“Hey (baseball), how we doin’ man?”
“It’s been a while man, life is so rad.”
“Aw man, hell, brah, this is the best, man. I’m so glad (baseball’s) back…and stuff, this is great, man.”
“Ah man, it’s gonna be the best, I’m so stoked.”
Did I manipulate lines from Weezer’s Undone – The Sweater Song to include the word baseball?
Do those line convey how I feel about Opening Day?
It is upon us. No more quasi-baseball of spring training, the real deal is here. The glory that is baseball’s regular season. The longest season in professional sports. The marathon that serves to separate the contenders from the pretenders as they trek towards the most exclusive postseason tournament in professional sports (keep it that way) and seek to hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy in late October. The beauty of baseball’s regular season, that gives fans daily entertainment, daily talking points, and ever-changing storylines.
It is like nothing else.
This afternoon, our St. Louis Cardinals will open the 2021 season at Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. Jack Flaherty will toe the rubber. Nolan Arenado will take his first real, true swings as a Cardinal and put his defense prowess on display for a captive audience.
Hope is abound. The Cardinals enter the season generally regarded as the favorite to win the NL Central, thanks in part to the acquisition of Mr. Arenado but also due to rivals trimming talent from their rosters during the winter.
Yu Darvish no longer pitches on the North Side and Trevor Bauer will defend his NL Cy Young from Tinsel Town instead of the Queen City. The Milwaukee Brewers stand as the top competitor, on paper, because they didn’t take the steps backwards that the other teams did, and because they still have a former NL MVP in the lineup. And the Pirates…
It’s impossible to say how it will play out. This season, like all others, will be it’s own unique story.
I’m excited to watch…
Several things, really, but here are a few players/units that have my attention:
Dylan Carlson: I won’t just be watching closely because he is on my fantasy baseball roster, but that doesn’t hurt. It had been since the late Oscar Taveras that Cardinals had a position player prospect rated so highly by the national outlets. Granted Carlson didn’t reach the same heights in the rankings as Taveras, but he is easily the 2nd best offensive prospect the Cardinals have had in the 20+ years since JD Drew’s rapid ascent from draft-to-MLB in 1998. It’s been well covered that Carlson struggled initially, but found a rhythm in his 2nd stint of 2020. Small sample and all, but his .289/.382/.578 slash line in 54 PA’s from his September 18th recall through the end of the postseason is certainly representative of his abilities and a tangible reason to be excited.
Justin Williams / Tyler O’Neill: I’ll group them together as they both kind of represent “x factors” for the Cardinals offense. Williams is an intriguing player that has struggled to get traction in the organization after coming over in the Tommy Pham trade. He has been an exit velocity monster in Spring Training and the ball really does jump off his bat when he gets it in the air. With the exits of Dexter Fowler and Brad Miller, and the seemingly reduced role of Matt Carpenter, the Cardinals are suddenly very right-handed. Williams’s left-handed bat adds to his intrigue. He should get his opportunities early. O’Neill is only a few years removed from being a top 100 prospect in baseball and won the metrics based Gold Glove in Left Field in 2020. He has insane power, it’s always been about reducing the strikeouts and hitting consistently between the bombs. He absolutely earned the starting role with a great spring. If he hits his potential, then he is a very potent bat in the lower half of the lineup that we may have otherwise been sleeping on. He’s the kind of secondary (to Goldy/Arenado) hitter that can elevate a lineup from good to great.
Nolan Arenado: Duh.
Alex Reyes: Last season was the first time since 2017 that Reyes entered the year following a “normal” offseson, but even it was a little weird because 2019 was just a strange, struggle of a year for him, and then the pandemic. 2021 will be the first time in nearly half a decade that Reyes is coming off of a normal offseason, following a fully healthy season. He was electric in 2020 and with the return of Jordan Hicks, along with Giovanny Gallegos, the Cardinals are setting up for dominance in the late innings.
The Defense: A few weeks ago, I wrote about how good the Cardinals defense projects to be, and I’m excited to watch that play out. Bader’s injury likely steps them back from the best-in-baseball status that I was predicting for the team, but they still look to be really good. One thing to really keep an eye on is how much having Arenado at 3B helps DeJong at SS, as going to the 3B side has always been the weakest part of DeJong’s defensive game. That may no longer be much of a factor.
The Starting Rotation: Some folks might be concerned about the rotation, and I get it. Mikolas is out for who knows how long. Kim will start the year on the IL. It’s been 2 1/2 seasons since Carlos Martinez was legitimately a starting pitcher. But here’s the thing. The Cardinals played something like 55 games in 45 days last season — with 8 pitchers starting at least 4 games. Johan Oviedo had never pitched above AA and started 9% (5 GS) of their games. Despite that, they still managed to ranked 9th in baseball in starting pitcher ERA. They ranked 5th in starter’s ERA in both 2019 and 2018. Over the last 10 years, the Cardinals rank 3rd in starters ERA. The musicians change, but the song remains the same. They always seem to piece together a rotation that is good at not allowing runs, even if they aren’t always darlings of the advanced metrics. Maybe I’m taking it for granted, but I expect more of the same this season. It’s actually a lot of fun to watch a Kyle McClellan type (see: John Gant) have a surprisingly productive run in the rotation. And of course, it will be fun to watch Wainwright on what might be his farewell tour.
Just in case you haven’t seen it yet, here is the 26-man roster that Cardinals will carry into Opening Day.
|SP||LH RP||RH RP||C||INF||OF||IL|
|Ponce de Leon||-||Helsley||-||DeJong||Dean||Bader|
The Cardinals open with 3 games in Cincinnati before travelling to Miami for 3 games. They will then open their home schedule at Busch Stadium — with Adam Wainwright on the mound — against the Milwaukee Brewers, next Thursday.
I won’t get into foolish, completely biased predictions. I’ll simply say that the Cardinals have enough talent on their roster to win the NL Central. We’ll just have to see how the year plays out.
Happy Opening Day!
Thanks for reading.
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Thanks to Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs for being incredible sources for statistics. Featured image credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images