Going into the 2021 season, as I tried to handicap a Milwaukee vs. St. Louis race in the NL Central, this how I framed it:

Offense, edge to Milwaukee: My read was that the Brewers had more overall certainty than the Cardinals. Unlike 2020, outfielders Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain would be healthy and on top of their game, infielder Keston Hiura would return to 2019 form and put up big numbers, and free-agent acquisition Kolten Wong, the new second baseman, would thrive in the Brewers’ cozy, hitter-happy home ballyard. Plus, the Crew signed outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. in a move for quality depth — some Lorenzo Cain insurance. Sure, the Cardinals had proven, above-average bats in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. But after that? Many questions including an experienced outfield and an aging catcher. And what about Tommy Edman? Would his overall offense bounce back after flattening out in 2020? 

Starting pitching, edge to Milwaukee: With good reason, I believed Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff are just an an excellent 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation, and the Brewers had assembled fine depth behind them. No. 3 and No. 4 starters Adrian Houser and Freddy Peralta were better than perceived. The Cardinals had Jack Flaherty, trying to rebound from a truncated 2020. They had Adam Wainwright, age 39 and being asked to throw a lot of innings in 2021 after the short-schedule ‘20 season. The Cards had injuries to starters Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas and K.K. Kim. And then there was the wild card, Carlos Martinez. The depth was OK, but nothing extraordinary.

Relief Pitching, edge to Milwaukee: The Cardinals absolutely have assets in the bullpen. It’s a strength. But there were questions about the left-handed relief, RH Jordan Hicks (returning from elbow surgery) and the viability of multiple closer candidates. And would the Cardinals have to turn to designated bullpen arms to fill spots in the rotation? With the Brewers all you have to say is Josh Hader and Devin Williams and go from there. Nasty-as-hell bullpen there in Milwaukee. And manager Craig Counsell is a master at running a bullpen. Way ahead of any manager in the division. Hader as closer is hard to top.

Defense, slight edge to STL but not by much: No need to rehash all of the details, but both teams play well in the field. And while it’s true that Wong won back-to-back Gold Gloves at second base for the Cardinals in 2019 and 2020, I had confidence in Edman to play elite defense at second base. Why? Because I broke down the numbers in a column here on Scoops, and Edman had an exceptional profile defensively. The Cardinals would have a strong infield defense; the Crew can’t match the corner defense provided by Goldy and Nado. The Brewers had the check mark for outfield defense. Yadier Molina is still effective behind the plate, but the Brewers’ catchers are underrated. Omar Narvaez showed huge improvement defensively last year, and that’s carried over to 2021.

Baserunning, about the same: Perhaps a slight edge to the Brewers but the Cardinals are much better at this than many realize — including much of the fan base.

The preseason overview: Honestly, I didn’t see much of a gap between the two teams. The race would be close. And there was no reason to write off or otherwise downgrade the Cincinnati Reds or Chicago Cubs, either. But I picked the Brewers to win the division, followed by St. Louis?

OK, now that we’re into the second month of the season, how’s it looking?

Considering the lengthening list of problems in Milwaukee, I’d say the Cardinals have an enhanced opportunity of winning the division.

Reasons:

1–Yelich can’t shake off a lower-back strain. He returned from the IL for one game, had two hits at Philadelphia on Monday, then went back on the IL with the same malady. His numbers were off in 2020. He’s played in only 10 games this season — with only the one start since leaving a Sunday afternoon game in St. Louis on April 11. In 2018 and ‘19, Yelich batted .327 with a .631 slugging percentage, 80 homers and 1.046 OPS. He won the league MVP in 2018 and was second in the voting in 2019. Since the start of last season Yelich has a .423 slug and .795 OPS. Not the same guy. And the back problem is worrisome for Yelich and the Brewers.

“I think it goes to finding more answers and trying to get a better hold on what we’ve got going on, stop it from happening and get back out there healthy,” Yelich told reporters Tuesday via video conference. “I’m not where I need to be to go out there on an everyday basis. I wasn’t where I needed to be yesterday. It just wasn’t good. I was able to make it through the game but being able to stack them on top of each other, just health-wise and be able to play at a certain level, just wasn’t there. That’s pretty much back to where we are.”

