As Cardinals offense scuffles, staying patient for power remains the plan

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As Cardinals offense scuffles, staying patient for power remains the plan

OAKLAND, Calif. — St. Louis Cardinals manager Oli Marmol didn’t shy away from the assertion that his ballclub is lacking power.

Not that it would matter if he did. A few glances at the Cardinals’ recent box scores would show the obvious.

St. Louis scored three runs or fewer for the fifth straight game and 13th time this season in its 6-3 loss to the Oakland A’s on Wednesday afternoon. The early season development has bewildered Marmol and his coaching staff.

“I can’t disagree with that at all,” Marmol said after the loss dropped the Cardinals to 9-10. “That’s not how we’ve scored our runs up to this point. It hasn’t been slugging.”

The Cardinals entered play Wednesday lagging in multiple offensive categories. Their slugging percentage (.353) ranks 24th in the majors, as does their .653 OPS. They also have the second-fewest home runs (13) in the majors, ahead of only the Chicago White Sox. Seven currently rostered position players have an OPS under .630, including Paul Goldschmidt (.516), Nolan Gorman (.625) and Jordan Walker (.546) — all of whom are expected to be consistent contributors.

It’s been an alarming start for a Cardinals team that surprised many by opening the year with strong starting pitching and defense. The Cardinals’ ERA of 3.74 puts them in the upper-third of the league, as does their 0.44 errors per game. The Cardinals’ problem is clearly at the plate.

“It’s hard to continue to say it’s a matter of time, but when you’re talking to guys and they’re feeling closer and closer to where they want to get to, then you trust them, you believe them,” Marmol said. “Because over time, they’ve been right. There are a decent amount of guys that are starting to feel closer to where they want to be swing-wise and approach-wise and how they feel in the box. My answer would be that we’re getting there.”

The good news for St. Louis is that a few players have started to turn things around. Nolan Arenado is the most noticeable one. His at-bats have improved tremendously following his first home run of the year last Friday in Arizona. Arenado’s hitting streak reached seven games and he has seen his OPS tick up to .724, nearly .150 points higher than where he started the trip.

Lars Nootbaar’s return to the lineup after missing the first three weeks of the season should also help. Marmol utilized Nootbaar in the three-hole twice in three games against Oakland and plans to continue doing so against certain right-handed opponents. Nootbaar’s characteristically high on-base percentage makes him a logical choice to slot in ahead of Arenado and Willson Contreras, two of the four bats that are clicking for the Cardinals.

Masyn Winn and Iván Herrera represent the other two, a surprising development given their projected offensive profiles. Winn is hitting .347 with an .873 OPS and has taken the highest quality of at-bats by a Cardinals player this season. Herrera — who drove in two runs Wednesday — has been a close second, though it’s been difficult for Marmol to find Herrera consistent at-bats. Part of that ties into the need to utilize Herrera as the backup catcher, though Marmol has been able to finagle that against left-handed starters by using Herrera as the designated hitter.

“You definitely want that bat in the lineup,” Marmol said earlier in the series. “(Herrera) has done a really good job, he’s taking one of our best at-bats, so finding a way for him to get more of them is important.”

If Marmol decides to implement Herrera in the lineup full-time, it would come at the expense of one of the left-handed hitters in Gorman or Brendan Donovan, or Walker, a right-handed hitter batting .180 with a .246 OBP. The Cardinals would like to give Walker as much time as possible to break out of his slump. Walker has struggled against pitches down and away in the zone and has reverted to a groundball rate of over 50 percent. For Walker to be effective as a power hitter, the team believes his loft rate needs to improve, and he needs to trim down the chase on pitches extended away from him.

The other alternative to playing Herrera every day is sitting rookie Victor Scott II (whose batting average sits below .100) and starting Nootbaar in center field. However, the team has prioritized defense, and while neither Scott nor Michael Siani hit for power, they both play an elite center field. Nootbaar can play center, but he profiles much better as a corner outfielder.

This is where being without Tommy Edman has come to hurt the Cardinals. Edman, who has been out since the start of the season due to complications from an offseason wrist surgery, was cleared earlier in the week to begin his throwing program. However, it’s expected to be a slow rehab progression for both Edman and Dylan Carlson (separated shoulder) with neither expected to return to the team anytime soon.

To be one game under .500 in mid-April is by no means season-defining, but the club is aware it has whiffed on wins — figuratively and literally.

“It’s a frustrating one,” Marmol said. “You want to win that one and sleep and go home, and feel good about it going into an off day. We hit some balls hard, they got caught and overall just didn’t produce enough offense to give ourselves a shot today.”

Unfortunately for the Cardinals, that has been the theme of most of their losses this year.

(Photo of Nolan Arenado: Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)