Why road to playoffs could be tougher for Cards in '23

February 3rd, 2023

This story was excerpted from John Denton’s Cardinals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The impact that Major League Baseball’s balanced schedule could have on the Cardinals in 2023 might be evident as soon as Opening Day.

Last season, St. Louis had the good fortune of starting with a three-game home set against the Pirates, a team the Cards went 13-6 against while winning five of the six series. This season? The Redbirds open at Busch Stadium against the Blue Jays, a squad that added Daulton Varsho, Chris Bassitt and Kevin Kiermaier to an already loaded roster which won 92 games and reached the playoffs last season.

Though talk about upcoming rules changes -- a pitch timer, bigger bases and fewer pickoff throws -- has been prevalent this offseason, it’s the change in the schedule that could have a greater impact on a Cardinals squad that made few personnel additions.

The club won 93 games and an National League Central crown in 2022 -- largely because of its 38-19 record against the Cubs (74-88), Reds (62-100) and Pirates (62-100). The Cardinals were a pedestrian 10-9 against the Brewers and 34-38 versus teams with a winning record. Those shortcomings came to light in the playoffs, when they were swept in two games by the upstart Phillies.

“That’s probably the hardest loss of a playoff series I’ve ever gone through,” Cardinals star Nolan Arenado admitted. “Now, it’s important to get that bye and get that five-game series. I think we’re capable of doing that.”

Doing that, however, will be more difficult this season, especially in an NL race stacked with big spenders like the Mets, Dodgers, Phillies, Padres and Braves.

Under the new rules, the Cardinals will now play 52 games against their NL Central rivals -- down from 76. They will play six of the non-NL Central teams six times and the other four seven times. The Mets and Dodgers are among the clubs St. Louis will draw seven times.

The biggest change for the Cardinals, of course, is that they will play 46 Interleague games. The Cards and Royals will still play their I-70 rivalry over four games, and the remaining games will be divided over seven three-game home series (versus the Blue Jays, Angels, Tigers, Astros, Yankees, Twins and A’s) and seven three-game road series (against the Mariners, Red Sox, Guardians, Rangers, White Sox, Rays and Orioles).

This, of course, benefits fans who are excited to watch stars like Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Aaron Judge, who haven’t often come to town.

According to FanGraphs, the Cards’ chances of winning the NL Central fell from 53.6% to 51.9% upon the release of MLB’s more balanced schedule. Similarly, their chances of making the postseason dropped from 72.1% to 68.8%.

Clearly, things will get more difficult for a squad that will no longer be able to coast into the postseason on the backs of its rebuilding NL Central brethren.