BERNIE BITS 

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt seems inclined to roll out a regular lineup that has Tommy Edman leading off, Paul Goldschmidt batting second, and Nolan Arenado hitting in the No. 3 spot. 

Let’s just assume that Shildty will go with this and ask the obvious question: who bats 4th, as the so-called cleanup hitter? Who bats 5th? 

The most likely prediction is that Shildt will use Paul DeJong as his No. 4 hitter. DeJong has been the manager’s frequent choice to bat fourth in recent spring-training games. And I’d be surprised if Yadier Molina didn’t bat 5th, at least early on in the season. (Not an endorsement … just explaining what I think Shildt will do.) 

Goldschmidt’s high onbase percentage and power are a good mix for the No. 2 spot. He has a career .392 OBP including a .417 rate last season. You want your best hitter to get as many plate appearances as possible, so it makes sense to bat Goldy second. He’s comfortable there, having turned in a career .941 OPS. And Goldschmidt had a .359 OBP and .800 OPS in 246 plate appearances at the No. 2 spot for the 2019 Cardinals. 

As for Arenado batting third … great. Nothing much to talk about here. He has a .928 career OPS from the No. 3 spot, but he’ll hit well in any lineup slot. If Edman can pump up his early-career .337 OBP, and Goldy does what Goldy does, then Arenado will have a large number of RBI opportunities. And that’s sweet considering Arenado’s 1.016 OPS with runners in scoring position. (Don’t start yammering about Coors Field; as a Rockie Arenado had a road .929 OPS with runners in scoring position.) 

As for cleanup, DeJong is Shildt’s likely play. But it will be interesting to see if the manager moves things around a little if Tyler O’Neill continues to pulverize pitching. (I know: it’s only spring training.) 

I’m not taking a stand here. But if you want to have fun with small samples, or even mini samples, let’s make a couple of notes: 

DeJong MLB career numbers at cleanup: Only 48 plate appearances and 44 at-bats. This is an itsy-bitsy sample that ain’t worth much. But DeJong didn’t do a lot with the tiny opportunity, batting .205 with a .271 OBP, .364 slug, and .634 OPS. Two homers. A double. And a strikeout rate of 37.5%. In his brief time as a No. 4 hitter DeJong is 27 percent below league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+.) 

O’Neill MLB career numbers at cleanup: 113 plate appearances, 107 at-bats. Small sample, but I have to say O’Neill has had more of a chance to hit 4th than I would have guessed. And he’s done better than I would have surmised: .252 average, .292 OBP, .514 slug, .806 OPS. The OBP stinks, but the power numbers are brawny. He’s done a lot of damage in a relatively low number of opportunities, bashing eight homers with four doubles and knocking in 17 runs. As a cleanup dude O’Neill has homered every 13.3 at-bats. He’s produced an extra-base hit every 8.9 at-bats. And he’s struck out 33 percent of the time. Add it all up, and he’s 12 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs when batting 4th. 

If Shildt wants to use O’Neill at a lower spot in the lineup, he could base it on TO’s strong career numbers in the No. 7 hole. But again, it’s a mere speck of a sample. What would it take to convince Shildt that O’Neill can be trusted to set up in the middle of the lineup?

Let’s get to the regular season.

That’s where the answers are. 

Just a quick hit on Molina batting fifth. From 2012 through 2017, which covered much of Molina’s peak period as a hitter, he was 13 percent above league average offensively in park-adjusted runs created as a No. 5 hitter. And he was used there a lot; 1,884 plate appearances. 

But since the start of 2018, Molina is 10% below average in park adjusted runs created in 312 plate appearances batting fifth. That’s close to Molina’s overall hitting performance (6% below average) over the past three seasons. 

Putting Goldschmidt and Arenado in the No. 2 and No. 3 spots would be really exciting if we knew — with a measure of solid confidence — that the guys hitting behind them would take advantage of it by driving in a load of runs. 

That’s to be determined. 

THE WHITE SOX: STILL LOVING LA RUSSA

Shortstop Tim Anderson wasn’t sure what to make of the Chicago White Sox decision to hire Tony La Russa, 76, after TLR’s nine-year absence from a major-league dugout. But by all indications Anderson and his teammates have embraced the Hall of Famer. At least for now, the generational divide is no problem. 

