By Tony Hooker
As is my tradition, I tuned in to the Cardinals first spring training game broadcast on Saturday. To me, there is such beauty in the green grass of the outfield sharply contrasting with the brown dirt of the infield and the crisp white foul lines. Throw in the familiar sounds of sharply hit liners and the ball popping the catcher’s mitt and of the wooden bat striking the ball and I’m transported to other fields in other times, as I’ve written about ad nauseum over the years. As for the teams of most interest in these parts, the Cards, Cubs and White Sox, the Sox are the ones who made the most off-season moves, and if it all comes together and their pitching holds up, I could see them in the picture for a spot in the post season. Their projected lineup is littered with guys who are capable of hitting 20 or more homers. Newly acquired designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion hit 34 a season ago, and if he can hit nearer to his career .263 average than last year’s .244, he’ll be a force in the middle as will 2020 addition, Yasmani Grandal. Shortstop Tim Anderson really came into his own a season ago, and he’s projected out as a 20 homer .280 hitter. Outfielder Eloy Jimenez is another budding star for the pale hose, as the outfielder crushed 32 bombs in 2019 and he’s just 23 years old. As is always the case, the Sox fortunes will depend in great measure on their pitching. Of their five projected starters, none finished with an ERA lower than 4.04 a season ago, and only one, Lucas Giolito, finished with a winning record. (11-10) The Sox did add Dallas Keuchel in the offseason, but he had a subpar 2019 season for Atlanta after not finding a team until well into the campaign. All of this projects to a team that will win somewhere around 85 games in 2020, a significant improvement over 2019, and will have them in the hunt for a wild card spot.
That other team in Chicago, the Cubs, are at a crossroads of sorts, to my way of thinking. In 2016, they fielded one of the youngest teams in the majors and were World Series champs. Fast forward a short four years, and the dynasty has yet to come to be. The top of the lineup, with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez, is one of the best in baseball. The problem is that the bottom third of the lineup drops off precipitously after Kyle Schwarber and Wilson Contreras in the middle of the order. Jason Heyward has seen his best baseball to my way of thinking, as has Ian Happ. Newcomer Jason Kipnis will add some pop, but he’s a career .250 hitter who also might be on the downward arc at the age of 32. The Cubs pitching was solid in 2019, ranking seventh overall. One worry is that their starting pitching is getting rather long in the tooth. At this point, all five of their projected starters are 30 years old, with Jon Lester turning 36 in January. If they hold up, the Cubs should be right there all season long. If they begin to show their age, things could go south in a hurry. An 85- or 86-win season in the incredibly competitive NL Central should have them in the hunt for a playoff spot.
Then come the Cardinals, the defending NL central champs, who dispatched Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs only to be buzz sawed by eventual World Series champion Washington in the NLCS. For the guys with the birds on the bats, it once again will start with pitching and defense. The Cardinals had the number 5 (second among national league teams) staff in the big leagues in 2019, and everyone returns. In Jack Flaherty, the Cardinals have a budding superstar. He fanned 222 hitters while walking just 62 in 2019, at the age of 23. Despite encountering some early spring training arm pain, Miles Mikolas is expected to continue to eat up innings and be workhorse in the rotation. Dakota Hudson is another young talent (25) on the mound for the Cardinals. Adam Wainwright has decided to return for another season at 38 after doing yeoman’s work in winning 14 games in 2019. The fifth starter remains a question mark as spring training begins, but the Cardinals have some talented options in Carlos Martinez, Alex Reyes and KK Kim. In 2019, the Cardinals struggled to score runs consistently, and despite an apparent golden opportunity to do so, failed to land an impact bat, instead betting on a rebound season from Matt Carpenter. Paul Goldschmidt had a solid 2019, batting near .300 with 33 dingers, but that is a far cry from his MVP hay days in Arizona. Paul DeYoung had a stellar season in the field and at the plate, though he wore down late because of the tons of games he played. He and Kolten Wong, who won his first Gold Glove in 2019, combined with Harrison Bader and the ageless Yadier Molina to form one of the best defensive middles in the game. Bader, however, struggled to make contact with breaking balls and hit just .205 a season ago. It will be interesting to see how long the Cards can keep him in the lineup if they’re struggling to score runs as a team. The Cardinals won 91 games a season ago, and with a schedule that includes the Yankees and an improved Cincinnati squad in the central, will have a tough time matching that total. I think 88 wins feels right for this team, and that total should get them a repeat NL Central title after a season-long dog fight. Feel free to let me know if I’m right or why I’m wrong. As always, it should be a fun summer of heckling amongst cub and cardinal fans.