NEW YORK -- Lance Lynn has a dry delivery and a wry smile, so it seems that everything he says is going to be sarcastic. But Lynn seemed entirely earnest the other evening in summing up what has ailed his St. Louis Cardinals in these first couple of weeks.
"We've got to pitch better, we've got to score runs and we have to play defense," Lynn said. "If we start doing that, we'll be fine."
You can't argue with that logic. What got the Cardinals off to their worst start in six years hasn't been particularly complex, but it has been compound. Lapses in the field, poor pitching and anemic hitting have combined to produce three lost series and a 3-6 record.
Many prognosticators pegged the Cardinals as a mediocre team, but they didn't hint at underperformance at this level.
The Cardinals talked all spring about how wonderful the clubhouse climate was, but they squandered that, at least temporarily, with the slow start. It should be pointed out that the Cardinals have already played two of the best teams in the National League, and the last St. Louis team to start 3-6 won the World Series. Times aren't dire, but they're also not ideal.
So which of the Cardinals' issues so far have long-term potential and which will be fixed by the passage of time or, in the lexicon of the era, a larger sample size? Let's explore.
Carlos Martinez got the Cardinals' rotation off to a roaring start with his 10-strikeout performance on opening night against the Chicago Cubs on ESPN. Then, he began the second turn of the rotation with a letdown against the Cincinnati Reds. The other four guys again followed suit. Mike Leake put an end to that with seven commanding innings against a dangerous Washington Nationals lineup Wednesday, the most important start of the season thus far.
Until Leake stopped the hemorrhaging, Cardinals starters had allowed 20 runs on 30 hits to the Nationals, who have a powerful lineup with a feisty left-handed leadoff guy, Adam Eaton, and two feared lefties in the middle of the order, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. It's not a good matchup for a rotation of all right-handed starters.
Leake's win Wednesday was the first by a Cardinals starter. The rotation is 1-5 with a 3.94 ERA and 1.25 WHIP. The record mostly is a product of things beyond the pitchers' control, like bullpen performance and scoring. There have been more positive indications than worrisome ones. Martinez, Leake and Michael Wacha have looked lights-out since early in spring training, and Lynn has looked more than competent. Adam Wainwright thus far has been the laggard, but if all-time great Pedro Martinez believes, that's good enough for us, at least for now.
Adam Wainwright is going to reinvent himself and get people out. I wouldn't worry about him in the beginning of the season.— Pedro Martinez (@45PedroMartinez) April 11, 2017
Here we get a little less sure of a positive turn. Seung-Hwan Oh has been rocked for two doubles and two home runs already, and Trevor Rosenthal wobbled in his second appearance back from the disabled list. He hasn't had good command since 2015.
In fact, no one besides youngster Matt Bowman has given Cardinals manager Mike Matheny much to believe in.
Brett Cecil's struggles fit a pattern (he hasn't had an ERA under 5.00 in the first month since 2013), so we can presume he'll get his issues figured out by May. But that doesn't mean he'll be a savior. Kevin Siegrist seems like a consummate pro, but he's off to an awful start. Jonathan Broxton should at least contribute something, but his best days are years in the past.
There isn't a lot of elite-end talent in the bullpen, and it appears any true fixes inside the organization are at least a few months away, working on their command at Double-A Springfield. Alex Reyes' season-ending injury could hurt this unit the most, as he might have fit best -- at least temporarily -- in the bullpen. The first half of the season could be a thrill ride, the scary kind, particularly if Oh truly is in the beginning stages of a sophomore slump.
The unsustainable part may have already happened, and that's a good thing. The Cardinals improved their home run total by 100 with only scant personnel moves between 2015 and 2016. The problem was all that power came with unpalatable sacrifices, as the Cardinals became a station-to-station team with little agility on defense.
Dexter Fowler was supposed to help fix that. He and Matt Carpenter are two of the best leadoff hitters in the game, even if Carpenter now bats third. Their on-base skill in front of run producers such as Stephen Piscotty was supposed to be the engine, only it didn't turn over. Then, at least for one game, it did.
Fowler, Carpenter and Piscotty got off to glacial starts. But in Wednesday's 6-1 win against the Nationals, the two table setters combined to score three runs ahead of Piscotty, who drove in five. That could have been the spark this offense needed. Aledmys Diaz and Yadier Molina have kept right on trucking, hitting line drives and not striking out.
One familiar refrain has been that injuries have prompted the Cardinals to move fielders into unfamiliar, uncomfortable positions. They saw that last year with Matt Holliday, Kolten Wong, Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko all being exposed over time.
This year, Matheny has felt compelled to use Matt Adams in left field to keep his bat relevant, and that hasn't looked pretty. Nor, by the way, has Adams' swing.
Carpenter continues to learn first base, often taking extra work there before games, and he has the promise to be well above-average there. The Cardinals might simply have to accept that Diaz will be an offense-first shortstop who is a marginal liability in the field.
When Piscotty is healthy, the Cardinals' outfield is fine, maybe even good. But Matheny doesn't seem to trust Jose Martinez's bat enough to give him much playing time, so a true fourth outfielder would fit better on the roster than Adams currently does. Trading Adams for a true fourth outfielder seems like a good idea.
The overall impression from the first nine games is of a team that could be similarly competitive to last year's team, which isn't necessarily a putdown. It just might be a disappointment to Cardinals fans spoiled by nearly two decades of dominance. In fact, what we could be witnessing is what rebuilding looks like for one of baseball's top franchises, a period of mediocrity in between mini-dynasties.
Baseball typically follows cycles, and if this team doesn't get its act together, it could share a lot in common with Cardinals teams of the 1970s and 1990s, as placeholders for what is to come.