Early in spring training, I wrote that I was not sold on the Cardinals as the runaway winner of the NL Central.
I am still not sold, but not quite for my original reasons - a questionable bullpen (actually it's quite good), the lineup's right-handed tilt (not a huge factor), the potential for injury in their starting rotation (well, Kyle Lohse is hurt, but Chris Carpenter is healthy).
The truth is, I am not sold on any NL team running away with anything. The league is too mediocre - excuse me, balanced. Even the strongest clubs are flawed.
The Phillies, Cardinals and Rockies remain the best teams on paper. But each is dealing with injuries, and the Cardinals, to virtually everyone's surprise, are getting less production than expected from their two top sluggers, first baseman Albert Pujols and left fielder Matt Holliday.
Pujols, according to a scout who has seen the Cardinals recently, is playing with "a bad right knee" and "not moving well at all." If that is the case, it might help explain why Pujols' .411 slugging percentage in May is his lowest for any month of his career in which he has been healthy, according to STATS LLC. Pujols pushes off with his right, or back, leg.
Pujols, however, said Friday that his knee was not an issue.
"Everything's fine," he said.
On Thursday, Pujols hit his first homer and drove in his first runs in 11 games in an 8-3 victory over the Padres, a game in which Holliday went 2-for-3 with an RBI single and two walks. Not a bad way for the Cardinals to prepare for their visit to Wrigley Field and first series of the season against the Cubs (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 4:10 p.m. ET).
The Cubs, after looking mostly awful for nearly 40 games, needed only their current 8-3 roll to move within five games of the first-place Reds. The Cardinals, 9-12 since their 18-9 start, are in a similar position, itching to get hot.
One rival executive notes that "there is a lot of tension" around the Cardinals right now, "a lot of frustration." A scout agrees, saying that manager Tony La Russa is "grumpier" than usual, not that TLR is ever mirthful. The well-publicized dugout spat between LaRussa and Pujols seemed to sum up the Cardinals' season to this point.
Not to worry, the overall NL standings look like something only the parity-crazed NFL could love.
All those who predicted a Padres-Reds NLCS, raise your hands.
The Padres own the league's best record at 28-19. The Reds are next at 28-20. All five NL East clubs are within three games of the division lead. The top four teams in the NL West are separated by only 31/2 games.
Run differential, a statistic that often reflects teams' true abilities, offers little more in the way of definition. The Phillies are an NL-best plus-43, followed by the Padres (plus-41), Cardinals (plus-34) and Rockies (plus-32). The Reds are ninth in the league at plus-16, a sign they are not as strong as their record indicates.
It's still May. The season is not even one-third complete. Teams will face injuries, make trades. The Reds, according to a source with knowledge of their thinking, are flexible financially and willing to be creative. The Cardinals might need a starter to replace Lohse (though don't count on Astros owner Drayton McLane trading within the division). The Cubs continue to look for an eighth-inning reliever while grooming bullpen candidates at Triple-A.
Who knows how it will all turn out?
Back in spring training, baseballprojections.com, using two different CHONE methods - one based on starting lineups, the other on depth charts - forecast the Cardinals to be at least 10 games better than their next-closest division rival.
The Cardinals, trailing the Reds by one game, still could meet that projection, particularly if Pujols and Holliday ever get hot - together. There is simply no way the Cardinals will continue to rank 12th in the NL in runs per game, just as there was simply no way the Red Sox would continue to rank last in the AL in ERA.
Holliday, 11-for-58 (.190) with runners in scoring position, might be pressing in the first year of his seven-year, $120 million contract. Pujols' struggles - and lest anyone forget, we're talking about a guy who still ranks seventh in the NL in OPS - are more difficult to explain, if he is indeed healthy.
Normally one of the game's most disciplined hitters, Pujols is showing significantly less selectivity this season. Nearly 30 percent of his swings have come on pitches outside the strike zone, according to fangraphs.com. His career rate is 19.6 percent.
Obviously, it would be foolish to bet against Pujols - his difficulties in May might simply amount to a slump. The Cardinals face greater offensive issues - well-below average production at catcher, second base and shortstop, an inexperienced bench.
The bullpen qualifies as something of a surprise, ranking second in the NL in ERA, but the loss of Lohse will force a second rookie into the rotation, joining left-hander Jaime Garcia. Right-hander Brad Penny, sidelined by an upper back strain, is expected back soon.
The Cardinals still look like the best team in the division. But not for sure. And not by a lot.