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St. Louis Cardinals: A look ahead to the pandemic-shortened 2020 season

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and pitcher Jack Flaherty during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis.
St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and pitcher Jack Flaherty during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium on Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis.((AP Photos/Jeff Roberson))
Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 11:26 AM CDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2020 at 2:03 PM CDT
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ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KY3) - Baseball. Is. Back.

The 2020 Major League Baseball season is set to begin Thursday, more than four months since professional sports came to a hold amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Friday marks Opening Day for the St. Louis Cardinals, who begin a pandemic-shortened campaign at home against the Pittsburgh Pirates. First pitch is set for 7:15 p.m.

The Cardinals head into the 2020 season as reigning National League Central champions. But a chance to defend last year’s division crown may look a little different than expected.

Rather than a normal 162-game season, it’s a 60-game sprint to the finish.

There are quite a few other notable changes for the 2020 season on and off the field:

New changes ahead for the 2020 Major League Baseball season.
New changes ahead for the 2020 Major League Baseball season.(KY3)

Above all, the possibility exists that the COVID-19 pandemic may stop the Major League Baseball season some point after it begins. For now, regular season action is scheduled to wrap up September 27 and postseason is expected to begin just before the turn to October.

Here’s a closer look at the upcoming schedule, roster outlook and season storylines surrounding the St. Louis Cardinals.

2020 SCHEDULE

Major League Baseball and the players association agreed to a 60-game schedule for the pandemic-shortened season.

Of these 60 games, the Cardinals will play 40 against National League Central Division opponents, ten games against each division rival. The remaining 20 games will be played against American League Central opponents, an arrangement made to limit travel during the pandemic.

The season starts with a three-game home series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. It’s the only series the Cardinals will play at Busch Stadium in July. The first road trip stretches seven games over parts of three series.

In August, the Cardinals will play their four-game series against the Detroit Tigers, split with two games on the road and at home. Then comes one of the most-anticipated opponents of the year as the cross-state rival Chicago Cubs pay a visit to St. Louis for three games from August 7-9. This marks the only time the Cubs make a road trip to St. Louis in 2020.

Fans looking for a little nostalgia this season will get that come August 13. The Cardinals head to Dyersville, Iowa to take on the Chicago White Sox in the “Field of Dreams” game. The White Sox will host the unique matchup at a newly-constructed ballpark near the “Field of Dreams” movie site.

August wraps up with a heavy home schedule, including ten home games in the final 12 days of the month. September features a stronger workload on the road, highlighted by series at the ballparks of all four division rivals. The Cardinals are scheduled for 14 consecutive games over the final two weeks and finish the regular season with a four-game home series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

Within the division, the Cardinals will host two of three series against the Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds, while hitting the road for two of three series against the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers.

Among all Major League Baseball teams, the Cardinals have the third-easiest strength of schedule based on the 2019 winning percentage of their upcoming opponents (.475). The only two teams with an easier strength of schedule this year are the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, both set for interleague matchups in St. Louis this summer.

ROSTER OUTLOOK

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, third-year manager Mike Shildt has set his roster for his second Opening Day. The Cardinals return all but four players from the 25-man roster used in the National League Championship Series last year.

For the start of the 2020 season, teams are allowed to start with 30 players. The number is expected to gradually decline to 26 as the season moves forward.

The St. Louis Cardinals announced their official Opening Day roster Thursday afternoon:

The St. Louis Cardinals have announced their 2020 Opening Day roster.
The St. Louis Cardinals have announced their 2020 Opening Day roster.((AP Photo/Jeff Roberson))

The Cardinals rode a unique combination of offense, defense and pitching in 2019 to capture a division title. It may take a little more for a repeat performance.

OFFENSE

As evidenced by the postseason last year, there’s potential for two extremes. The ability to blow out opponents (13 runs in Game 5 of the 2019 NLDS, a winner-take-all) or the possibility of a cold spell (Six runs total in the 2019 NLCS, leading to elimination in four games).

The Cardinals outscored their opponents by 97 runs last year, tenth best in the league. However, several key metrics show room for improvement. St. Louis ranked in the bottom half of the league in runs scored (19th) and on-base plus slugging percentage (21st) while finishing just outside the top ten in runners stranded in scoring position per game.