“I want everyone to know Tony is great, me and Tony is fine, I love Tony,” Anderson told the Chicago Sun-Times. “One more big announcement: Tony and the White Sox are totally fine. The vibes are great. We’re all definitely getting along. So let’s not forget what the ultimate goal is and what we’re trying to accomplish here.”

Other comments from CWS players: 

–Outfielder Adam Engel: “A really cool thing about Tony is there’s no question marks behind what he’s doing. He’s going to tell you why he’s doing it. If it seems different, he’s going to tell you why. He’s incredibly smart, incredibly wise, a ton of experience. You can just tell that nothing surprises him. He sees stuff, and it’s like he saw it coming.”

–Opening Day starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, speaking on “The Chrise Rose Rotation” podcast: “You know, when we hired him, media was going crazy: ‘He’s not going to connect with the younger guys,’ this and that. I was reading it, and I was like, ‘Where is this coming from? I get it to a certain degree, but he hadn’t even talked to a player yet. Does he get a chance or not? The first conversation was amazing. Once we got into baseball stuff, the first place he went was, “At least to my knowledge, from what everyone’s told me, you guys have a strong clubhouse. I’m going to have to earn your guys’ respect.’ ”

–General manager Rick Hahn, to the Sun-Times: “He wants to prove it was the right decision, that he’s the right guy for this team and he can play his role in getting us to the promised land. He knows there was doubt and naysayers, and he’s doing everything in his power to prove them wrong. It starts in the clubhouse and then the organization. The trust and faith seems uniform throughout the organization right now. It’s going to take a little longer. . . . In the end, we all realize we’re going to be judged on whether it yields a championship or two. In the meantime, he’s doing everything in his power day by day to get us closer to that.”

TRACKING THE NL CENTRAL… 

CUBS: Shelby Miller is doing his best to earn a bullpen job with the Cubs. Miller has impressed manager David Ross and president of baseball ops Jed Hoyer with a 1.29 ERA and eight strikeouts in 7 Cactus League innings. It’s hard to believe that the former Cardinals’ top prospect and starting pitcher is 30 years old now. He’s had quite the journey since being traded by the Cardinals to Atlanta for outfielder Jason Heyward before the 2015 season. Miller had an All-Star ‘15 season for the Braves, got traded to Arizona, and suffered a career-altering elbow injury that became a source of torment for years. 

Since the start of the 2016 season Miller has a 6.89 ERA in 189 innings for Arizona and Texas. Miller signed with Milwaukee in 2019 but opted out of his contract. The Brewers re-signed him to a minor-league deal in 2020, but he opted out of that contract too. (He never actually pitched for the Brewers.) The Cubs signed Miller in January with the promise that he’d be given a legitimate opportunity to make the big club. 

“What I’ve spent this whole offseason doing was trying to get back to, like, the old version of myself, where I had a little bit more life on my fastball,” Miller told reporters. “And I’ve developed a slider that I think is going to be a huge pitch for me this year. I’ve never really had an ‘out’ pitch that’s been offspeed.”

As for his outlook with the Cubs, Miller said: “I was gonna come in as a starter, and we signed some guys, some great arms that are obviously needed in this rotation. I wouldn’t mind that [swingman role] at all. Whatever my role is, however I can help. I’ve always kind of tried to be a guy who can adapt to any situation. I’ve started most of my career but I’ve come out of the pen. So however I can help, I’d be more than willing to do that.” 

CUBS II: It will be an interesting season in Wrigleyville. According to Gordon Wittenmyer of NBC Sports Chicago, the Cubs have at least 15— and as many as 18 — players on the projected 26-man roster that can walk after the season. (Either as free agents or if the Cubs decline to pick up their options for 2022.) The headliners of course are first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javy Báez and third baseman Kris Bryant.

With so much uncertainty the Cubs could be awfully busy at the MLB trade deadline. As Hoyer told Wittenmyer: “When you talk about the urgency of this team, and it’s been stated … we need to play well out of the gate. That doesn’t mean we have to play well the first two weeks. But when you think about the first half of the season, we need to put ourselves in position to be a buyer, to be a team that’s competing.”

