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Playing to Win ... in 2021 (Part 1: Offense)

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Luck will reign in a compressed 2020 season. The Cardinals would be wise to use this season to prepare for 2021 and they don’t have to sacrifice winning to do so.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals vs. San Diego Padres Photo by St. Louis Cardinals, LLC/Getty Images

Isn’t the goal of every season to win as much as possible? To compete for a World Series?

Not necessarily.

In a typical 162-game season, sure, clubs should try to build a roster that has a good chance to compete for their division and go deep into the playoffs. That marathon quantity of games allows for the ups and downs of injuries and performance to even out. Talent usually wins.

When the season (and the talent) are compressed, the more random variance enters the equation and the less control a club has over their destiny.

Consider, for example, current projections for the fiercely competitive NL Central. In the 60-game 2020 season, Fangraphs projects the Cards to finish 4th with 31 wins and a .517 winn%. The Cubs are the on-paper division champs, with a .534 win%. That’s 32 wins. YEs, one computer modeled game separates the top four teams in the division.

When the NL Central isn’t playing each other, they will play the tight AL Central. Between the two divisions, 7 of the 10 teams have legitimate playoff aspirations and projections have those 7 teams separated by just 2 games.

The point is that over 60 games anything can happen. Jack Flaherty can suffer a minor ankle sprain, miss three weeks and the Cardinals could finish last. Or the same could happen to Kris Bryant and the Cardinals could surpass the Cubs.

Random variance not talent will have the biggest influence on this season.

The Cardinals really shouldn’t worry too much about where they finish in the standings in an asterisk season. They should worry about the things that they can control. Like who and how they play.

They should play to win, yes. But, they should play to win in 2021.

Over the next two articles (today and Saturday), I will list what I believe are the priorities for the Cardinals offense and pitching staff. Winning will be part of that, but not at the expense of vital player development. I believe that the Cardinals can play for 2021 without sacrificing playoff chances in 2020.

Houston Astros v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Offensive Priority #1: Figure out the 2021 Outfield

The Cardinals have a deep outfield and all of it is under control through the 2021 season. Across three outfield spots, the Cardinals have 180 games to divide between five core players. The Cardinals should prioritize those games for the players with the most future value and the least amount of previous MLB experience.

1. Tyler O’NeillThe 2020 season remains O’Neill’s best chance at securing regular playing time and proving his talent. Over the past two seasons, O’Neill has received only sporadic opportunities. He’s flopped as a pinch hitter but excelled when given regular PA’s. The Cardinals should commit at least 30 games to him in LF at the beginning of the season before they even consider evaluating him. He needs at least 55 games in the lineup – 45 in LF and 10 at DH – this season for the club to know whether they can count on him as a full-time starter in 2021. (Cumulative OF starts: 45)

2. Dylan Carlson – The Cardinals can gain a full season of service time by holding Carlson off the active roster for the first week of the season. They should do this. 6-7 extra games is not worth losing 162 games of Carlson’s prime production. Activating Carlson after 1-2 weeks will cost him an option year, but that only matters he fails to meet even his potential floor. How high can does that potential go? Carlson is already the most talented outfielder in the Cardinals organization. The club likely planned to give him around half a season of MLB exposure (ala ’14 Oscar Taveras – 80 games and 248 PAs). All the Cardinals have to do is stick to their plan. Commit 35 starts to him and over 120 PA’s. (Cumulative OF starts: 80).

3. & 4. Harrison Bader & Lane ThomasI’ve grouped these two because I view them as a package deal. Bader might be the best centerfielder in baseball. Thomas has excellent defensive ability. Both have some pop in their bat but also have limitations in their offensive game. Either could end up a starter or a quality reserve. That creates the ideal environment for a straight competition. Bader takes priority because of his 3.6 fWAR season in ’18. He needs about a month to see if he has made progress against breaking and off-speed pitches. If Bader bounces back to his ’18 offensive levels, then Thomas can stay in the bench role he is best suited for. If Bader doesn’t improve, then Thomas should start earning starts in his place and could end the season with as much as 30 starts; more if there is an injury. I say let the best center fielder play! I’ll tentatively schedule Bader for 45 starts and give Thomas 15 in center and 5 in a corner OF spot. (Cumulative OF starts: 145).

5. Dexter FowlerCombined Dex has produced .4 fWAR that last two seasons with a .216/.321/.367 slash line. His 3-year ZiPS projections see him posting a .5 fWAR in a full 162-game 2020 (redact that to replacement level for 60 games) and then regressing to sub-replacement in 2021. Because of his walk-rate, status and salary, Dex will frequently have a spot in the lineup. Does the spot have to be full-time and in RF? No, it doesn’t. The DH opens space for two declining players of questionable defensive value to continue to see plate appearances: Carpenter and Fowler. Much of the PA’s that the club needs to give to Carlson can come by sliding Fowler to DH a few times a week. The Cardinals should plan to give Fowler 35 starts in right and another 15 at DH – 50 games total. (Cumulative OF starts: 180.)

St. Louis Cardinals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

Offensive Priority #2: Ready or Not, Knizner Has to Play

In the spring, it seemed a foregone conclusion that Yadier Molina would be back with the Cardinals after his contract expires in 2020. Molina was hoping for a two-year extension and reports indicated the front office was exploring such a deal. A lot has changed since March. The economy collapsed and baseball has lost billions. What will the current economic situation in the game mean for payrolls in 2021? It will mean blood. Free-agent blood.

With just a handful of pending free agents, the Cardinals have only a few ways to cut expenses. Yadier Molina represents the largest salary coming off the books. When everything is factored in, I see almost no chance that Molina will return to the Cardinals.

That means Mike Shildt should Tony LaRussa Yadier Molina like Ozzie Smith so Andrew Knizner can Royce Clayton.

Get it?

The Cardinals have 60 games to likely say goodbye to an all-time great while also preparing a young replacement who, by almost all accounts, isn’t quite ready. It’s an ugly situation, no doubt, and there is no good solution. There just isn’t enough games to offer to Knizner, and I don’t see how Shildt could bench Molina for most of the season without turning the clubhouse into a war zone.

My suggestion? Try to give Knizner 25 starts behind the plate. He also needs to stay on the roster the entire season sitting in every meeting and remain engaged with the pitching staff and MLB coaches.

Will that happen? No. Most likely Knizner will have less than 5 starts this season and the Cardinals will roll the dice with him or try to survive with a cheap free agent add next season.

Can the Cardinals Focus on 2021 and Still Win in 2020?

Absolutely. Carlson, Thomas, O’Neill, and Knizner are candidates for major playing time in 2021 because they have real talent. The players they are bumping are on the downslope of their careers. Honestly, the Cardinals would certainly be sacrificing talent and likely production if they committed to starting Fowler in RF and keeping Carlson down the entire season. Molina was worth just 1.2 fWAR in ’19 with just an 87 wRC+. Those are production numbers that Knizner could replicate when both are scaled to a 60 game season.

Luck will reign in 2021. The Cardinals can better prepare themselves for a difficult 2021 season by planning now and doing so does not require them to sacrifice their playoff chances in 2020.