Before the season, the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals looked, to many of us, unbeatable.
As the second half of the season begins Friday night, the Cardinals are no longer beyond question. In fact, they generate plenty of questions. But that doesn't mean that they have gone from prohibitive favorite to lost cause.
The Cards, aided by a big league slump on the part of the Brewers, made up considerable ground in recent weeks and ended the first half merely one game behind Milwaukee in the National League Central.
But the division race is more complex than that. Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, both postseason qualifiers last year, lifted their levels before the All-Star break. The Reds are now 1 1/2 games out, while the Pirates are 3 1/2 back. Neither of these clubs is likely to evaporate.
The NL Wild Card field also figures to be suitably crowded, with Los Angeles or San Francisco in the West and Atlanta or Washington in the East, along with the three of the clubs that don't win the Central. There will be no coasting into October in this company.
So the Cardinals, who at times last season towered over the NL competition, now have some legitimate questions to be answered. For example:
How will they succeed without the services of Yadier Molina for the foreseeable future?
Molina is not only the Cards' most valuable player. An argument can be made that he should win the NL MVP Award, even in what is not his peak offensive season. Molina's value as a defensive catcher -- and as a handler of pitchers, particularly young pitchers -- cannot accurately be quantified. Molina is the best in the game, and his value cannot be replicated by anybody else currently inhabiting the planet.
But there are ways that the Cardinals could compensate for his loss. What are they?
The Cards were the leading offensive club in the NL last season. This year, with personnel not vastly different from 2013, they rank 14th in the NL in runs scored. What's up?
Do not answer this question by saying: "Carlos Beltran," because he has been injured and relatively unproductive in the employ of the New York Yankees. The Cardinals still have valid reasons to expect that their lineup will be more productive in the second half of this season than it was in the first.
They received a lift when first baseman Matt Adams returned from injury with power. More recently, second baseman Kolten Wong added some punch. This remains, on paper at least, a lineup with considerable depth. While that potential remains in place, it also means that, particularly given the Molina-less circumstances, more Cards are going to have to chip in on a very regular basis.
Can Oscar Taveras turn his immense potential into big league production? How patient can St. Louis be as it tries to win now? The Cardinals won a pennant last year with young pitchers coming through as a matter of routine. Is it fair to expect the same kind of immediate return from their most heralded position player prospect?
The offense is the big variable. The Redbirds finished last season with a 3.42 team ERA, fifth in the league. At the All-Star break this season, they had a 3.42 ERA, good for sixth in the league.
Still, improvement will be required from individuals in this area as well. The work of Adam Wainwright has been beyond question. (And if you have any sense of who Wainwright is as a competitor, yes, you can get behind the concept that he was kidding when he said he intended to groove pitches to Derek Jeter in the All-Star Game.) Lance Lynn has taken some notable forward steps.
Can the Cardinals get more consistency from Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez and Joe Kelly, recently returned from injury? Again, the talent is there. Miller has already been a 15-game winner under the big tent. These are not unreasonable expectations. In any case, a relatively rapid return to action by Michael Wacha, out with a stress reaction in his right shoulder, would be exceptionally helpful.
The idea that the Cards would trade a young starter for an established starter does not necessarily stand up to a long second look. There aren't many pitchers who have more ability than the pitchers already on St. Louis' staff.
The area with the most room for improvement, one way or another, is the offense. Even with all the questions, the Cardinals still present themselves as an outfit that should provide enough answers to be a postseason team once more.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.