Happy Opening Day, boys and girls!
In a few hours the Cardinals and Reds will inaugurate a new season of ball, and I’m a little fidgety in anticipation of the first pitch. I think the only remedy is to take another spin around the National League Central.
First, a John Mozeliak mood check.
On my 590 KFNS radio show, I asked the Cardinals president of baseball ops to elaborate on why he’s confident in his team as ‘21 gets underway.
“We have a very unique balance on this roster,” he said. “When you think about sort of the veteran leadership, starting with Yadi and and Waino, and then of course you know having two elite players at the corners with Goldy and Nolan.
“And then sort of this emerging talent that’s that we’re anticipating contributing to the success of this team — whether that’s your Alex Reyes or Genesis Cabrera and how they’re being used, or your Tyler O’Neills, your Harrison Baders, and your Justin Williams.’ And obviously even guys like a Paul DeJong is someone that from an identity standpoint is still coming out, and still being defined.
“But when you look at our team, it doesn’t seem like there’s major glaring holes. It’s really about, will we gel, will we come together. When people always ask me that question in terms of like ‘What do you think of your team, how’s it going to be’ of course I’m going to be optimistic because this is what we do for a living and, you know, we like what we built.
“But the reason you play the season is because it’s fun to watch. And (as to) what we’re going to look like and how we’re going to be, your DNA evolves over a season in time. And I think that this club is going to be one that should be strong from day one. But, look, there’s an ebb and flow in a year, seasons are long and no one should make knee-jerk reactions.
“The reason you’re a baseball fan is because you love the journey. And it’s not just about some moment in time in April, because what you look like and how you’re going to finish is probably the most important.”
NL CENTRAL STORY LINES
1–The Offense Returns. Well, at least I think so. But looking back at 2020, it’s still rather astonishing to realize just how bad the five teams were at swinging bats and generating offense.
The Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds and Pirates combined to hit .221 with a .310 OBP and .381 slugging percentage. The overall major-league OPS was .740 last season — but only .691 combined in the NL Central, with the best being the Reds’ .715.
The Cubs finished 10th among the 15 NL teams in average runs per game. If you think that’s inferior, consider this: the four lowest-scoring teams in the league resided in the NL Central. In order: Cards, Brewers, Reds and Pirates. Collectively NL Central teams averaged only 4.0 runs per game. No NL team outside the division scored fewer than 4.38 runs per game.
Last season 32 NL Central hitters had at least 150 plate appearances. And 15 of the 32 had a below-average OPS … 16 slugged under .400 … 20 batted less than .240 … 17 had a strikeout rate of 25% or higher … 18 of the 32 were below the league average in park-adjusted runs created (wRC+)
And all of that slumping and skidding occurred with a DH in the lineup.
Brewers outfielder Christian Yelich called it.
As teams reconvened following a four-month Covid-19 shutdown, Yelich offered an accurate prediction to Milwaukee reporters: hitters would struggle to adapt to a 60-game sprint.
“You’re going to see really good players have really bad years,” Yelich said at the time. “It’s going to happen. You don’t have that large sample size for everything to even out, so if you get off to a tough start or a bad start, you’re really behind the 8-ball.”
Yelich fulfilled his own prediction, getting one hit in his first 27 at-bats of the season, and finishing with a .205 batting average and 31% strikeout rate.
The list of notable NL Central hitters that experienced noticeable downswings in 2020 includes Kris Bryant, Javvy Baez, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell, Keston Hiura, Bryan Reynolds Paul DeJong, Gregory Polanco, Justin Smoak and Avisail Garcia. Others — such as Cincinnati’s Eugenio Suarez, Nicholas Castellanos and Joey Votto — were decent enough but didn’t hit up to their usual standards.
2–The Dreaded Innings Load, and the impact on pitching staffs. Every NL pitching staff will do their best to cover between 1,400 and 1,500 innings this season. That isn’t easy to do in a so-called normal season, but metaphorically climbing to the top of the mound will be more difficult in 2021. Organizations are concerned about the endurance factor, and how pitchers will respond after the low innings count in ‘20. As the normal162-game grind resumes in ‘21, the workloads are more strenuous. Starters will be asked to stretch out. Relievers will be asked to handle a higher percentage of innings. Younger pitchers with little or no MLB experience will jump in without the benefit of minor-league season in 2020.
In what should be a tight NL Central race, pitching depth is obviously an essential factor. In this context, the Cardinals are in good shape. Yes, they’ll open the new season with two starters on the Injured List (Miles Mikolas, K.K. Kim.) Yes, but that actually underlines an important point: the Cardinals had no stress in filling the voids by slotting John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon into the rotation. Though both tend to walk too many batters, Gant and “Ponce” have talent and experience. Even without having to replace injured pitchers more than a few MLB teams would be happy to have Gant and Ponce in the back end of their rotations.