REDS: The team’s closer competition is finally warming up after a slow start. Primary candidates LH Amir Garrett (foream) and RH Lucas Sims (elbow tightness) have yet to appear in a spring-training game, but both took a step forward Wednesday by throwing simulated innings against Reds hitters. Sims, 26, had a 2.45 ERA and 32% strikeout rate with a 0.94 WHIP in 20 appearances last season. Garrett, 28, has a 3.03 ERA and 33$ strikeout rate over the last two seasons but his walk rate (13.3%) could be an issue … also in the picture is former Oakland and Washington closer Sean Doolittle, 34. But the lefty tailed off considerably last season for the Nationals, posting a 5.87 ERA and a strikeout rate that plummeted to 16% … and while RH Tejay Antone is technically competing for a rotation spot, the Reds most likely will put him in the bullpen for a high-leverage role; in 35 innings last season he had a 2.80 ERA and struck out hitters at a rate of 31%. Antone could eventually emerge as the closer because of an high-90s fastball, nasty slider and improving curveball. 

BREWERS: In Nov. 2019 the Crew acquired well regarded shortstop prospect Luis Urias and LH starting pitcher Eric Lauer from San Diego in exchange for RH starter Zach Davies and outfielder Trent Grisham. 

Urias was the key to the deal from the Milwaukee standpoint, but it’s been difficult to keep him in action. The setbacks include a fracturing a hamate bone in his left hand during winter ball in Mexico before the 2020 season, being sidelined by Covid-19 for five weeks last summer, and injuring his hamstring early in this year’s camp.In 124 MLB games with the Padres and Brewers Urias, 23, has batted .226 with a .635 OPS.

With the hamstring healed, Arias has resumed challenging Orlando Arcia for the starting job at shortstop. After a decent 2020 (.734 OPS) Arcia has the advantage. But the Brewers could move the loser of the competition to third base to contend with Travis Shaw for playing time. But either way, Arias must stay healthy. He’s had only 16 at-bats this spring, batting .188. 

“Luis is kind of the guy we’re trying to find out about,” manager Craig Counsell told reporters. “Unfortunately, just because of the injuries, he hasn’t played a ton in the spring. But also we know that he’s a young player who’s still improving, and you have to be out there to get that, right? You’re not going to get that by not playing. We’ve got to get Luis out there to see that.”

PIRATES: One to watch this season is outfielder Gregory Polanco, the former top prospect who hasn’t come close to performing up to the considerable hype. He’s had only one notably good season, hitting 23 homers with a .500 slugging percentage and .839 OPS in 2018. But in 341 plate appearances since the start of the 2019 season Polanco has batted .197 with an anemic .631 OPS and 33% strikeout rate. (He played hurt in ‘19, and was hit by Covid-19 last year.) But a rejuvenated Polanco is batting .438 this spring with a 1.063 OPS, and those numbers are backed up by some of the best Statcast exit-velocity data in the Grapefruit League. And he’s highly motivated: Polanco, 29, could become a free agent after the season. The Pirates hold two option years on Polanco: $12.5 million in 2022, and $13.5 million in ‘23. That price is likely too rich for payroll-slashing Pittsburgh management. Polanco has a lot on the line in 2021. 

CARDINALS: The longtime expected baseball analyst R.J. Anderson put three Cardinals on his “Top 50 MLB Prospects” list at CBS Sports: outfielder Dylan Carlson at No. 11, developing slugger Nolan Gorman at No. 18, and LH pitcher Matthew Liberatore at No. 44. 

“Gorman’s profile can be summed up easily: boom or bust,” Anderson wrote. “He has loud, loud raw power and loud, loud swing-and-miss issues … Gorman isn’t going to contribute a ton of value on the defensive side of things, meaning everything will boil down to whether he makes enough contact to be productive. His age and track record suggests he will, but it’s too early to say for certain.” 

READING TIME, 5 MINUTES: 

As the Blues return to action tonight for the first of two straight games at San Jose, it’s imperative for the boys to get out of the gate quickly, and take an early lead. The slow starts are causing a lot of damage. The Blues are 6-1-4 when they score the game’s first goal, and 8-9-1 when the other side scores first. The Blues are 9-0-3 when leading after the first period, and 3-6-1 when trailing after the first. 

