(KMOV.com) — The baseball world sits in a holding pattern as the players and team owners work to come to an agreement on a variety of issues that threaten the potential for a season getting underway. The health and safety concerns in firing up a professional sports league amid a global pandemic are substantial; friction between players and ownership over monetary issues have made clearing the health hurdles only part of the battle toward scoring the return of baseball.
From the outside looking in, it’s difficult these days not to get pessimistic about the situation. Remember when Nike swooshes on the uniforms were the most concerning aspect of the 2020 Major League Baseball season?
For the purposes of this story, let’s get back to discussing an element of MLB that doesn’t garner many headlines in a coronavirus world: the product on the field. According to reports, a truncated MLB season would feature a modified schedule for 2020, pitting teams against their divisional opponents and clubs from the corresponding geographic division in the opposite league, and only those teams for the entirety of their 2020 schedule. In this scenario, the Cardinals wouldn’t see National League behemoths like the Dodgers, Nationals or Braves unless this year unless they met them in whatever version of a postseason baseball concocts for this season.
Instead, St. Louis would see a regular season schedule filled with NL Central foes and opponents from the American League Central. The precise number of games the Cardinals would play against each team remains uncertain, but we can speculate approximate totals based on what we know.
In a typical season, teams face teams from their own division 19 times. With five teams per division, that makes for 76 intra-divisional games in a 162-game schedule, meaning about 46.9% of games are played against divisional foes in a normal year.
In a modified schedule featuring between 78 and 82 games, it’s conceivable that the proportion of divisional games would increase, given that an opponent-pool based on geography would decrease the number of options available to comprise the schedule. A schedule featuring a dozen games against each other NL Central clubs (48 total games), plus home-and-home, three-game series against all teams from the AL Central (30 total games), would put the Cardinals schedule at 78; that’s in the neighborhood of what reports indicate we could be looking at in 2020.
If the Cardinals’ 2020 schedule indeed features a grand total of nine opposing teams, St. Louis fans would gain familiarity with AL Central clubs that aren't typically as much of a priority in a normal baseball season. Let’s rank each of the Cardinals potential 2020 opponents based on expectations for their performance in a truncated 2020 campaign.
9. Detroit Tigers
Team record: 47-114 (30th)
Runs scored: 582 (30th)
Team ERA: 5.24 (28th)
Hey, right off the bat, the Cardinals would catch a break from this new scheduling quirk. The Tigers were easily the worst team in Major League Baseball last season, losing a whopping 114 games as the laughingstock of the AL Central’s basement.
Detroit has to pay Miguel Cabrera through the 2023 season, but it’s already clear he’s more 'old Miggy' than the 'Miggy of old' these days. The most recognizable name on the Tigers roster, the 37-year-old Cabrera is a defensive liability with a power-sapped bat. On the pitching side, lefty starter Matthew Boyd emerged to notch 238 strikeouts for Detroit a year ago, but in truth, the Tigers probably should have used him as a trade chip to help restock the cupboard while his stock was high last summer.
The Tigers boast two of the game’s top pitching prospects in Casey Mize and Matt Manning, but until those reinforcements arrive, there’s not really much to be excited about in Detroit. Though a shortened season with expanded rosters could compel teams to expedite the arrivals of prospects as a way to avoid 2020 as a lost season for their development, that may not be enough to save the Tigers. Detroit is a team the Cardinals should beat up on for any games the two sides play this year.
8. Pittsburgh Pirates
Team record: 69-93 (24th)
Runs scored: 758 (T-20th)
Team ERA: 5.18 (26th)
The Pirates might be really bad this year. Their front office’s string of bungled trades that included shipping Gerrit Cole, Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow out of town finally cost GM Neal Huntington his job at the end of the 2019 season, putting Pittsburgh in total rebuild mode. The team traded Starling Marte over the winter to further cement that status, leaving Josh Bell as perhaps the only noteworthy building block for the long-term in Pittsburgh.
A truncated 2020 season is probably the best thing that could happen to the Pirates, except for the fact that it might mean a modified trade deadline that precludes the club from siphoning off more of its roster for assets that can help them in the future. Like any club, Pittsburgh has capable major leaguers at a few spots, but their lack of star power is hard to deny.