And the Cardinals have other talented young starters waiting in line that seem to be maturing quickly: Johan Oviedo, Zack Thompson, Matthew Liberatore, Angel Rondon and Jake Woodford, their current long reliever on the 26-man roster.
The Cardinals already have a deep bullpen. And when Kim and Mikolas return, Gant and Ponce de Leon will be repurposed as relievers. I’ve come around on the idea of the Cardinals having an advantage with their overall pitching depth. I took a long look at the depth of the other NL Central teams — specifically their capability of having legit pitchers that are ready to help the big club as starters or relievers in case of emergencies and shortages.
I’m not saying that the Cardinals have a huge advantage over the Brewers, Cubs and Reds in this regard. The Brewers, for example, can absolutely can fill some rotation holes if necessary. But the Cards do have an advantage because they have more options. Especially with starters that are MLB-ready or close to it. Milwaukee is getting much better at this, and the Reds are sneaky-good because of the outstanding work being done by pitching coach Derek Johnson. But the Cardinals have demonstrated an impressive touch in developing pitching for many years now, and that hasn’t changed.
3–A Season Of Comebacks: Returning from injuries. Returning from Covid-19 aftershocks. Rebounding from down seasons. The division is loaded with guys that can be healthier, better and stronger in 2021. Guys that can make a difference in shaping the NL Central race.
It isn’t just the hitters; led by Cardinals Opening Day starter Jack Flaherty, a few prominent pitchers are aiming higher after a disappointing 2020. The Cubs have two that qualify, starting pitchers Jake Arrieta and Trevor Williams. They signed one-year deals after a couple of tough seasons, hoping to reestablish their careers.
Other Comeback Candidates to watch in the division:
Chicago: 3B Kris Bryant, SS Javvy Baez, closer Craig Kimbrell, starters Trevor Williams and Jake Arrieta.
Cincinnati: 1B Joey Votto, SS Eugenio Suarez, OF Nicholas Castellanos, CF Nick Senzel, OF Shogo Akiyama.
Milwaukee: LF ChristianYelich, CF Lorenzo Cain, 1B Kelson Hiura, 3B Travis Shaw and RF Avisail Garcia.
St. Louis: Flaherty, No. 3 starter Carlos Martinez, starter Miles Mikolas (maybe?), reliever Jordan Hicks, SS Paul DeJong and OF Tyler O’Neill.
Pittsburgh: RF Gregory Polanco, SS Kevin Newman and OF Bryan Reynolds.
4–The Rookies Will Rock: Pirates 3B Ke’Bryan Hayes is so talented, so exciting. He will give sad Pirates fans a reason to smile and cheer. The Cardinals can point to CF Dylan Carlson and (hopefully) RF Justin Williams. After his sensational spring, the Reds made room at 2B for the highly skilled Jonathan India, the 5th overall pick in the 2018 draft. (The Reds also have a reliever, Tejay Antone, who technically isn’t a rookie. But he’s got wipeout stuff.) The Cubs may have to lean on starting pitcher Adbert Alzolay.
5–Welcome To The Newcomers: How will they influence the postseason chances of NL Central hopefuls?
* None are more prominent than 3B Nolan Arenado, who happily joined the Cardinals in a trade from Colorado.
* The Brewers doubled down in their mission to field an elite defense by signing two free-agents who own Gold Glove trophies: 2B Kolten Wong, and outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
* The Cubs added danger and a walloping LH bat to the lineup by signing outfielder Joc Pederson to a one-year deal. Arrieta isn’t new to the Cubs, but he returns to their revised rotation after three unsatisfying seasons in Philadelphia. The Cubs added another rotation piece in Zach Davies, who came over from San Diego in the infamous Yu Darvish trade.
* To stabilize their bullpen the Reds signed RH reliever Cam Bedrosian, who pitched well in Anaheim, and LH reliever Sean Doolittle. Doolittle will try to find his form after a bruising 2020 in Washington. He’s a two-time All-Star with 20 career postseason appearances for Oakland and Washington.
5a. The Last Waltz In Wrigley? This is the most intriguing storyline of all: the fate of the Cubs as we know them. This could be the final year of the dynasty that never happened, despite the Cubs’ outstanding run of success since 2015. At the start of the season the team’s large payroll contains more than a dozen players who can be free agents after the season including Bryant, Baez and Rizzo. The MLB trade deadline will likely reveal the Cubs’ future direction.
It’s a great day today. Hello baseball!
Stay safe, enjoy the season, and thank you for reading…
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.