For an offense seeking more consistency, veterans could play a major part. Paul Goldschmidt led the Cardinals with 97 RBI last year, but his .821 on-base plus slugging percentage was well below his full-season averages with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Matt Carpenter came up with some key moments in victories last year, but is seeking a big bounce back after a career-low .226 batting average over a full season.

While production from Goldschmidt and Carpenter might not quite reach the level of MVP-caliber stretches in recent years, both have the ability to carry an offense when hitting at their highest level. Carpenter, who has worked on hitting to all fields in summer camp, impressed with two home runs in intrasquad action, including a notable round-tripper against Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty.

With a fairly-young projected starting lineup, there’s a chance for several breakout candidates as well. Middle infielders Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong both showed promise last year; DeJong with a career-best 30 home runs, Wong with a career-best 24 stolen bases. Similar breakout candidates could include Tommy Edman and Tyler O’Neill, both who could see regular starts with an arsenal of power, contact and speed.

Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler are lined up for early starting opportunities in the outfield. Several new names made a strong push ahead of the final roster cut with Edmundo Sosa and Austin Dean claiming bench spots to start the season.

Let’s not forget about top prospect Dylan Carlson, who will be discussed more in the season storylines section.

St. Louis Cardinals' Kolten Wong bats during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals' Kolten Wong bats during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)

DEFENSE

The bar has been set high after the Cardinals finished last year with the fewest errors in baseball, becoming the only team in MLB history to go from most to fewest in consecutive seasons.

Kolten Wong is the only Cardinal coming off a Gold Glove campaign, while fellow middle infielder Paul DeJong finished with the league’s second-best defensive WAR (3.3). Wong and DeJong have developed strong chemistry up the middle, helping first baseman Paul Goldschmidt factor in to 145 double plays last year, tops in the majors.

Harrison Bader leads the charge in the outfield. He’s finished with 31 defensive runs saved, fifth-best among MLB outfielder, over the last two seasons. Tyler O’Neill adds agility to the left side of the outfield, while Dexter Fowler brings years of centerfield experience to the right side.

Behind the plate, Yadier Molina continues to be a force defensively, throwing out 27 percent of base runners last year. The four-time Platinum Glove winner could be in for another large workload, catching more than 1000 innings four or the last five full seasons.

The Cardinals not only carry over a fundamentally-sound defensive core into the new season, but some versatile pieces as well. Brad Miller, one of the team’s few offseason signings, has experience at all four infield positions, but will begin the season on the injured list. Rangel Ravelo, the primary backup for Goldschmidt at first base, can also step in at corner outfield.

PITCHING

There’s no denying the abundance of arms for the Cardinals and their farm system, but the biggest challenge heading into the season is how to best utilize them. Some answers are starting to become clearer.

The starting rotation will consist of four anchors from last year: Jack Flaherty, Adam Wainwright, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson. The first three all have at least one Cy Young Award finish of sixth place or better to their name.

Carlos Martínez, who transitioned to the bullpen the last few years amid injuries, will rejoin the rotation. It’s a role he has thrived in with the past, averaging 20 quality starts and 3.24 ERA from 2015 to 2017. If he can find similar success, the Cardinals rotation has the potential to outpitch any of their 2020 opponents.

Flaherty will look to build off a strong 2019 campaign, which included an MLB-best 0.91 ERA in the second half. Tabbed for his first Opening Day start Friday, Flaherty had mixed results in two intrasquad outings in summer camp. He tossed four scoreless innings in his first start, but exceeded inning pitch count limits Sunday in his final tuneup ahead of the season.

The rotation around Flaherty offers some unique features. Wainwright, entering his fifteenth season in St. Louis, has rekindled his career with superb home splits. Mikolas uses control to his advantage with more games (64) started than walks (61) over his last two seasons. Hudson generates momentum by pitching to contact, creating the second-most outs on ground balls last year.

The bullpen is a work in progress, but just like the rotation, showcases some familiar names. Southpaw Andrew Miller is expected to take on many high-leverage situations, whether late in games or against left-handed hitters. John Gant and Ryan Helsley could help bridge the gap between starters and late relief.

