The start of the season is always a joyous thing. Today downtown St. Louis will be full of people excitedly looking forward to another six months of baseball season. After a 2020 season almost entirely wiped out by a pandemic, a 2021 season that started with the stadium at much less than capacity, and a lockout that delayed (and at times threatened) this season, there’s a lot of joy to be had with actually having a regular Opening Day.
Some years, we go into Opening Day thinking that the Cardinals are going to be the Death Star, laying waste to the NL Central and a serious threat to the championship. Some years, they seem more like a star destroyer, a formidable batch that might have equals, might have a few larger ships in the fleet, but that can do damage and is favored in a fight.
This year…..well, they aren’t the bottom feeders of the league by any means and Alex Crisafulli’s favorite stat of the number of years the Cardinals have finished ahead of Pittsburgh should tick up by one again in October. There’s plenty of reasons to feel good about the Cards. However, it feels more like they are X-wings this year, requiring perfect precision, perhaps some late assistance (at the trade deadline), and a little luck to go deep into October. Getting there with the new expanded playoffs shouldn’t be too much of an issue but it’s not guaranteed either. It’s hard to say it’s a ragtag group when you have Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at the corners of the infield, of course, but there are few that are going to say they are the favorites in the division, much less for the World Series.
For the first time in over a decade, when the roster checks in, Red Five is standing by. The return of Albert Pujols for his final year, coupled with the intent of Yadier Molina to hang them up at the end of the season and the distinct possibility (though I truly don’t think he’s decided yet) that it’s Adam Wainwright‘s last go means that there’s plenty of nostalgia and feels to go around this year. Probably the running theme this year, especially if the team struggles, is going to be whether the club cynically chose that nostalgia instead of making new memories by pushing hard toward a championship by spending more in the free agent market or dealing for added major league strength.
Personally, I think the front office focuses on getting the most bang for their buck (perhaps to an extreme at times) and feel good about not only who they have but who they have leading them. If–and this gets back to our “you are required to maneuver straight down this trench” analogy–this club plays at the level they can, at least offensively they should be fine. Paul DeJong‘s outstanding spring at least gives hope that he can get back to more like what we saw early in his career and the moving of Tommy Edman out of the leadoff spot indicates to me that if Edman struggles and either Brendan Donovan or Nolan Gorman look ready to play second in the majors, the club will make that move instead of deferring to what Edman has done in the past.
Oli Marmol will manage his first major league game that didn’t require his boss being tossed out today and already we are seeing signs that things are going to be different and thought patterns are going to change. There was the lineup shuffle, of course, with Dylan Carlson at the top, but that change was made even more clear yesterday as Jordan Hicks was named the fifth starter even though he had all of three innings in the spring, has pitched only 10 major league innings since June of 2019, and hasn’t been a starter since 2017. When John Mozeliak said this winter that they wanted to perhaps use Hicks and Alex Reyes in the rotation, I couldn’t see how that would work without extensive minor league time. Apparently stretching out a player in the big leagues is now an option and I don’t have a problem with that. I wrote last summer about how I wished they’d do that with Jack Flaherty as he returned from his health issues instead of giving him numerous minor league starts when he was needed in the bigs.
Whether this will work or not remains to be seen. For the first few times through the rotation, it’s going to be basically a bullpen game which can be fine given these arms. You have both Drew VerHagen and Jake Woodford in the pen who have been set up to be starters (VerHagen through more innings this spring than anyone that’s not solidly in the starting rotation, though that was still just eight) and can hopefully back him up so that you don’t have to use every arm out there and be lacking the next couple of days. If nothing else, it’s a creative way to make sure Hicks gets the regular usage he needs and to get a new starter out of the deal.
We’ll have to wait and see if there’s enough pitching. I mean, there’s never enough pitching, I guess, but whether the pitching that the club has is adequate. If the X-wings stay in good working order and the offense gives them some room to focus on the towers instead of the enemy fighters (I really don’t know where I’m going with this metaphor–if everything goes right is what I’m trying to say), the best case scenario for all these guys is pretty good. The problem is that the best case scenario for some is more likely than others and every one of them has question marks, including whether Jack Flaherty can get healthy fast enough and stay healthy when he does. Hitting that target could be harder than hitting a ray shielded exhaust port.
It’s Opening Day, though. The day when you look at the unbroken stretch in front of you and dream on the possibilities. Where no one has failed yet, where memories are ready to be made, and where the Force is with you. Even teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, Cincinnati and Oakland, the fans of those teams may not expect much but they are hopeful that there is good to come. If you can’t be somewhat optimistic on Opening Day, you really need to work on your cynicism.
Bring on the red jackets. Bring on the Clydesdales. Bring on the truck parade around the stadium.
It’s Opening Day. Let’s play ball.