A view of the Cardinals' middle infield, as seen from space.
5. The Middle Infield Must Impove, Somehow -- This is, in my ever so humble opinion, the single biggest issue for the Cardinals going forward. The middle infield has been a complete black hole in the first half, sucking so hard even light can't escape. Besides causing problems for photographers, this has led to significant on-field problems as well.
Brendan Ryan has been the focus of most of the angst, and rightly so, but Skip Schumaker shouldn't just get a free pass either. As bad as Ryan has been with the bat, and despite his proclivity to occasionally airmail throws over the first, he has again been one of the better defensive shortstops in the game this season. Not as transcendently brilliant as he was last year, not by a long shot (UZR still likes him but doesn't love him, +/- loves him but not as much as in 2009), but still quite good. Skip Schumaker, on the other hand, has not only been one of the worst fielders in baseball at his position last season and this one both, he's also fallen off a cliff offensively, going from a league-average hitter (OPS+ of 111, 102, and 101 from 2007-09), to one really only tolerable if he were playing well defensively at a premium position. (OPS+ of 74 this season.) Unfortunately, he's not playing well defensively at a premium position.
In fact, as awfully as Brendan Ryan has played, going by WAR (wins above replacement), Skip Schumaker has, unbelievably, been the worse player. Brendan has been worth 0.0 wins, making him exactly replacement level (which yes, is terrible), while Schumaker has actually been worth a net negative, at -0.2 wins. That's right, Skip Schumaker has actually been worse this year than a hypothetical free player you could pluck out of a random minor league system.
So how do the Cardinals fix their middle infield woes? Well, David Freese getting healthy would make a huge difference, as Felipe Lopez would then be free to slide over to second base and take the lion's share of the starts there. (Even then, Lopez's defense is brutal, so we aren't talking about a complete lack of warts with him, either.) Sadly, as much as Skip is beloved of the manager, I don't see him losing playing time any time soon no matter what happens.
Playing Tyler Greene at short instead of Brendan Ryan is an idea which needs to at least get a decent chance as well; I'm not sure Greene is going to be a huge boost for the team, but at the moment he's a significantly more intriguing option that Ryan. At the very least, Greene can occasionally flash some power at the plate, something Brendan Ryan simply isn't capable of at this point in time.
It isn't often a contending team can succeed in spite of having so many black holes on the field, and I don't think the Cardinals can win long-term with this combination of players. Yadier Molina has regressed offensively, which wouldn't be a huge deal if it weren't for the fact the Cards are also punting with two other spots in the lineup as well. On a given night for the Cards, counting the pitcher, the Cards can have anywhere between three and five near-automatic outs in the lineup. You want to know why the offense has struggled? That's why.
There's tons more that could be said, but this column is already way too long as it is, so I'm just going to leave it there. If these five things happen for the Cardinals, if they can find consistency and improvement from these areas, then I don't think it will really matter all that much how the Cincinnati Reds play. The Cardinals are a better team than the Reds, or at least they should be, and they should show it in the second half of the season.
Then again, I think we all thought they would show it sometime in the first half, too, and we see where that's gotten us...