Most official bullpen roles remain to be determined. Kwang-hyun Kim, who competed for a rotation spot in summer camp, will be tabbed for the back-end of games and appears to have an inside track on the closer role. Kim is an international signing from South Korea and showed some encouraging signs in summer camp, striking out the side to wrap up the Cardinals lone exhibition game Wednesday.

Austin Gomber and Daniel Poncedeleon, who also competed for rotation spots in summer camp, will both look to maintain their craft in relief. Giovanny Gallegos, who likely would have been the favorite for the closer’s role after a strong late-inning presence last year, starts the season on the injured list.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim walks to the dugout during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Kwang-Hyun Kim walks to the dugout during an intrasquad practice baseball game at Busch Stadium Thursday, July 9, 2020, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)(Jeff Roberson | AP)

SEASON STORYLINES

Truthfully, there are countless storylines that can be analyzed heading into the 2020 season. These are three of the more prominent topics explored in depth:

1. When will Dylan Carlson get his chance?

It’s been several years since the Cardinals developed a prospect as highly-touted as Dylan Carlson. The 21-year-old outfielder is ranked the 10th best prospect by Baseball America, largely due to a five-tool skill set.

A 2016 first-round draft pick, Carlson split his 2019 minor league campaign with the Springfield Cardinals and Memphis Redbirds. The switch-hitter took home 2019 Texas League Player of the Year honors for last year’s strong performance. The numbers speak for themselves:

A look at Dylan Carlson's Minor League Baseball stats during the 2019 season.
A look at Dylan Carlson's Minor League Baseball stats during the 2019 season.(Photo courtesy Mark Harrell)

Carlson made a strong impression in a pandemic-shortened Spring Training, collecting 10 hits and scoring 11 times in a dozen games. His approach has translated to a strong summer camp, which included a two-hit game in intrasquad action against Jack Flaherty last week and a nine-pitch walk in Wednesday’s exhibition game.

“He’s doing what he needs to be doing. He’s locked into playing his game. He’s taking what the game gives him,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said on Carlson’s summer camp, via FOX Sports Midwest.

The Cardinals announced Thursday afternoon that Carlson did not make the Opening Day roster. He will report to the Taxi Squad in Springfield until the Cardinals are ready to promote him for his Major League debut.

So what’s with the wait? Carlson could be placed on the active roster sometime after the first six days of the regular season, which thereby prevents the Cardinals from losing a year of team control. It’s a reminder that baseball can be cruel as a business, but only being held back six games as opposed to at least double that in a full 162-game season sheds lights on the decision.

Outside of the business-oriented factor, the Cardinals also begin the season with quite an influx of outfielders, partly due to the MLB rule allowing teams to roster 30 players on Opening Day. Even with the new designated hitter role, there may not be a clear path for regular at-bats in July and possibly early August when reserve outfielders like Lane Thomas could also be pushing for at-bats.

Given the unusual circumstances regarding the pandemic, the Cardinals may choose to be a little more cautious with Carlson. Some players may thrive under the transition of playing without a crowd, but that factor might present a different learning curve in a rookie season.

Some additional training with the Springfield Taxi Squad could prove worthwhile. Long-time Cardinals coach José Oquendo is leading the taxi squad, and the familiarity could help Carlson make a few extra adjustments that may not come as quickly getting tossed into big league action.

The most likely scenario for Carlson’s call to the show would be soon after August 1. That’s when the Cardinals officially gain another year of control due to his service time.

While a specific target date isn’t set in stone, the odds of a quick Carlson debut increase in the case an outfielder struggles or hits the injured list. It also helps that he has experience at all three outfield positions and could be plugged anywhere the Cardinals may need him upon arrival.

Best advice for fans, be patient. The Dylan Carlson era is coming soon, and it will be here before you know it.

2. Is this the last ride for Waino and Yadi?

Two fan-favorites begin the 2020 season at 38 years old. Adam Wainwright returns on a one-year deal for the second straight year. Yadier Molina enters the final year of a three-year contract.

Wainwright and Molina have worked as a Major League battery since 2005. Since that time, they’ve made an MLB-leading 277 starts together, a testament to their strong camaraderie on and off the field.

