Two things can happen to the St. Louis Cardinals between now and July 31 to give general manager John Mozeliak a sense of clarity and a mandate entering the trade deadline:
• The Chicago Cubs (or Milwaukee Brewers) could go on a roll, assume control in the National League Central and render the Cardinals irrelevant, prompting Mozeliak to take a hard look at his roster and sell off short-term assets to help with a big-picture revamp;
• In an alternate, better-case scenario, the Cardinals will find that missing spark, start playing better ball and put themselves in position to add a piece or two in hopes of a second-half run.
In the absence of something definitive, the Cardinals will muddle along in a hazy middle ground, as a mediocre team propped up by a bad division.
"We have to have everything on the table," Mozeliak told ESPN.com. "We can't simply say we're going to buy. We simply can't say we're going to sell. I think we have to see how things play out. From my standpoint, the organization has to remain open-minded.
"This team has a chance to do good things, but we have to get it going. Urgency has to be on the forefront of our thinking. There is no clock in baseball, but time is moving."
The San Francisco Giants have advanced from disappointment to lost cause, and the New York Mets are in big trouble because of injuries, underperformance and the Washington Nationals. The Cardinals, meanwhile, have maintained contact with the division-leading Brewers in spite of themselves. They enter Sunday night's game against Pittsburgh with a 33-40 record and a run differential of minus-17. With the exception of a six-game win streak in Atlanta and Miami in early May, they've yet to show they can put together a sustained run of good baseball.
"For me, this looks like right around a .500 club," said an American League scout. "They should smash the Cincinnatis of the world, and I do think you'll see Milwaukee taper off. [The Cardinals] should more than hold their own with those teams. But I just don't see them competing with Chicago, and I think Pittsburgh is going to pick it up here soon. I see them finishing third in the long run."
The Cardinals took a hit in February when top prospect Alex Reyes ruptured his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery. All those high-leverage innings have taken a toll on Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha's 1.51 WHIP suggests he's not the same guy he was before a series of shoulder issues. But the rotation still ranks fourth in the NL in ERA (3.94) and strikeouts (387) and fifth in innings (426 ⅔), so it's the least of the Cardinals' problems.
Of bigger concern, several position players who were counted on as lineup mainstays have either regressed or failed to break out. Randal Grichuk, the prime offender, is trying to address his issues with Triple-A Memphis, and Stephen Piscotty and Aledmys Diaz are navigating the growth process as they deal with the demands of being featured players on a contender at age 26.
When manager Mike Matheny rolled out a lineup this week with Jedd Gyorko, Yadier Molina and Tommy Pham in the Nos. 4-5-6 spots, followed by Greg Garcia and rookie Paul DeJong, it had to make Cardinals fans yearn for the days of Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday as run-producing anchors. Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler, the team's top home run producers and veteran power sources, hit 1-2 in the order.
Scouts look at the Cardinals and see a questionable defensive team that's short on speed and athleticism. The Cardinals are tied for 11th in Baseball Info Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved listings at plus-17. But if you weed out the plus-18 amassed by the pitchers and Molina (who has started 60 games, leads the National League with 526 ⅔ innings caught and might be gassed by August if they're not careful), they're much further down in the pack.
Similarly, Baseball Prospectus ranks the Cardinals 23rd among the 30 MLB teams in baserunning runs, a calculation that determines the number of runs contributed by a team's advancement on the bases. New metrics notwithstanding, the days of Lou Brock and Vince Coleman are a distant memory: Pham leads the Cardinals with six stolen bases, and Molina and Grichuk are next in line with five apiece.
Mozeliak made a statement two weeks ago when he reassigned third-base coach Chris Maloney as part of a staff shakeup and designated veteran infielder Jhonny Peralta for assignment. The most noteworthy transaction Mozeliak has made thus far came on May 20, when he traded Matt Adams to Atlanta for minor league infielder Juan Yepez. Adams had been reduced to a bench role when Carpenter moved to first base and Gyorko seized the third-base job, but he has 12 home runs and a .641 slugging percentage as a Brave. He has been such a revelation that Freddie Freeman, the face of the Atlanta franchise, is taking ground balls at third base in anticipation of a potential move across the diamond in advance of his return from a fractured wrist.
"Sometimes a change of scenery for players is what they need," Mozeliak said. "Matt's killed it, but that's not to say he didn't get opportunities a year ago. Sometimes when you make decisions, you know there might be more upside in a player. But unless you can create that availability [for playing time], it's pretty tough."
As the Cardinals' uninspired play persists, Matheny remains a lightning rod among the fan base for everything from the team's fundamental missteps to his tactical decisions. Matheny is stoic by nature and approaches the job and his media interactions with a Joe Girardi-like focus and penchant for sticking to the script. While that can be maddening to fans who long for Whitey Herzog-style outbursts and blunt talk, Matheny's .560 career winning percentage is a testament to the benefits of discipline.
"I have no reason not to be optimistic," Matheny said. "We've got a group of guys who've won before. We're only a couple years away from having one of the best records in baseball. What it comes down to is all of us just doing our part a little bit better. So far, we haven't consistently done that. But we're not even halfway through the season. Any team can go on a crazy-hot run, and we have the components to do that.
"You hear the noise. That's part of my job -- to deflect whatever is coming in and take responsibility when there's responsibility to be taken. You learn from your mistakes and learn from things you can do better. But to dwell on what's being said and go out there and search for opinions? It's a waste of time, energy and effort, and it makes you no better."
As the trade deadline approaches, Mozeliak is sure to be deluged with outside opinions. But his options are relatively limited. Fowler, Mike Leake, Molina and Brett Cecil are owed almost $190 million after this season, and all have full no-trade clauses. Lance Lynn, who's eligible for free agency in November, could be a solid rental for a contender, and relievers Trevor Rosenthal and Seung-Hwan Oh would likely have appeal to the Nationals and other contenders in need of bullpen help. But Rosenthal's upper-90s velocity has yet to translate into elite performance, and Oh is 34 years old with a 1.38 WHIP and a lot of career innings.
"You're talking a lot of traffic every time the guy is pitching the ninth inning," said a scout. "It's not like he has a monster fastball or a wipeout split. You're always going to be on the edge of your seat."
In the absence of star appeal or a winning record, the Cardinals are churning out their share of feel-good stories. Pham continues to make a push for more playing time, and Gyorko's .500 slugging percentage is better than a year ago, when he busted out with 30 home runs. But like the rest of the players in the St. Louis clubhouse, they feel a mounting sense of urgency.
"We consider ourselves lucky to be where we are," Gyorko said. "We know we have to start playing better. We feel the same way [the fans] do. We're frustrated. We're not happy with where we are. They have a right to complain or say whatever they want to say. The one easy way to fix all that is to win. And that's what we're trying to do."
Thus far, dissatisfaction with the product has yet to manifest itself in apathy. The Cardinals rank second to the Dodgers among MLB clubs with an average home attendance of 43,089. But ticket sales do not reflect the mood in St. Louis, which is getting more restless by the week. The Cardinals have made the playoffs 12 times since 2000 and endured only one sub-.500 season over the past 17 years, so the fan base is unaccustomed to this sort of thing.
"St. Louis is no different than Philly, New York or Chicago," Mozeliak said. "It can be demanding. It's obviously a smaller market in regards to population. But it still has high expectations for baseball, and this has been a difficult year. Expectations were high. We made a lot of offseason investments, and a lot of finger-pointing is happening as we're trying to push patience and keep working at this. There's a voice in that crowd that wants more."
Those voices are likely to get louder and more numerous with each day of opportunity lost. July 31 is coming quickly, and the Cardinals are on the clock.