St. Louis Cardinals: Breaking down the schedule, roster and projections for the 2021 season
ST. LOUIS (KY3) - Believe it or not, we’re coming up on the tenth season that separates the St. Louis Cardinals from their last World Series championship in 2011.
A lot has changed for one of the most-storied franchises in baseball since their last title.
Only a select handful of players from the 2011 have yet to retire from Major League Baseball. Team legends Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Bob Gibson have all passed away. And the Cardinals navigated through one of their most unusual seasons last year in a pandemic-altered campaign.
One constant that hasn’t changed much: The expectation of a Red October.
The Cardinals have either clinched postseason or avoided elimination until the final week of regular season each year in the past decade. One of those outcomes could very well be the case again in 2021.
Thursday marks Opening Day for the St. Louis Cardinals, who begin a second pandemic-altered season on the road against the Cincinnati Reds. First pitch is set for 3:10 p.m. CT.
Here’s a closer look at the upcoming schedule, roster and projections for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Before digging deeper into the season preview, here are a few factors to note:
It’s no longer a 60-game sprint to the finish. Teams return to the normal 162-game schedule.
For the second straight year, the St. Louis Cardinals will play every team in the NL Central and AL Central divisions. Even before last year’s pandemic-scheduling adjustments, the Cardinals were set to play the AL Central in interleague play in 2021.
One key difference from last year: The Cardinals will play one home and one road series against each opponent from the NL West and NL East. These games were eliminated in the pandemic-shortened schedule.
Division play also expands with 18-19 games scheduled against every NL Central opponent. The Cardinals are set to play 162 games from April 1 to October 3 with 24 off-days scattered throughout the schedule, including a four-day All-Star Game break in mid-July.
As the normal-season schedule returns, here are five games you won’t want to miss:
April 1 @ Cincinnati Reds
The Cardinals open the season at Great American Ballpark, the home of Cincinnati Reds, for the first time since 2014. The high-power pitching matchup of Jack Flaherty and Luis Castillo is one that may happen several times throughout the season.
April 8 vs. Milwaukee Brewers
Due to the Cardinals’ COVID-19 outbreak last season, a series with the Milwaukee Brewers was the first to be postponed. The rivals played 10 head-to-head games in the season’s final 14 days. The Brewers pay a visit to Busch Stadium next week, and Adam Wainwright is expected to start the home opener.
May 21 vs. Chicago Cubs
Believe it or not, 2020 marked the first time in Cardinals history in which the Cubs didn’t play at Busch Stadium. The virus outbreak postponed a three-game home series against the cross-state rival, and all three games were made up in Chicago with the Cardinals as the home team on paper. It will be the Cubs’ first game at Busch in exactly 600 days.
July 1 @ Colorado Rockies
Nolan Arenado will play at Coors Field for the first time since the Cardinals landed him in a blockbuster trade in February. The third basemen won a Gold Glove in each of his eight years in Colorado and ranks among the franchise leaders in most offensive stats. A four-game series with the Rockies also stretches through the Fourth of July.
Sept. 6 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers
The reigning World Series champions make their only visit to Busch Stadium for a series that starts on Labor Day. This could be a pivotal series in the Cardinals postseason push, not only for standings purposes, but also to evaluate where the team stands against top talent within their league.
Other key opponents:
- Pittsburgh Pirates: The team with the fewest MLB wins last is the most common opponent on the Cardinals schedule with 19 games.
- Kansas City Royals: The I-70 series consists of two three-game weekend sets in August.
- Atlanta Braves: The National League runner-up hosts the Cardinals for four games in June and visits Busch Stadium in early-August.
- San Diego Padres: The up-and-coming squad that ended the Cardinals season in the first round of postseason last year spreads out two series between May and September.
- Washington Nationals: The 2019 NLCS rematch features a home and road series in April, so the Cardinals will finish the season series with them earlier than any other opponent.
Fourth-year manager Mike Shildt has set his roster for his third Opening Day. The Cardinals return 22 players from the 28-man roster used last year in postseason.
Like the schedule, the roster situation returns to normalcy. Teams are allowed to roster up to 25 players per game and may recall a 26th player on days with doubleheaders. Rosters are expected to expand to 40 players in September.
The St. Louis Cardinals are expected to open the 2021 season with the following roster:
Two constants on the Cardinals Opening Day roster: Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. The two have worked as a Major League battery since 2005, an iconic run during which they’ve made an MLB-leading 286 starts together.
Thursday will mark Molina’s 17th straight Opening Day start, the longest for any active player in the majors with one team. He and Wainwright will look to spark a relatively-young team on one-year contracts.
