Playing Pepper 2021: St. Louis Cardinals

Opening Day is just around the corner (knock on wood after 2020, of course) and as such, that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite post series!  OK, maybe second favorite after Top Cards on Twitter.  It’s Playing Pepper!  Year 13 of our intrepid series finds us, as always, asking questions of bloggers (both former and current) of other teams, seeing how they view the upcoming season.   I think it’s a solid way of getting a handle on MLB as a whole.  So get your bats and ignore that sign on the fence–let’s play some pepper!

St. Louis Cardinals
30-28, second in the NL Central, lost in the Wild Card Round
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

If you are reading this site, you probably know about the Cardinals’ 2020 and some ideas about its 2021.  However, we’ve got some good folks to talk about some of the things you’ve been thinking about!

Blogger Site Twitter
Will Leitch MLB.com williamfleitch
Drew Silva NBC Sports Edge drewsilv
Tara Wellman Birds on the Black tarawellman
Larry Borowsky Viva El Birdos founder

C70: Baseball in 2020 was like nothing we’ve ever seen before. What are your thoughts on that season? Did you like the rule changes? How was following baseball the same or different during the pandemic?

Will: Like a lot of people, I was surprised how much I liked the changes. It’s remarkable how instantly I fell for the “runner on second in extras” idea. I wouldn’t want it in the postseason, but in the regular season, it makes a huge difference: I know now that I’m probably going to make it to the end of the game. The only issue I had was with the expanded postseason, not THAT it was expanded, but that it there were so many teams. Fortunately, I don’t think there are any plans to have THAT many playoff teams.

Drew: I’m glad it happened for the sake of my job, but I’m more glad to be moving forward and watching the world return to a sense of normalcy in 2021 and beyond. As for the rule changes, the universal DH is inevitable, and getting a small taste of it helped me get over my more traditionalist, NL-biased viewpoint on the matter. I do hate when the debate is framed as though the anti-DH crowd is dying to see pitchers hit. It’s never been about that; it’s about the nine vs. nine nature of the game and the strategy required to pull one of those nine (the pitcher) from the lineup. I also have to say that I enjoyed the seven-inning doubleheader experience as a viewer and as a writer, but I worry about how inviting more of those into the fold in normal seasons would mess with the record books. The other stuff — well, let’s leave all that in 2020.

Tara: Following MLB in 2020 barely felt like following baseball. Don’t get me wrong, the fan in me was happy to see the game being played, but it was certainly tough to feel as invested as normal. Perhaps that was the result of the internal conflict about the risks being taken, or perhaps it was due to the oddities on the field. I will say, the 7-inning doubleheaders were surprisingly enjoyable (though the regularity of them for the Cardinals… not so much). Something about the way that set up pitching and the quick turnaround regardless of result made for some really enjoyable baseball days. 

Larry: Couldn’t take it seriously. Sixty games was better than nothing, but the 60-game slate was imposed, not agreed to, which bodes ill for the CBA talks this winter. And they’re extremely lucky the virus never got into a third clubhouse (beyond St. Louis and Miami) — that would have forced them either to shut it down or to press on under farcical conditions. I’m glad they gave it a shot and were able to crown a champion, and I was occasionally entertained. But I was relieved when it ended.

C70: Nolan Arenado is a Cardinal. Have you quite processed that yet?

Will: Actually, yes: It’s amazing how well he instantly fits. I know I’ve gotten used to it, because I’ve already started complaining about other things.

Drew: It was a Friday night when word came down that the trade had been agreed upon and I was a few (or several) adult beverages deep at the time, so it all felt a little hazy at first. But then I believe it was the following Monday or Tuesday before the full details were worked out and officially announced, which allowed for ample, sober processing. If there’s anything about the deal that still shocks me, it’s the lack of talent that the Cardinals had to send to Colorado in return. And the money that the Rockies ate. What a steal. Arenado clearly pushed for the exact destination, which should be encouraging to fans. The buy-in is there from all parties involved.

Tara: I’ll be honest, there’s a part of me that is just waiting for Nolan Arenado — the Cardinal! — to have his worst season to date, just because that would be par for the course lately. That’s nothing to do with Arenado himself, but just a little bit of self-preservation kicking in! That said, he’s a remarkable player and I’m not sure any would-be superstar could fit in with the Cardinals anymore perfectly. The processing will likely be complete when he takes the field on Opening Day, but the appreciation will only grow as he settles in and does more and more Arenado things. 

Larry: As a Denver resident, I say with confidence: St Louis is going to love this guy. He’s got the fire. I really hope he sticks around.

C70: Which of Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill, or Lane Thomas will have the best season?

Will: Bader. I think this is the year the faith is rewarded. (Though you can argue it was last year too.) My only fear is that he’s already been Carpenter’d with the dumb-guy portion of the fanbase, and they’ll never give him a chance even if he becomes a star.

Drew: I’ve been a quiet Bader fanboy all along — don’t tell Twitter — even through his large-sample-size struggles in 2019. With the elite-level center field defense, he only has to be slightly above average at the plate to be a highly productive everyday contributor. We saw that in 2018, when he put up a .756 OPS (106 OPS+) in 138 games and was worth 3.8 fWAR. O’Neill has been lighting it up this spring, and people smarter than me think that Thomas deserves more of a look, but count me in the Bader camp if I’m having to pick between those three for 2021.

Tara: You know, this might be the recency bias talking, but I really feel like Tyler O’Neill might be the surprise success of the season. Not “surprise” in terms of something no one thought possible, but simply in light of his inconsistencies in the past. His spring has been nothing but encouraging, and he has no one standing in his way this year. He should be out there every day, and I really hope he’s in the place to not just claim left field, but fortify the lineup night in and night out. 

