ST. LOUIS — Spring is over and it is time for baseball. More specifically, it is time for Cardinals baseball.
Despite a playoff appearance in 2020, 2021 oddly seems like the first “real” baseball since 2019. Yes, we are still in the midst of a pandemic and there are still plenty of health and safety protocols. However, vaccines are rolling out and normalcy seems to be returning to the sports world. The norm in St. Louis is postseason baseball, something the Cardinals have achieved 14 times since 2000. This season, the expectation is no different.
If anything, the offseason acquisition of Nolan Arenado raised expectations. After months of inactivity, the Cardinals pulled off a blockbuster – some might even call it a robbery – by acquiring one of the best third basemen in the game. Pairing him with Paul Goldschmidt gives the Redbirds a lethal combination of talent at the corner infield positions. This is something Cardinals Nation is used to, remember two players by the names of Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen?
Even with the high expectations and the big offseason splash, questions remain for the Cardinals after an 8-10-6 Grapefruit League season.
Questions are plentiful in the outfield, despite strong springs from Tyler O’Neill, John Nogowski and Justin Williams. The latter two names, along with Austin Dean, will be competing for playing time until Harrison Bader returns from injury. Two other question marks are in the rotation, where John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon will fill in until Kwang-Hyun Kim and Miles Mikolas return.
In most scenarios, you look at stats for who should get the playing time. However, that begs the question, what stats do you look at? Do you look at Spring Training stats or stats from seasons past? Since Nogowski had a higher average, more home runs and more runs driven in this spring than Dean and Williams, he should be the starter, right? Not necessarily. Nogowski’s natural position is first base, one that Paul Goldschmidt has locked down. He has been getting reps in the outfield, but both Justin Williams and Austin Dean have full-time experience in the outfield. There’s no question Nogowski’s torrid spring earned him a roster spot, but the question of him earning full playing time is yet to be determined.
Another question mark is Matt Carpenter. As 5 On Your Side's Corey Miller put in a recent article, “there's not a more divisive name you could bring up to a Cardinals fan right now than Matt Carpenter.” After a 2 for 37 spring, the stats/results would tell you there’s no way he makes the roster. However, his contract, name and pedigree would tell you different. No matter your Matt Carpenter take, it would be hard-pressed to see him hit .054 over the course of a 162-game season. He’s been too good of a hitter for too long to do that, right? Again, another question mark on the Cardinal roster.
No matter how many question marks the Cardinals have, offensively or on the mound, this team has a high upside – especially on the mound. With Jack Flaherty leading the way and fireballers Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks waiting in the ‘pen, this team could be exciting. While it’s a stretch to put them on the same level as the juggernauts in the NL West, it’s not a stretch to say this team is a favorite for the NL Central championship. And, as Cardinal fans have seen in the past, once you make it to October, anything can happen.
Lucas Smith is the host of the Locked On Cardinals Podcast, part of the Locked On Podcast family affiliated with TEGNA.