7. Kansas City Royals
Team record: 59-103 (27th)
Runs scored: 691 (26th)
Team ERA: 5.20 (27th)
Mike Matheny’s Royals! It would have been interesting enough to see how Matheny would have handled his new, young ball club under the conditions of a normal season, but his foray into managing on the other side of the state will surely be just as compelling in a coronavirus-impacted campaign. The Royals don’t necessarily have the same level of competitive expectations this season as the Cardinals had during Matheny’s time as manager in St. Louis, but in fairness, Matheny inherited a much more capable roster in his first managerial gig.
The powers that be in Kansas City groomed Matheny as their man destined to guide the Royals into a new era, so that he enters the picture with the rebuild process already in full swing should actually serve to Matheny’s benefit for the beginning of his tenure there. The Royals have a decent crop of intriguing position players in Adalberto Mondesi, Hunter Dozier, Whit Merrifield, Salvy Perez and Jorge Soler, but the depth elsewhere on the club is still pretty thin. Brady Singer could arrive soon as Kansas City’s top pitching prospect, but the rest of the Kansas City rotation is likely to struggle for at least another year.
As permanent inter-league rivals, the Cardinals would have played Kansas City this year, anyway. The scheduling plans reportedly being dreamed up by MLB would seem to make it so those plans don't have to change. To borrow from the Marvel villain Thanos, Mike Matheny is... inevitable?
6. Milwaukee Brewers
Team record: 89-73 (11th)
Runs scored: 769 (T-15th)
Team ERA: 4.40 (16th)
Based on their respective performances in 2019, it might seem like a major sleight to the Brewers that I place them just one spot higher in the pecking order than the Royals, who lost 103 games a year ago. Let me be clear, I still expect a significant gap between the Royals and Brewers in 2020. This placement says more about the relative strength of the top halves of both these divisions than anything else; while the Tigers, Pirates and Royals should be spectacularly bad, they’re also the only three teams from the two Central divisions that I would consider bad at all.
Milwaukee shouldn’t be bad in 2020; at worst, mediocre. But the Brewers definitely did get worse in the off-season, allowing Yasmani Grandal (.848 OPS) Mike Moustakas (.845 OPS), Eric Thames (.851 OPS) and Gio Gonzalez (3.50 ERA) to walk in free agency. They also swapped Zach Davies (10-7, 3.55 ERA) for Eric Lauer (8-10, 4.45 ERA) in a trade with San Diego, which I’m not sure improves them in the immediate term.
Milwaukee added bit pieces to replace some of the departing talent, but the roster doesn’t appear nearly as strong as it did when the Brewers won 89 games last season. Both the lineup and rotation are trending in the wrong direction. Though the bullpen is still anchored by Josh Hader, 2019 revealed flaws in the relief pieces that surround him.
In an NL Central that has seen the Reds make numerous moves in an attempt to rise from the ashes in 2020, the still-capable Brewers could be left as a hard-luck fourth place club this summer.
5. Chicago White Sox
Team record: 72-89 (20th)
Runs scored: 708 (24th)
Team ERA: 4.90 (22nd)
Given how the White Sox performed in 2019, their presence above the Brewers on this list might come as a surprise. After all, the records for the two teams were virtual inverses of one another last year, with the Brewers coming out handily on the plus-side. We talked a lot in St. Louis over the off-season about the threat a retooled Reds roster could pose to the Cardinals in the NL Central; I believe the White Sox are poised to make a similar leap in the American League’s middle division.
Though Chicago hasn’t had a winning season since 2012, its mix of quality veterans and emerging talent could be the recipe that changes that statistic in 2020. The South Siders have added Edwin Encarnacion, Yasmani Grandal, Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez to join Jose Abreu in establishing a veteran presence to guide the club’s up-and-coming core. That core includes Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez, Tim Anderson, Luis Robert and Michael Kopech, just a portion of the list of youngsters set to play prominent roles for a team that has the looks of a contender in the not-too-distant future.
4. Cincinnati Reds
Team record: 72-90 (19th)
Runs scored: 701 (25th)
Team ERA: 4.18 (8th)
That the Reds managed to compile a team ERA inside MLB’s top 10 last season was a welcomed change to their track record on the mound in recent years. 2019 was Cincy’s first time landing outside the bottom quarter of the league in team ERA since 2014. Still, the club didn’t find much success in the standings because they struggled to score runs.
After the moves they made this winter, I’m not sure scoring runs is going to be an issue anymore for the new-look Reds. Cincinnati signed Mike Moustakas to boost the offensive output of the infield and then added outfielder Shogo Akiyama out of Japan to be the presumptive lead-off hitter; Akiyama boasted an on-base percentage of .385 or better in Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) in each of his last five seasons, resembling a true table-setter for any lineup. Then, seeing he was still available in late January, the Reds pounced on Nicholas Castellanos. He was a one-man wrecking crew in his stint with the Cubs late last season, during which he enjoyed an OPS of 1.002 for the stretch run.