Nolan Arenado, one of the game’s premier hitters, joins the Cardinals after an offseason blockbuster trade. The third baseman is a three-time home run champion, five-time All Star and .293 career hitter. He finished spring training with 11 hits and crushed his first Cardinals home run in the spring finale Monday.
Arenado joins another household name in Paul Goldschmidt. The duo has combined for more than 2,600 career hits and eight Silver Slugger awards. They will also lead the charge defensively with a combined 11 Gold Gloves.
Tommy Edman moves over to second base full-time after the Arenado blockbuster. The switch-hitter enjoyed a solid spring with a team-best 17 hits. He is expected to hit leadoff most games.
Paul DeJong adds the finishing touches to a defensive-minded infield. Matt Carpenter, who has started in most of his previous seasons, will work as a pinch-hitter and utility infielder off the bench.
The outfielders could truly make-or-break the Cardinals postseason hopes. Dylan Carlson and Tyler O’Neill appear to be two of three favorites for starts early. Both enjoyed strong springs and offer a balanced skill set with hitting, fielding and speed.
A platoon of Justin Williams, Austin Dean and John Nogowski appears to be the direction for the third outfield spot until Harrison Bader returns. The speedy centerfielder will likely miss at least four weeks with a forearm injury. Justin Williams is the favorite for starts until Bader returns, but Nogowski’s big spring, highlighted by a team-leading 12 RBI, may help him into the lineup.
The pitching staff has been derailed by some injuries, but shows similar promise to years past. St. Louis will heavily rely on Jack Flaherty and Adam Wainwright to keep the rotation afloat until depth pieces Kwang Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas return from injuries.
Carlos Martínez, John Gant and Daniel Poncedeleon round out the rest of the rotation. All three have starting experience, but will have big shoes to fill after working in relief in recent seasons.
The bullpen brings back a core group from last year, but may still feature a closer-by-committee. Jordan Hicks could get the bulk of ninth-inning duties, but will be eased in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Watch for veterans Andrew Miller and Giovanny Gallegos in the back-end of games as well.
Aside from Arenado, no new players who were outside the Cardinals organization last year made the Opening Day roster.
- Dylan Carlson: The 22-year-old switch-hitting outfielder remains eligible for rookie of the year competition in 2021. Carlson finished spring with two home runs, eight RBIs and a .239 batting average. He batted in several different spots in the batting order throughout spring, which speaks to his abilities to both score and drive in runs. Carlson came up last year as one of the most highly-touted prospects in recent Cardinals history and has plenty to prove after earning 2019 Texas League Player of the Year honors.
- Andrew Knizner: The Cardinals could be getting closer to a timeshare at catcher compared to recent years. Knizner has forced his way into playing time with improvements in hitting and fielding. The 26-year-old backstop hit .250 over spring, while throwing out three runners and frequently backing up first base on ground balls with bases empty. Knizner also spent the offseason studying film, learning how Molina and other catchers called games in the later innings.
- Alex Reyes: Even with a regular-season innings limit of 100, the Cardinals are expected to use their flamethrower in high-leverage situations. Reyes, who has dealt with injuries in recent seasons prior to 2020, excelled in a relief role last season with a nearly 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He worked more than one inning seven times in the shortened season last year. He slightly changed his delivery in the offseason while preparing for a bullpen role, and his speed factor brings a change of pace from most of the Cardinals pitching staff.
- Matt Carpenter: It’s been a rough go for the 35-year-old veteran since his MVP chase in 2018. Carpenter has battled inconsistencies and compiled just a .216 batting average over the last two seasons. But the Cardinals remain confident in his abilities, and decided to keep him on the roster despite a .054 spring average in 37 at-bats. Carpenter will begin the year on the bench as a multi-position backup piece. He will be a frequent option for pinch-hitting early on, and he’s proven capable in that role with 22 career pinch-hit RBI. Expect him to make adjustments with free agency looming after the 2021 season.
- Paul DeJong: The longest-tenured starting infielder on the Cardinals was a model of consistency in his first three seasons, finishing with at least 19 home runs and 65 RBI from 2017-2019. After dealing with COVID-19 last year, DeJong couldn’t quite find his stride, posting a career-low .671 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. However, his defense is steady and he should have ample opportunities to rebound offensively. A promising development in the later stages of spring: The Cardinals have tested DeJong in the cleanup spot behind centerpieces Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
- Jack Flaherty: It wasn’t easy for Flaherty to repeat his form from 2019, when he cruised to a 0.91 second-half ERA. His overall 2020 stats (4.91 ERA, 1.21 WHIP) look rough, but it was mostly a matter of a few-tough luck outings. Setting up for his second straight Opening Day start, Flaherty could emerge as one of the game’s top starters in 2021 if he can limit walks and deep pitch counts. Flaherty and Wainwright are the only two healthy starters who had regular rotation roles last year, so the team will count on both to eat innings and deliver big results.
