ST. LOUIS — Cardinals and Pirates. Busch Stadium. Possibly later this month.
As real plans begin to set in for the 2020 season, one begins to take a harder look at the rosters. The St. Louis Cardinals have carved out a 60 player pool, which comprises the players that the team will use during summer training and the regular season. It'll be the normal 40-man roster plus a taxi squad that would be set to aide the team in response to a sudden injury or depth issues.
Basically, with no minor league schedules taking place this year, the Major League teams will have a pool to choose from in fixing a roster issue or sudden string of injuries. In a year like this, with players getting no real action in between March and this month, expect a lot of roster juggling and shape-shifting.
There are also rule changes, including two key ones. The first has been thoroughly discussed: The designated hitter being universal. For the first time since 1990-ever, the National League will employ an extra bat, with the pitcher not having to hit. Strategic gamesmanship will still take place, but the double-switches will take a nap for the time being.
The second rule involves extra innings play. When the fielders take their positions for the top of the tenth inning, they will be greeted by a runner on second base. In order to speed up the longer games and save some miles on their players' legs, Major League Baseball is starting the extra innings with a runner in scoring position. If you hadn't tuned in all day and click it on to see a game-winning single at the start of extra innings, there may be a mild ounce of regret.
This year, baseball will be a sport that fans can't miss too much of in order to stay locked in. You can't miss a game or two and feel like there's 90 games left in the season. They are playing 60 games this year, and it will feel different and weird in the beginning.
But I think the new rules and shortened season could help the Cardinals more than most teams. There are injuries to John Brebbia, and Jordan Hicks isn't expected back just yet, but the Cardinals are equipped with an abundance of young arms fired up to contribute. Armed with enough starters to fill two rotations and hard-throwers to fit a couple bullpens, St. Louis is ready. There are many bubble players on this team who need a shot.
Think about it if you are Austin Gomber. You're turning 27 in November, which means the clock will start ticking in 2021. You may have not lost a year of salary altogether, but the age on your body counts no matter what. Gomber could be a key player for the team, both out of the pen and rotation.
The Cardinals have swing-arms like Gomber, Daniel Ponce de Leon, and Ryan Helsley: pitchers who could start, but have instead spent time in the bullpen to wear the birds on the bat sooner. On this team, young arms usually travel through the bullpen before reaching the rotation.
Giovanny Gallegos, Kwang Hyun Kim, Andrew Miller, John Gant, Tyler Webb, and the previously mentioned trio of hybrids will give the team a decent first push.
The shorter season will help Adam Wainwright. He probably didn't have 30+ starts in him, so now he can take advantage of the swifter schedule. Yadier Molina's knees won't be as taxed. Carlos Martinez could form terror for other teams at the top of the rotation with Jack Flaherty.
But here are the two clear cut reasons for the 2020 rule changes helping the Birds more than most: fast runners and a clog of big bats.
The Cardinals have about 72 outfielders, which allows them to equip the newfound DH position quickly. If Dexter Fowler must start, he's a DH for better defense. If Tommy Edman must play third, Matt Carpenter is a DH. Tyler O'Neill could find himself there, even with his mostly sound defense. Edman could be a DH as well. Matt Wieters could step out of the backup role for a few games and use his clutch bat. Rangel Ravelo is a DH candidate. Lane Thomas should be in the outfield, but he has a potent bat.
This team is well-stocked to fill the new position, but whatever player they choose, it will also benefit the team defensively. Carpenter saves runs at third base, so Edman could push Fowler for starts if the rightfielder isn't hitting. The extra bat makes the Cardinals a deadly bunch if a few question-mark bats are actually contributing.
The runner on second base to start extras isn't a bright idea, but we don't get to be choosers this summer, or ever. Rob Manfred is getting all his little wishes played out due to COVID's grip, but this one isn't that bad — at least not for the Cardinals. The team has a fleet of speedy runners ready to make the half-inning fly by quick with the new rule. Imagine Harrison Bader striking out to end the ninth, yet coming up to take second in the tenth? The Cardinals have speed and should use it.
O'Neill, Bader, and Thomas can all fly, and Edman and Kolten Wong are pretty fast as well. The only issue the team would have is if Molina found his way to second base at the start of the tenth-but that is where Mike Shildt will need to turn to speed there.
Ben Cerutti was one of the people who remained bullish on this team before this year got underway. He liked the pitching staff, both in the rotation and the outfield potential. When I talked about acquiring Yasiel Puig or another free agent outfield bat, Cerutti pointed out how the team could lean into their young core to equip the lineup. What if the Cardinals found answers as well as production in a shortened season.
Here's the thing. The Cardinals are a better team than they were in March. The added-on designated hitter and runner debuting in the extras makes them a true threat to reach the pennant and the World Series. You didn't read that last part wrong. The pressurized vice of a season benefits certain teams deep enough to make a quick launch.
The Cardinals are one of those teams.