Larry: My money is on Bader, although O’Neill is showing some nice adjustments this spring. Bader’s career so far is tracking Jose Cruz’s; similar breadth of skills and flashes of excellence, tempered by lack of consistency. Aaron Hicks is a more recent and perhaps closer cognate. He and Cruz both got untracked in their late 20s, and Cruz was still showing up on MVP ballots a decade later. I’m not saying Bader will reach that level, but he doesn’t have to. I think he’s capable of stringing together some 4- and 5-win seasons. Maybe starting this year.

C70: Do you have any concerns around Jack Flaherty after a less-than-super 2020?

Will: Not really, or at least not more than any other pitcher. I’m concerned that he won’t be able to make the innings jump after the truncated 2020 that they need him to, but I’m concerned about that for every single pitcher in baseball. He has the stuff, and he has that Chris Carpenter edge to him. I think he’s a Cy Young contender.

Drew: Nah. Between the early-season COVID-19 shutdown and all the stops and starts that came along with it, I’m willing to completely write off his 2020. He was throwing side sessions against his hotel mattress at one point!

Tara: My only concern is that the expectations placed on him (by fans and by himself) might be a little too high. Don’t get me wrong — I think he has proven he has what it takes to be a star. Living up to sky-high expectations (like matching his 2019 second half all the time) is a really tough task. He’s good, but he is also human. His 2020 season was especially bizarre, so that is a wash in my book. But he is feeling the pressure to be THE GUY this year, and I only hope he can wrangle that pressure in a positive way.

Larry: Last season’s stats don’t worry me much. Flaherty’s routine was way out of whack all year, so it’s not surprising that he wasn’t sharp. I was just glad he made it through 2020 without getting hurt. That said, I’m a bit concerned that he’s only appeared in two actual exhibition games this spring. So far, Flaherty has thrown more innings on back fields in simulated conditions than he’s thrown against opposing teams. I find that a little strange. Hopefully it’s just part of their post-COVID innings-management strategy — as opposed to them trying to hide something.

C70: What is your expectation for this team this coming season?

Will: They need to win the division. I think there are at least four, probably more, teams in the NL that are better than they are. But there is no excuse not to go out and win this division.

Drew: I would expect the Cardinals to win the NL Central. They made the biggest offseason addition of any team in the division, and I think we’ll see the Cubs and Reds start shedding some parts as the summer rolls along. I like the moves the Brewers made, but you can still easily poke holes in a number of areas of that roster. Are the Pirates still a Major League Baseball team?

Tara: In light of the rest of the NL Central, I don’t think it’s a giant leap to say I expect them to be the division favorites. The pitching staff scares me a bit, and the offense needs more than just Arenado to be consistent all summer. There are enough questions to be hesitant in calling them any sort of postseason favorite, but there are a lot of things that could break right for this group, too. I expect to be frustrated at times, but to see them find ways to pull off wins that might surprise us all!

Larry: They’re going to need to reinforce the rotation at some point. Behind Flaherty, they’re relying on a 39-year-old grizzbeard, two guys with bad injury histories (Carlos Martinez and Kwang-Hyun Kim), and a sore-armed Miles Mikolas. If they get more than 700 innings out of that group, I’ll be surprised. John Gant and Daniel Ponce De Leon are good reinforcements, and it’s not impossible somebody like Zach Thompson, Matthew Liberatore, or Angel Rondon could pick up some slack. I also wouldn’t be opposed to using Alex Reyes as an extended opener — one trip through the order, over and out. But ideally you want ~900 innings out of your rotation. I think it’s more likely than not they’ll have to go outside the organization to hit that number.

C70: Overall, what sort of grade would you give this organization and why?

Will: B+. They seem to have gotten back on track the last couple of years, and the Arenado trade provides the needed encouragement that they’re not going to turtle up on us. But they really shouldn’t be relying on the stasis of this division as much as they are.

Drew: B+ … Arenado really fell into their laps, but Bill DeWitt deserves a lot of credit for being willing to take on that contract after a fanless season, which probably did affect the Cardinals more than most MLB clubs given their usual level of gate revenue. They probably should have added a starting pitcher, but I wasn’t in love with the options in free agency, and maybe that’s something that can be addressed once the season gets underway. Many teams will still be crying poor well into 2021, and so the trade market should remain fruitful for the handful of clubs that actively want to improve.

Tara: Preseason grades are only as good as our expectations, right? So while this team has the potential to be a strong “A” overall, right now it’s more like an “B” for off season effort (they should have gotten a starter), but an incomplete for how it all comes together. How’s that for hedging my bets?

Larry: I give them a B because they’ve kept their competitive window open almost indefinitely, and they’ve rebuilt something they lost in the late Mike Matheny era — an actual identity. One component of that identity is a dedication run prevention, which I like. Another component, which I like less, is the high-floor, low-ceiling approach. This is a longstanding pattern, and it’s caused them to miss on too many young players and hold on too long to too many old ones. After assembling a refreshingly diverse attack last year, they’ve reverted to an offense that lacks versatility and depends way too much on right-handed power hitters. These kinds of bad habits aren’t fatal, but they’re the difference between a B grade and an A — and the difference between a playoff contender and a World Series contender.

Series Navigation<< Playing Pepper 2021: Cincinnati RedsPlaying Pepper 2021: Toronto Blue Jays >>

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NL Central Standings

TeamWLPct.GB
Brewers5942.584 -
Reds5249.5157.0
Cardinals5150.5058.0
Cubs5052.4909.5
Pirates3862.38020.5

Last updated: 07/28/2021

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