The 2021 MLB season opens Thursday, with the Cardinals getting this adventure going at Cincinnati. Let the funfair begin.
How much fun will the Cardinals and their fans have in 2021? Busch Stadium will be open, and that’s something to smile about. The realities of Covid-19 require caution, and the crowd size will be limited for a time. But as the many blessings of normalcy return, we’ll reach full capacity later in the season.
What can we expect from the Cardinals this season?
It is a team with hope, a team with holes. It is a team with strengths, weaknesses and much uncertainty.
It is a team that made a stunning offseason trade for Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado … then stunningly declined to build on that massive acquisition by upgrading other areas of the roster.
The late Hall of Fame Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda summed it all up. Those preseason gray areas will eventually crystallize, and clarity will determine your team’s fate.
“No matter how good you are, you’re going to lose one-third of your games,” Lasorda said. “No matter how bad you are you’re going to win one-third of your games. It’s the other third that makes the difference.”
The Cardinals have the benefit of competing in the NL Central, a district crammed with average teams. Four have a chance to finish first — Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Reds. But all four are vulnerable and could crack. The fifth team, the Pirates, are in a race to 100 losses.
Here’s my starting-point outline for the 2021 Cardinals. The contours can change, multiple times, over the course of 162 games. But that’s the point, right? The uncertainties. And not knowing how they’ll make or break a team.
TOP 3 REASONS TO FEEL CONFIDENCE
1–The bullpen should be savage. The Cardinals have high-velocity relievers that can strikethrough those late-inning matchups. They have sorcerers that use guile to befuddle hitters. They have arms. Many arms. I don’t recall the Cardinals having a bullpen with this much firepower, strikeout stuff, and versatility.
2–The defense. The Cards defense already was on the short-list of the best in baseball before adding Arenado, the winner of eight Gold Gloves. The Cardinals rank third in defensive runs saved since the start of the 2019 season. The Cardinals didn’t retain second baseman Kolten Wong, who toted his two Gold Gloves to the division-rival Brewers. But Tommy Edman is an above-average second baseman, and the outfield is young and athletic. Oh, and there’s that Yadier Molina fellow behind the plate.
Since the start of the 2018 season the Cardinals rank 5th in the majors, and 2nd in the NL, at preventing runs. Their pitchers have allowed the fewest number of home runs, and the lowest slugging percentage by opponents. Most components remain in place including Molina, the mastermind pitch-caller. Manager Mike Shildt has emphasized defense because he understands the value of limiting runs; even with a drab offense the Cardinals made the playoffs in 2019 and ‘20.
3–Paul Goldschmidt and Arenado are patrolling the corners. They’ve combined for 11 Gold Gloves, 11 All-Star games, and eight Silver Sluggers. Each man has received MVP votes in five seasons. That’s a strong foundation. Is it enough? Probably not. But if the front office wanted to establish some building blocks, you can find them at the corners. It’s up to the front office to complete the construction.
Worth mentioning: The Dodgers, Padres, Braves and Mets play in other divisions.
TOP 3 REASONS FOR CONCERN
1–The offense. Sigh. Here we go again. It’s essential for the Cardinals to recharge in 2021. Since the start of the 2019 season they rank 20th in MLB in runs per game, 23rd in OPS, 25th in homers, 26th in slugging, and 29th in doubles. Arenado will enhance the lineup but the Cardinals’ lineup is lacking in top-to-bottom potency.
For the Cardinals to end the inertia, the holdovers must do more in 2021. Of the seven current St. Louis hitters who logged at least 100 plate appearances during 2019-2020 combined, only two performed above league average offensively: Goldschmidt (122 OPS+) and Edman (107.)
The other five were below average: Paul DeJong, Molina, Matt Carpenter, Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill. DeJong was slightly below average over the two years; the other five were 11 percent below average or worse.
(Note: Dylan Carlson wasn’t on the team in 2019; he was promoted to the big club in 2020 and probably deserves a pass. Unlike the others, Carlson had no prior MLB experience. But his OPS+ of 67 was significantly under the 100 league average.)
“Deadwood” was an awesome TV show on HBO.
Too much deadwood is horrendous for your lineup.
2–Starting pitching. It’s sketchy. Over the past two seasons Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright combined to make 83 starts. The four other starters in the early-season mix — Carlos Martinez, K.K. Kim, John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon — have combined for 28 MLB starts over the past two seasons.
Dakota Hudson (elbow) won’t pitch this season.
The viability of Miles Mikolas is an open question as he deals with shoulder soreness after missing last season to rehab from forearm surgery. If Mikolas can restore his pitching health and sharpness, his presence would be a big plus. But I don’t know what to expect. After a fantastic 2018 season, Mikolas was a league-average starter in 2019.
Kim (back stiffness) opens the season on the Injured List; as of now his condition is just a mild concern. Martinez is mercurial. Gant and Ponce de Leon have high walk rates that lead to short starts.
Nothing but praise for Waino, who pitched brilliantly in his 10 starts during the shortened 2020 season. But now it’s back to the usual 30-start grind in 2021, and he’s approaching 40 years old.
