mid-May road trip that saw St. Louis get swept in San Diego, walking almost 30 Padres hitters in the process. FOX2 asked President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak what he learned about his team after spending most of the early weeks of the season successfully battling against NL Central opponents and NL East clubs below .500.

“The best part of that weekend is that it’s behind us,” Mozeliak said. “The mindset has to be ‘turn the page and move on.’

The same could very well be said now that we’ve reached the All-Star break. The Cardinals are 44-46, tied for third in the NL Central, 8 games behind first-place Milwaukee and 7.5 out of the Wild Card race.

Here’s a look at six questions facing the Cardinals as the season’s second half gets underway later this week.

Will they make a deal?

Mozeliak didn’t go out and acquire outfield depth when Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader spent time on the injured list in the first half, despite the offensive struggles that Justin Williams, Lane Thomas and others demonstrated. He didn’t acquire proven starting pitching depth when Jack Flaherty, KK Kim, Miles Mikolas and Carlos Martinez disappeared from the rotation due to injury. There have been patches, like lefty journeyman Wade LeBlanc. Mozeliak has already gone on record as saying he doesn’t feel the need to go “all-in” on 2021. Is he just waiting for lower shopping prices come late July on a significant addition to the rotation or the bench, or is this largely the club we’ll see the rest of the way?

Alex Reyes’ usage

He was the team’s best starting pitcher in spring training, who instead became a lights out All-Star closer. How will he be used in the second half? The rotation’s struggles and the front end of the bullpen have been well-documented this season. As great as it is to have an All-Star back end of the bullpen, it’s less helpful if a pitcher like Reyes goes more than several days without getting work in because the team didn’t need him (blowout loss or lack of a leverage situation). Plus, if he’s going to be in consideration for the rotation next year, he’ll need to see the field more than he did in the first half and build up innings. Will the Cardinals embrace “the opener” concept as they try to put together innings before Flaherty and Mikolas return?

Will Matthew Liberatore get a shot?

Many thought the the minor league pitching prospect could see the majors sometime in 2021, but that thinking was tempered early when Liberatore got off to a slow start in Memphis. He wasn’t promoted when the Cardinals’ rotation turned into a MASH unit, with the team evidently concerned it could negatively impact his future development if he came in and was over his head. Staying in Memphis also means he doesn’t start his service time clock. But a few strong turns helping Team USA qualify for the Tokyo Olympics earned plaudits and forced the front office to make an important choice in keeping him stateside. Instead of going for gold and being unavailable until mid-August, he has a chance to be a factor in the St. Louis rotation if called.

Can someone go on an offensive tear?

Despite a team-wide offensive blackout in June, Nolan Arenado is still on pace to hit more than 30 homers and drive in more than 100. He’s been everything the franchise was hoping for after the offseason blockbuster trade. But we haven’t seen a stretch where he’s just carried the team on his back for a week or two, powering an extended winning streak. In fairness, no Cardinal has done that at the plate this season. Tyler O’Neill has rewarded the team’s faith in him by hitting 15 home runs at the break, but will need to keep on doing it for a sustained period of time. Paul Goldschmidt may very well be that guy. Someone doing it now would be helpful.

Will Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina keep it up?

Clydesdales and Budweiser. Downtown and the Arch. Peanut butter and jelly. You get the picture, they’ve been around forever. Can they keep performing at the same level in the second half? Molina was the middle-of-the-order protection for Arenado earlier this year when Paul DeJong struggled and later injured. He’s still a solid situational hitter in the clutch. Wainwright deserves first half team MVP honors and was the only starting pitcher who could get a win over a period of 34 starts by members of the rotation in parts of May and June.

It would be hard to see the team making the playoffs without both making key contributions in the second half. If the Cardinals can’t make a run, questions will quickly turn to what both men plan to do in 2022. Will they play or retire?

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