- Nolan Gorman: The 2018 first-round selection captured attention with several key hits in spring wins. Gorman, a natural third baseman, could have a slightly tougher road to the majors compared to last year with Nolan Arenado patrolling the hot corner. However, the dynamic duo developed strong chemistry over spring, and Gorman has been working on other positions defensively to increase his odds of a call-up. Although he’ll likely begin the year in Springfield, there could possibly be an opportunity for an MLB promotion in late-2021 or the following season.
- Matthew Liberatore: A centerpiece of the Randy Arozarena trade last offseason, Liberatore finished spring with a respectable 3.24 ERA. Adam Wainwright praised Liberatore for his talent and attention to detail throughout spring, per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The southpaw has worked as a starter for the majority of his minor-league career, but might be better suited for a bullpen role initially when he gets a major league call soon. Don’t rule out a midseason call-up, though there is a strong possibility the Cardinals will want him to work several months in Springfield or Memphis to further develop his craft.
- Tommy Parsons: A candidate for a Major-League debut in 2021, Parsons has risen through the farm system quickly since signing as an undrafted free agent three years ago. He was roughed up in his final spring tune-up Sunday, but logged 10.1 innings and scoreless appearances in six of eight spring games. The Cardinals debuted 10 pitchers last season, and it’s possible Parsons could be promoted in the first half of the season if the bullpen struggles or needs more rest.
The St. Louis Cardinals picked up the second wild card spot in last year’s expanded postseason format behind a 30-28 record.
Translate that to a 162-game season rate? That would mean around 84 wins. The Cardinals have only finished below that once in the past decade, while every team that has reached postseason in that span had at least 88 victories.
With stiffer competition ahead from outside the division, the Cardinals will almost certainly need to outperform last year’s team for postseason baseball in 2021. It could be challenging task as the team builds back to a normal season length, playing more than 100 games compared to last year’s abbreviated season.
PECOTA, a sabermetric system for forecasting MLB performance, projects a fourth-place division finish for the Cardinals with around 78 wins. The projections also call for the Cardinals to be the fourth team outside the Wild Card bubble.
It’s a harsh prediction, but the Cardinals have beaten PECOTA projections in back-to-back years to clinch postseason. To make it a three-peat, St. Louis will likely need to thrive in division play.
Mike Shildt’s clubs have been steady, but not overwhelming against NL Central rivals since he took over managerial duties in July 2018. The Cardinals, who have a 84-65 division record (.563 win percentage) during that timeframe, will play nearly half of their schedule against the Brewers, Cubs, Pirates and Reds.
If the Cardinals stay on par with their division success in recent years, they could win around 43 games from their most common rivals. Take the NL West and NL East win from 2019 and last year’s AL central output into consideration, the Cardinals could win around 44 more games if they play to those averages.
Considering that the Cardinals haven’t had much roster turnover from the last two seasons, the sum of recent division and out-of-division trends (87 wins) appears reasonable and could be a recipe for postseason.
Right now, sports betting organization Vegas Insider gives the Cardinals 22/1 odds (+2200) to reach to win the World Series. Only eight teams have stronger odds for a World Series championship under their model, and the Cardinals have the best odds of any NL Central team. Experts from MLB.com give the Cardinals a 36.2% chance of making postseason.
ESPN’s fantasy baseball projections expect the Cardinals will have several team leaders for individual stats in 2021, including:
- Hits: Nolan Arenado (130)
- Home Runs: Nolan Arenado (33)
- RBI: Nolan Arenado (94)
- Runs: Paul Goldschmidt (91)
- Batting average: Paul Goldschmidt (.275)
- On-base percentage: Paul Goldschmidt (.371)
- Stolen bases: Tommy Edman (21)
- Wins: Jack Flaherty (12)
- Innings pitched: Jack Flaherty (168)
- Strikeouts: Jack Flaherty (205)
- Earned-run average: Jack Flaherty (3.43)
- Walks-hits per innings pitched: Jack Flaherty (1.10)
- Holds: Alex Reyes (19)
- Saves: Jordan Hicks (28)
Overall, 2021 is shaping up to be yet another competitive year for the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals appear ready to adjust the roster on-the-go, embracing a reload in a time where many clubs have opted to rebuild.
The Cardinals still have to navigate through challenges of baseball during the pandemic, but have kept their ceiling and floor notably high in a time of significant change for Major League Baseball. That alone leaves plenty of excitement for the new season.
It’s time for “Cardinals Baseball In A Pandemic, Part II.” Play ball!
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