The Cardinals have made countless memories behind the dynamic duo. One of the earliest was an iconic curveball to freeze Carlos Beltrán to advance to the 2006 World Series that the Cardinals later won:

Wainwright and Molina have been constants for the Cardinals franchise in a prolonged period of winning expectations. St. Louis has finished with a winning record every season aside from 2007 since both debuted, averaging 89 wins a year and securing postseason in more than half of those seasons.

The unfortunate reality is that someday both will no longer be playing for the St. Louis Cardinals.

It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that happens after the 2020 season. Wainwright appears focused on the shortened season ahead and has not publicly discussed many plans beyond that. Molina hinted in April that he wants to play two more seasons beyond 2020, a statement backed by his conditioning and nutrition during the season’s four-month-plus delay.

The front office plays a big role in the future of both veterans. It’s possible the Cardinals will look to reduce payroll in 2021 as part of the team’s financial response to the pandemic. That could mean a pay cut for Molina or another incentive-based contract for Wainwright if either decides to return after 2020.

Before any decisions are made, the Cardinals will also evaluate pitching and catching depth in the farm system. Andrew Knizner, who made his MLB debut last year, has been highly regarded as a possible replacement, but his opportunities could be limited if Molina returns after this year. Cardinal pitching prospects, like Matt Liberatore and Zack Thompson, might develop more into long-term bullpen pieces if Wainwright hangs on to a rotation spot beyond 2020.

If this is the last ride, it will come in empty stadiums without a special sendoff from Cardinals fans. The human element of baseball will definitely be missing, such as when packed crowds gave Matt Holliday several standing ovations during his final series in St. Louis in 2016.

Contract years for Wainwright and Molina add to the uncertainties of the pandemic-shortened season and beyond, but the dynamic duo picked up on a strong note during summer camp. One of the most emblematic batteries in St. Louis Cardinals history has an opportunity to add to its legacy, whether it’s just for the pandemic-shortened season or longer.

3. How successful can the Cardinals be in a pandemic-shortened season?

The 2020 regular season has been slashed to nearly one-third of its original length. There’s a smaller margin for error with 60 games ahead, which could be good news or not-so-good news for the St. Louis Cardinals.

For perspective, through the first 60 games of 2019, the Cardinals went 31-29 and sat within four games of the division lead. With increasing competition in the division, that clip probably would not translate to playoffs in 2020.

The best 60-game stretch of 2019? That came in the final 60 games with a 36-24 finish to the regular season. Somewhere between this stretch and the first 60 games would likely be a minimum of what the Cardinals need to make the postseason picture.

PECOTA, a sabermetric system for forecasting MLB performance, projects a third-place division finish for the Cardinals with around 31 wins. The projections also expect the Cardinals or Atlanta Braves to be among the teams just outside the Wild Card bubble.

If the Cardinals look to outperform these projections, they will need to take advantage of the strength of schedule.

Three common opponents who finished with less than 70 wins last year make up exactly one-third of the Cardinals schedule; the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Detroit Tigers and the Kansas City Royals. The Cardinals will likely need a win total in the teens among the 20 games against these opponents for a legitimate postseason push.

Division play will also factor into the Cardinals regular season success. As previously mentioned, it will be 10 games against each division rival.

The following ten-game stretches against NL Central clubs last year might offer more insight:

A look back at 10-game splits from the St. Louis Cardinals against NL Central rivals.
A look back at 10-game splits from the St. Louis Cardinals against NL Central rivals.((AP Photo/Jeff Roberson))

In the past decade, the Cardinals either clinched postseason or avoided elimination until the final week of regular season each year. One of those outcomes could very well be the case again in 2020.

The expectation of getting to the postseason is very realistic, but in the case that happens, the Cardinals fate from there will likely depend on what momentum they can carry from late in the season. The past decade has offered one World Series title and at least one postseason series won in five out of six dances.

We’ll save postseason projections for late September if the Cardinals make a Red October happen. It’s worth reemphasizing that there are no guarantees in a pandemic-shortened season, including the possibility of a full season and postseason without delays or cancellations.

Whatever the St. Louis Cardinals have in store for the 2020 season, it’s sure to be something we’ve never seen before. Play ball!

Copyright 2020 KY3. All rights reserved.

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