Jack Flaherty had a strange and uneven 2020 season, with a 4.90 ERA in nine starts. Jack’s 5.40 ERA this spring is likely irrelevant, but we’re waiting to see the 2019 version of Jack again.
The Cardinals have depth, yes. But is their quality depth? Should the rotation be diminished by injuries or inadequate performance, Jake Woodford and Johan Oviedo are potential remedies. Woodford had a sensational camp and was rewarded with a spot on the Cards’ opening 26-man roster. Oviedo is an exciting young talent.
The FanGraphs depth charts rank the Cardinals’ rotation 14th in the majors and third in the NL Central behind the Reds (6th) and Brewers (9th.)
The percentage of innings covered by the bullpen has increased each year under Shildt. The Cardinals figure to be even more aggressive with the bullpen in ‘21, and that puts less of a burden on the starters. At worst, this rotation should be competitive and keep the Cardinals in position to win a game until Shildt turns it over to his relievers. At best, Flaherty resumes his dominance, Wainwright holds up, Mikolas heals up and Martinez comes up with something close to his 2015-17 seasons.
3–The Outfield: I know I’ve already addressed the offense, and the outfield is a big part of that. But this group warrants separate scrutiny. The Cardinals have cycled through a long line of outfielders in recent years: Tommy Pham, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez and part-timer Yairo Munoz. And they’ve tried just about everything; remember when first baseman Matt Adams was towed to left field?
Not to channel Joe Maddon … but his “You go, we go” characterization of leadoff-man Fowler during the Cubs’ 2016 World Series-winning season applies here.
If this outfield group fails to launch, the overall St. Louis offense is doomed to another season of mediocrity in 2021. But if some combination of Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Harrison Bader, Justin Williams, Austin Dean and Lane Thomas can stir things up and kindle the offense, the state of the lineup will rise.
That’s a big ask, but president of baseball ops John Mozeliak and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. believe in these guys, and cleared the runway to provide the room to play. This audacious gamble will shape the destiny of the STL offense in 2021.
With Bader missing, the Cardinals will begin the season with one of the most experienced outfields I’ve seen. Assuming that Thursday’s matchup against Cincinnati RH Luis Castillo will have O’Neill in left, Carlson in center and Williams in right, the three outfielders have a combined 576 MLB plate appearances. And O’Neill, with 450 PA, is the veteran of the group.
Let’s be honest here; there isn’t much behind them — though Dean will get his chances to make an impression and prove he can hit big-league pitching. It didn’t go so well for him at Miami; in 311 PA with the Marlins, Dean slugged a poor .388 and mustered a .664 OPS.
Much of this comes down to the performances of O’Neill and Carlson; they have the most potential to deliver true impact. We may be expecting too much from Carlson, only because he’s inexperienced at the big-league level. As for O’Neill, we may be falling for another buildup and letdown. But if both guys get rolling? Good times ahead.
FIVE QUESTIONS FOR 2021
1–Will the front office enter the supermarket at the MLB trade deadline? The Cardinals haven’t participated in trade-deadline frenzies in recent years. Not in a way that truly bolsters a weakness and improves the team in the here and now. Will that change in 2021?
2–Will the bench be effective? I don’t know. If Carpenter’s bat remains in a decomposed state, manager Mike Shildt won’t have many options. If the Cardinals switch to a 14-man pitching staff, they’ll have go from five to four bench pieces. Carpenter figures to be the only LH bench bat unless Justin Williams isn’t starting in a game. I’m glad that John Nogowski is getting a shot, but how often will he play a corner outfield spot? The others: Edmundo Sosa (INF), Austin Dean (OF) and a backup catcher (Andrew Knizner.) But if you’re looking for Scott Spiezio (2006) or Allen Craig (2011) you won’t find it on the St. Louis bench this season.
Related: Lane Thomas didn’t make the 26-man roster, with the Cardinals choosing Dean and Nogowski instead. Interesting. Thomas was placed on the taxi squad but with Bader on the IL, and Carlson taking over in center, there isn’t a natural center fielder to serve as backup. After a bad spring, the overly hyped Thomas needs at-bats. Somewhere. I don’t believe the Cardinals are writing Thomas off. But when Thomas resurfaces with the big club, he needs to make something happen.
3–Can Shildt get anything out of Carpenter? To have a chance to get on track (if possible), Carpenter needs at-bats. But how many at-bats, especially at the expense of more capable hitters. This won’t be easy to navigate. Unless, of course, Carpenter can justify a more significant role. I’m pulling for Carpenter to defy the decline phase and low expectations, but when is the expiration date?
4–How committed is Shildt to batting Paul DeJong cleanup? DeJong has a lackluster RBI percentage during his career. (That’s the overall percentage of runners on base that a hitter drives in over the course of a season.) If DeJong produces, there’s nothing to fuss about. But if DeJong strands too many runners will Shildt and go in a different direction? It would be a simple fix: Dylan Carlson as the No. 2 hitter followed by Goldschmidt and Arenado.
5–Can Carlos Martinez find his 2015-2017 form? Go ahead and snicker, but I’m optimistic. Martinez has a lot on the line this season, including his next contract and his future as a starting pitcher for this or any other organization. A thriving Martinez would significantly upgrade this rotation.
Thanks for reading …
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