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The next generation of the St. Louis Cardinals has arrived

Mike Matheny still mismanages them, but there’s a lot of very talented young players on this team set to annoy us for years to come.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks
Tommy Pham takes that invisible staircase with him wherever he goes and, I gotta say, he makes it work.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Our beloved David B. Flemming was the play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s broadcast of last night’s Cardinals-Diamondbacks game, and in the bottom of the 8th inning, he more or less called into question Mike Matheny’s decision-making.

With a 6-4 lead on the road and a runner on second base after a stolen base, Matheny asked shortstop Yairo Munoz to bunt the runner, Harrison Bader, over to third. Munoz tried twice and found himself in an 0-2 hole. On the next pitch, Munoz took a pitch straight to the ribs because he was still trying to bunt. Now, there was some speculation that Munoz missed a sign and that Matheny did not call for a bunt there.

Munoz stayed in the game, the Diamondbacks brought in Jorge de La Rosa to face Kolten Wong, and Matheny had Wong bunt Bader and Munoz over to 2nd and 3rd base. Hmm. Maybe he hadn’t taken the bunt sign off 0-2... or maybe he did and he just still really wanted to play for that extra run on the road. After Wong’s successful sacrifice, the next hitter was Matt Carpetner, who was 0-for-12 in his career against de La Rosa.

Flemming wondered again what Matheny was thinking, but it was all for naught as Carpenter singled in Bader. The Cardinals went on to win the game 8-4 and the series in Arizona, but the whole sequence reminded me that Mike Matheny is not a skilled tactician.

You might remember Grant mentioning in his not goodbye Goodbye Post that mostly covering the Giants got in the way of his learning about other teams. Well, as someone who’s only ever had to think about this site and the Giants, let me say that it has always been a choice of mine to intentionally ignore everything going on with the Cardinals.

They’re just one of those teams I never care to learn anything about. That’s partly because they’re an extremely consistent organization — pride themselves on sound defense, solid pitching, lots of doubles and home runs, and all thanks to anonymous prospects that seemingly grow on trees. I know that’s not the reality, but that’s been mine regarding them since... forever. And now I have to care.

{checks out the team.}

Hmm. The average age of the roster is 28.6. When the Giants played them in the NLCS (which might be the last time I remember the Giants playing the Cardinals), the average age of their roster was 28.8. See! Extremely consistent!

It’d be a lot easier if St. Louis Cardinals: The Next Generation was a lot more like Star Trek: The Next Generation, because then I could make a lot of nerdy comparisons, extrapolations, and interpretations based on characters and incidents from the TV show that only I would enjoy, and it’d be hella easier to write. Sadly, this next generation of St. Louis Cardinal has no Captain Picard to appreciate or even a Wesley Crusher to dump on, but it does have a fully realized version of Tommy Pham as well as this guy

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Arizona Diamondbacks Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

and this guy

MLB: Atlanta Braves at St. Louis Cardinals Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

... but also, Dexter Fowler, whom the organization has recently called out for being “lazy” because of his performance. They did this right as he began paternity leave. Fowler will likely be activated for this series, but there’s a very good chance he won’t start, in favor of that first dude above.

Say what you want about the Cardinals’ GM calling out a player for being lazy, but if Fowler does get a start in this 4-game series, he’s the one player setup to cause damage. Oh, and the Cardinals shouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt here. Assume the worst about their intentions until they demonstrate otherwise. That was a Red Sox-level low blow.

They also have this 21-year old reliever, Jordan Hicks, who averages 101.6 mph on his fastball. Averages. He also throws a slider that’s so soft and loopy at 89 mph, but it works because it’s not 101.6 mph. Here’s the thing about that 101.6 mph average, though. He can hit 102-105 very often.

Mike Matheny opted to pitch him 2 innings last night, so there’s a chance the Giants won’t see him tonight or tomorrow. Their closer, Bud Norris, seemed to hurt his arm last night, too, and Greg Holland is still not back to All-Star closer status, so, the bullpen looks like it might be a soft spot for the Cardinals in the first couple of games of this series.

Thing is, they still have Yadier Molina. He has 13 home runs on the season and is slugging over .500. He’s out-homered Buster Posey over the past three seasons, 39-31, but he still can’t supplant him as America’s Favorite Catcher.

Matt Carpenter’s still around, too, and after a slow start (.579 OPS over first 105 plate appearances of the season) he’s picked it up to be a fearsome force at the plate once more (nearly a 1.000 OPS in 236 plate appearances, including 22 doubles and 13 home runs). He also had two big throwing errors in last night’s game.

Which just goes to show that the Cardinals aren’t The Cardinals with this particular bunch. Not yet, anyway. They’re 44-41, and mostly treading water in the NL Central. They’re in a similar position as the Giants, only their core is young and still figuring it out. Don’t believe me? Giants are at 96 wRC+. Cardinals are at 94. Giants have a 104 ERA-, Cardinals 95 (but if you microsplit that to just last month, the Giants posted a 70 ERA- and the Cardinals 104). Since May 1st, the Giants are 30-28, the Cardinals 29-29.

But in addition to their younger core, better run differential, and road record, they also have Marcell Ozuna, whom they added in the offseason from the Marlins. After a slow start of his own, he’s hit 7 home runs since June 1st and has an OPS around .800. He might not match his 37-home run season from a year ago, but he’s starting to find his groove.

The Cardinals even have their version of Gorkys Hernández in 30-year old center fielder Tommy Pham, who has 13 home runs in 324 plate appearances after a breakout age-29 season where he hit 23 home runs as part of a .931 OPS for the year. So, this could be a very even matchup, but it will feature a lot of players who have yet to make their mark in the rivalry, which means it could be a very frustrating matchup.

Hitter to watch: Harrison Bader has nothing to do with either Harrison Ford or Diedrich Bader but everything to do with getting Dexter Fowler missing at least 2 games in this series. When he was called up last September, his first three games were against the Giants. He started two of those games. The starters in those games were Johnny Cueto and Madison Bumgarner. He went a combined 2-for-5 with 2 home runs, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 1 HBP, and 1 strikeout against them. Johnny Cueto starts tonight and Bumgarner starts Sunday.

Pitcher to watch: Jordan Hicks was the gimme. The Giants have faced all four of the Cards starters in this series, with mixed results. So, I’m just gonna pick Sunday starter Jack Flaherty. In his only other start against the Giants, he gave up 5 runs in 4 innings, but he also struck out 6 and walked only 1. Since June 1st, he’s struck out 44 in 33.1 innings, walking 10 while allowing 24 hits (5 doubles).

Prediction: The Giants are great at home, and they’re better against right-handed pitchers (the Cardinals have only two left-handed relievers), but the Cardinals are good on the road and basically a dopplegänger. These are a pair of .500 teams fighting to prove they’re not, which means the best either of them can manage is a split.