The new faces join a position player group featuring lineup mainstays like Joey Votto and Eugenio Suarez, while the likes of Nick Senzel, Jesse Winker and Aristides Aquino hope to make their mark for regular playing time. And remember, pitching was the strength of last year’s club. With Wade Miley brought in during the winter to accompany Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Trevor Bauer and Anthony DeSclafani in the starting rotation, the Reds suddenly have depth on both sides of the ball.
3. Chicago Cubs
Team record: 84-78 (15th)
Runs scored: 814 (10th)
Team ERA: 4.10 (7th)
For all the talk about how the Cubs were poised for a tear-down, how they might trade Kris Bryant or another big name from the main cast in Chicago… They sure do look a lot like the same Cubs that have been contenders each of the last five seasons. Though their manager is different, that fact could actually serve as a boost for the team that replaced Joe Maddon with beloved former teammate, David Ross.
In Maddon’s final season at the helm, the Cubs are inarguably worse than the sum of their parts. To finish in the top ten in runs scored and team ERA across baseball but land jammed right in the middle of MLB in win/loss record isn’t what you hope for—Chicago underachieved in 2019.
But once the crickets finished chirping around an eerily quiet off-season for the Cubs, a glance at their projected lineup and starting rotation is all you’d need to realize that they still have the talent to pose a considerable threat to the Cardinals’ current place upon their perch in the Central. Chicago’s roster is littered with former All-Stars and Cy Young candidates—whether that group can reset its trajectory and live up to its talent under Grandpa Rossy remains to be seen. Still, this is a group that has done it before—don’t look past them and let the Cubs take you by surprise if they remember how to do it again in 2020.
2. Cleveland Indians
Team record: 93-69 (T-8th)
Runs scored: 769 (T-15th)
Team ERA: 3.76 (4th)
The Indians claimed three straight AL Central titles from 2016 to 2018 before being dethroned last season—more on the team that knocked them off the pedestal coming up in a minute. Swirling trade rumors regarding the team’s superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor have had fans in Cleveland on edge in recent months, but for now, the 26-year-old remains the face of the franchise. Cleveland doesn’t have the most star-studded roster behind Lindor, but it’s a balanced group with quality anchors like Carlos Santana, Jose Ramirez and Shane Bieber that are underrated on a national scale.
After missing most of last season to injury, former Cleveland ace Corey Kluber is now a Texas Ranger, leaving a hole in the rotation. As long as he’s recovered from early spring knee surgery, the Indians will lean on Mike Clevinger and a hopefully-healthy Carlos Carrasco to help fill the void atop the pitching staff.
Former Cardinal farmhand Oscar Mercado has made an impression for playing opportunity in the Indians outfield, and the club hopes its acquisition of slugger Franmil Reyes pays dividends for the offense. When you look at their position player group, the Indians feel similar in a lot of ways to the Cardinals; you might not know exactly which pieces fit where on a given day, but with manager Terry Francona guiding a ship filled with capable contributors, you generally expect the Indians to be in the mix for some hardware come October—or in this case, Thanksgiving, Christmas, or whenever they decide to play the postseason this year.
1. Minnesota Twins
Team record: 101-61 (4th)
Runs scored: 939 (2nd)
Team ERA: 4.18 (9th)
Leading the majors in home runs in 2019, the Twins had eight different players hit at least 20 bombs last season. For comparison, the Cardinals had only three. The Twins had more than that eclipse 30 homers, with five accomplishing the feat. These guys raked.
Their lineup was lethal and pretty much returns the same cast of characters in 2020. On the pitching side, the Twins could be even better than the top 10 staff they put together a year ago. In the off-season, Minnesota added Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. Though Hill was expected to miss the first half of the season due to elbow surgery, the first half of the season isn’t going to actually happen this year. It’s possible the Twins open the season with a rotation featuring Maeda and Hill along with Jose Berrios, Jake Odorizzi and newfound quality arm Randy Dobnak.
If the top names stay healthy and the former Uber driver can build on his magic from 2019, the Twins could sneakily have one of the strongest pitching groups in the league. Adding a top-flight rotation to their potent lineup should make the Twins a handful for any opponent on their schedule, the Cardinals included.
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