Good luck to the Mizzou Tigers in their first-round matchup with Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament. The MU program needs a tournament win; the Tigers haven’t had a victory in The Dance since 2010, having lost five in a row. Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin is 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament but all three wins came in Tennessee’s run to the Sweet 16. (The first victory was a “First Four” play-in game over Iowa, followed by wins over UMass and Mercer.) Martin and Tennessee were eliminated by Michigan in the round of 16. He went 0-1 in the NCAA Tournament while coach at Cal, and lost to Florida State in Mizzou’s first-round NCAA game in 2018. 

KenPom gives Gonzaga a 34.4% chance to win the NCAA championship, followed by Illinois (10.7%), Michigan (10.4%), Baylor (8.2%) and Houston (7.4%.) 

Here’s a nugget that may prepare you for some early exits by notable contenders. Since 1993, every NCAA Tournament champion had something in common: all had reached the semifinals of their respective conference tournaments. Not all of them won their conference tourneys; just making it to the semifinals was good enough. But no team that had gotten bounced before the conference semifinals has won the NCAA championship since ‘93. So this time around, beware of No. 3 seed West Virginia (Midwest), No. 4 seed Purdue (South) and No. 5 seed Villanova (South.) Each got knocked out in the quarterfinals of their conference tournaments.  The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the West (Kansas and Virginia) had to withdraw from their conference tournaments before the semifinals because of the coronavirus. 

Here’s my friend Joe Sheehan, the baseball analyst, with an assessment of the St. Louis lineup: “I proffered a lineup this winter with Paul Goldschmidt second, Nolan Arenado fourth, and Dylan Carlson wedged between them. Mike Shildt is halfway there, with Goldschmidt batting second quite a bit and Arenado right behind him. As long as Goldschmidt bats ahead of Arenado, and preferably second, the lineup makes sense. At a time when many teams are still messing around, Shildt has used a starting outfield of Carlson in right, Tyler O’Neill in left and Harrison Bader in center in four straight games and six of seven (through Wednesday.) The Dexter Fowler trade cleared the way for this group to play, and at least for now, they’re all playing.” 

Our Town’s Bradley Beal scored 43 on Thursday night to lead Washington over Utah 131-122 in an upset win that ended the Wizard’s five-game losing streak. It was Beal’s fifth 40+ scoring binge this season, but at least his team won this time. Until now the Wizards had gone 0-11 when Beal scored 40 or more in a game. Beal had 30 in the second half against the Jazz. He leads the NBA with an average of 32.5 points per game. 

From FiveThirtyEight.com: Since KenPom started charting adjusted efficiency stats in the 2001-02 season, only four out of 72 Final Four teams have posted a regular-season defensive efficiency ranking worse than 50. Using that as a guide, the most vulnerable Tournament teams among the top 20 seeds are West Virginia, Ohio State, Villanova and Oregon. And Iowa, which ranks 50th in adjusted defensive efficiency, is right on the line. 

Speaking of Dexter Fowler, let’s check in on him. The former Cardinal is 3 for 20 with seven strikeouts for the Angeles in Cactus League action. He’s been taking extra batting practice and playing in “B” games to work on shortening his swing. There’s some media talk about Juan Lagares displacing Fowler in right field, but manager Joe Maddon tamped down on that … somewhat. “Right now, the game plan is Dex will be out there,” Maddon said. “I like Lagares a lot. I think he’s going to be quite a find for us. But Dexter is here for a reason,” … by the way: former Cardinal center fielder Jon Jay, 36, is trying to win a roster spot with the Angels this spring. But he’s off to a rough start (2 for 22, with 8 strikeouts.) 

Blues defenseman Justin Faulk, who had 5 goals in his first 14 games, hasn’t scored in his last 15. Faulk has five assists and is a minus 5 since Feb. 13 … In his last 19 games Blues defenseman Vince Dunn has no goals and four assists and is a minus 8. 

In an interview with The Athletic, Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz was asked what surprised him during his first season in CoMo. “I would say it’s the fever-pitch energy that Mizzou football has, and it’s just got to be tapped into,” Drinkwitz said. “I think we’re beginning to see the passion of the state fan base and what we can do if we all rally together, Kansas City, St. Louis and rural Missouri. If we all push in the same direction, my belief is that we can contend in the SEC East, but we all have to be in sync. I think it’s a little bit more surprising that we’re closer than I thought.” 

Thanks for reading and I hope you have a wonderful weekend. 

–Bernie 

Please check out Bernie’s sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen live online and download the Bernie Show podcast at 590thefan.com  … the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.