Later he added: “It’s tightness, pain, restriction, just really not being able to have the same mobility. Back stuff kind of controls your entire body. Anybody that’s ever dealt with anything back-wise, not only baseball but day-to-day life, it makes things difficult, let alone playing a baseball game.”

2–Keston Hiura was demoted to the minors. After a booming rookie season in ‘19, Hirua leveled off dramatically last season. Free-falling with a .196 average, .655 OPS and 36% strikeout rate, Hiura on Monday was sent to Milwaukee’s Triple A affiliate to regroup. It isn’t just the offense. Defensively Hiura was a poor second baseman in his first two seasons, and the experiment of using him at first base this year was an early disaster.

3–Compare the corner infield spots: the Cardinals have Goldschmidt at first base and Arenado at third. The Brewers have Daniel Vogelbach at first, and Travis Shaw at third. Goldschmidt is off to a chilly start, and Arenado has resumed pounding pitches (.496 slug.) These guys will only become more formidable offensively as the season goes on. And they’ve won 10 Gold Gloves between them (Nado with eight.) And though Shaw has done a good job of driving in runs so far this season, he’s still trying to reestablish his career after a collapse that included time in the minors. Put it this way: if the Cardinals have anything less than a massive advantage over the Brewers at the corner infield spots, it will be a disappointing season for the Redbirds.

4–The Cardinals’ young outfielders are producing more offense than the Milwaukee outfielders.The injuries to Yelich and Cain (quad) and Bradley Jr.’s early struggles are a major factor in the Brewers’ .219 team batting average which ranks last in the Offensively the Cardinals average more runs per game, slug at a higher rate, and are 13 percent better than Milwaukee in park-adjusted runs created. As for the outfield: Cain is back and should help as long as he can stay healthy. But the St. Louis outfield has collectively accrued a .739 OPS — 64 points higher than Milwaukee’s outfield OPS. While I’m on the subject, the STL outfield ranks 5th among all MLB outfielders in slugging, is tied for 5th in homers (14), is 6th with 44 RBIs, and ranks 8th in OPS.

5–Injuries have cut into Milwaukee’s starting pitching. Burnes is on the Covid-19 list, and the Brewers decline to discuss a timetable for his return. The uncertainty is troublesome. The Crew also lost No. 5 starter Brett Anderson, and No. 6 starter Josh Lindblom. They’ll be back, but the rotation has tailed off. The Cardinals are getting terrific performances from just about every rotation member and are trending up. Since April 18 the Cardinals lead MLB with a rotation ERA of 2.31 (15 games.) Over the same period of time, the Brewer rotation ranks 16th with a 4.46 ERA.

6–The St. Louis bullpen has been more effective: The Cards’ relievers have a 3.83 ERA (13th in the MLB) compared to the 4.20 ERA (17th) from Milwaukee’s bullpen. And when I look at bullpens I go to WPA, which stands for Win Probability added. So far the Cardinals are 8th in the majors with a bullpen WPA of 1.25; the Brewers are 11th with a WPA of 0.67. I don’t know if this trend will hold, but the Cardinals are matching up nicely in the bullpen arms race. Alex Reyes appears to to be a hammer at closer. The latest Hicks setback (elbow inflammation) could change the outlook. Lefty Genesis Cabrera has outstanding stuff and a high ceiling but must be consistent.

There will be many new developments, surprises, and injuries along the way. This script figures to flip several times over. And keep a wary eye on the Reds and Cubs. Beware the Pittsburgh Pirates as a potential spoiler. Not that the Pirates can win the division, but they’re capable of influencing the outcome. Brace for a long season and plenty of drama. But Milwaukee currently has more things to worry about than St. Louis. That said, the division-leading Cards lead the Brewers by a half-game going into Tuesday’s schedule. There isn’t much separation right now. And that’s unlikely to change.

Thanks for reading

–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.