ST. LOUIS -- After almost four long months without games due to the coronavirus pandemic, Opening Day is nearly upon us. The Cardinals begin the regular season on Friday at Busch Stadium against the Pirates, and from there it’s a 60-game sprint to the finish.
The Cardinals are the reigning National League Central champions, and they have returned most of that roster with hopes of repeating as division champs and expectations of going further in the postseason than their NL Championship Series loss last year. And if they do, manager Mike Shildt believes it would be even more significant in this unique season.
“People say 60 games and you win the whole thing -- doesn’t it need to have an asterisk?” Shildt said before Summer Camp started. “I don’t follow suit with that. Everybody is playing under the same rules, and everybody is competing at the highest level. You could even say that it would be more satisfying based on this [season].”
What needs to go right?
Put simply, the offense. All offseason, the Cardinals touted internal improvement -- as well as breakouts from young players -- as the answer to an offense that was inconsistent in 2019. The offense ranked below average in almost every category, and no playoff team struggled to produce runs like St. Louis. Then the Cards let their cleanup hitter, Marcell Ozuna, go in free agency and didn’t add a bat to the lineup. Veteran bats need to return to form for the offense to improve. Young bats need to provide a spark. Significant contributions from new leadoff hitter Kolten Wong and cleanup hitter Paul DeJong can help. The Cardinals’ pitching staff is as deep as any in the NL Central, but the offense must back it up.
Big question: Will Matt Carpenter rebound?
Carpenter’s revival will be key to improving the offense. After a top-10 NL MVP Award finish in 2018, Carpenter had career lows in batting average (.226), on-base percentage (.334) and OPS (.726) last season. He searched for his swing in the offseason knowing he needed to fix something.
Carpenter’s spring and summer production has been encouraging. He has his “identity” back, as Shildt says, or his “DNA,” as Carpenter calls it. Whatever term you use, it seems like Carpenter has found his swing again. That’s going to be big heading into the season, as the Cardinals give him time as the designated hitter and move him around the lineup to position him to get on base or drive in runs.
Prospect to watch: Dylan Carlson
Carlson impressed in both Spring Training and Summer Camp. There’s not much the team’s No. 1 prospect hasn’t shown. He makes contact, he gets on base, he plays great defense in all three outfield spots and he runs the bases well. But the switch-hitting 21-year-old will likely not make the Opening Day roster because the Cardinals want to see what the outfielders ahead of him on the depth chart can do. Left field is Tyler O’Neill’s to win. Lane Thomas will see more playing time at all three spots. Harrison Bader is the incumbent in center field, and Dexter Fowler is the incumbent in right. All of them will need to produce, and if they don’t, Carlson is there for a potential rookie jolt.
Keep in mind, too: A year’s worth of service time in 2020 will be 61 days on the roster during this 60-game, 66-day season. Keeping Carlson on the taxi squad or at the alternate training site in Springfield, Mo., for as little as six days potentially means another year under team control.
On the schedule
With the NL Central as tight as it seems this year, teams will be looking for every edge. The Cardinals play at Wrigley Field for two series (seven games) while only hosting the Cubs once. St. Louis also ends the season with a 17-game stretch without an off-day and hosts the Brewers for the final series of the regular season. Remember, roster sizes decrease this year, as teams start with 30 for two weeks, then down to 28 for two weeks, then down to 26 for the rest of the season.
The Cards are also the visiting team in the Field of Dreams game against the White Sox in Dyersville, Iowa on Aug. 13. The White Sox were supposed to host the Yankees until the shortened season rearranged the schedules by region to limit travel. But the ballpark was built, so teams will come.
Team MVP will be: Paul Goldschmidt
The All-Star first baseman hit 34 homers and slugged .476 in his first year as a Cardinal. The outlier last season was his batting average; he dipped to .260 with 166 strikeouts and an OPS under .900 for the first time since 2012. He and the Cardinals expect an uptick this year, and his consistency is a key to the offense improving. Having now settled into Busch Stadium entering his second year, Goldschmidt should be a more productive player with more chances for RBIs hitting third in the lineup. He also was an important part of a defense that went from making the most errors in baseball to the fewest last season, and they will be relying on his glove again.
Team Cy Young will be: Jack Flaherty
This comes as no surprise to anyone who watched Flaherty dominate the second half of 2019, pitching all the way to a fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting. He made 15 starts and allowed just 11 runs (10 earned), and his 0.91 ERA was the third lowest in the second half of the season in baseball history. The young ace is the Cardinals’ Opening Day starter, and he is looking to continue the momentum he found after the All-Star break. There is no doubt he is the best arm on the staff and one of the best in baseball.
Bold prediction: Flaherty will win the NL Cy Young Award
With only 60 games, there’s more of a chance of Flaherty coming close to his historic second half than there would be in a typical year. After emerging as the ace and a rising star on and off the field, Flaherty will continue his success and become the club’s third NL Cy Young Award winner (Chris Carpenter and Bob Gibson, who won it twice). Flaherty winning the NL Cy Young Award would mean the 24-year-old would have beaten out established aces like Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and two-time reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.