Before the season began, people were constantly asking me how I thought the Central would turn out. I almost always said the same thing: it'll come down the Cubs, the Cardinals, and the Brewers, and setting my fanboyism aside, I really didn't know who would come out on top.
It's pretty clear at this point that it's a two-horse race, and the Cardinals are all but out of it. LaRussa's strategy of converting mediocre relievers into starters has proven less than 100% effective, though nothing TLR has done could hurt as much as losing Chris Carpenter for most of the season. Despite all that, St. Louis is only 8.5 games back. I don't think they have the team to make up that difference--it doesn't help that they have to overcome two teams--but it might be too early to write them off altogether.
The big question facing the Cards is this: are many of their players (especially hitters) in the middle of horrible years, or did they just have a collectively painful first half? While Albert Pujols is his usual mashing self, and Chris Duncan has made up for his metal glove by outslugging Pujols (really!), the rest of the offense has been pathetic.
For instance, Scott Rolen is slugging .378. Adam Kennedy has made me look stupid by being one of the worst regulars in the game, with and OBP and a slugging percentage under .300. Jim Edmonds has also slugged under .400...when he played. All in all, the Cards are 11th in the league in runs scored, just above the Padres, who would far exceed them if we adjusted for park. While those negative results could be caused by nagging injuries, or even age in the cases of Rolen and Edmonds, I find it hard to believe that those guys are really that bad. A hot streak from two of those guys, combined with Pujols and Duncan continuing to hit, could turn into quite the winning streak.
The pitching is less likely to propel the team on a hot streak, especially since Carpenter's return is in question now. Originally, there was talk he'd make it back by the end of the month, but he pitched poorly on rehab starts, and has since been shut down again. He might not pitch again this season. That leaves the rotation full of guys like Mike Maroth and Kip Wells, and that's probably enough to keep the Cards in third place. But you never know; nearly everybody in the rotation has had a stretch of effectiveness. If the offense starts putting up five runs a game, Wainwright and the rest might be able to do the job.
As I said, I don't really think the Cards are going to end up being a factor. But their postseason odds just nudged back above 1%, and 8.5 games back in July is far from insurmountable. If Carpenter comes back soon, or if Jocketty pulls some trade deadline magic, it might be enough to push the Cards back in the race.