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Projecting the next five home openers

IT’S OPENING DAY!

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

I usually try to do an optimistic post on Opening Day, where I say everything will work out and the Cardinals will win the World Series. That’s the mood of an Opening Day, where anything and everything can happen, everything starts at zero, and you’re caught up in the optimism. If you want to read that post, you can find it here. All of that applies to my mood on this great should-be national Holliday. If I wrote that post today, the specifics would be different, but it would pretty much be the same post. I just don’t really want to write the same exact post, you know?

So I thought I’d try something different and try to imagine the Cardinals in a year. In two years. And so on. It’s a fun experiment and harder than you’d think. Free agents, trades, unforeseen prospects - all of these things will happen and none of them would be reasonable to predict as likely. For example in fact, just look at the likely starting lineup for today’s game. Arguably, you’d probably predict Yadier Molina as the starting catcher, once the Cards traded for him, Tyler O’Neill was an easy guess, and Dylan Carlson has been a good guess since he was drafted. That’s it.

You could I suppose argue Nolan Arenado was somewhat predictable, though I honestly put that with the Charlie Blackmon rumors that happened every year and would never happen. Not everyone felt the same obviously. Paul Goldschmidt wouldn’t have been a prediction until he was traded. Tommy Edman, Paul DeJong, and Harrison Bader weren’t really seen as future starters until they started succeeding at the MLB level. Bader maybe, but definitely not as a centerfielder. I would get most of this lineup wrong a year before they became Opening Day starters. But let’s try our best.

2023 Lineup

C- Christian Vazquez

1B - Paul Goldschmidt

2B - Nolan Gorman

3B - Nolan Arenado

SS - Tommy Edman

LF - Tyler O’Neill

CF - Harrison Bader

RF - Dylan Carlson

DH - Juan Yepez

SP - Jack Flaherty

So this was way harder than I expected. The outfield was easy. Really easy. Bader just signed a two-year deal, cementing him as the likely starter next year. Tyler O’Neill won’t reach free agency for three years. And Dylan Carlson is still in pre-arbitration at this time. I don’t know if I actually believe in Edman at SS for next year, but the problem was that I struggled to imagine him not starting next year, as I also did with Gorman. And it’d be weird to believe more in Nolan Gorman starting than Juan Yepez (who is clearly more ready at the moment) so I felt compelled to put him there too. I don’t know what happens to DeJong in the scenario.

Catcher was tough. I believe in Ivan Herrera, but you do kind of have to squint to think the Cards are going to hand the keys to catcher to him immediately. He held his own in AA, and I expect him to do the same in AAA. But if he has a 104 wRC+ in AAA, I don’t think he’s going to be catapulted into the starting role, and neither Andrew Knizner nor Ali Sanchez are good enough to bridge the gap. Why did I choose Vazquez? Well there are three catchers who might be had on one-year deals who aren’t true backups. Honestly, Mike Zunino for his strikeouts and Omar Narvaez for his defense don’t seem like Cardinal moves. Narvaez also has a good shot at a multi-year deal. Flaherty is guaranteed for Opening Day if here and healthy I think.

2024

C - Ivan Herrera

1B - Paul Goldschmidt

2B - Nolan Gorman

3B - Nolan Arenado

SS - Brendan Donovan

LF - Jordan Walker

CF - Tyler O’Neill

RF - Dylan Carlson

DH - Juan Yepez

SP - Dakota Hudson

BOLD PREDICTION ALERT. What better way to honor Paul DeJong than to have a guy who is on nobody’s radar to play SS end up becoming the starting SS. I mean he’s as good a choice as any. Actually, objectively speaking, he’s clearly the worst guess, but we have to keep the spirit of devil magic here. DeJong, if he can perform, has a way better shot at getting his club option accepted than you’d think. Sosa might sustain his performance and be the Edman in this scenario. The free agent options are actually pretty bleak, especially if you correctly assume they have no shot at Trea Turner or if they opt-out, Xander Bogaerts and Carlos Correa. And Winn will not be ready this year, and they don’t really have anyone else for SS in the system.

Hudson is a cop-out. The Cardinals usually have the home opener on the second week of the season. I am not projecting him to be the Cards best starter, but that the Cards will reward the longest tenured starter with home opener start. I have no idea who is pitching the actual Opening Day game. I believe in Liberatore, but the minor leagues have a serious lack of upside and even with Liberatore, I hope they feel compelled to get another elite pitcher who is probably more of a sure thing that Liberatore for this year.

2025

C - Ivan Herrera

1B - Paul Goldschmidt

2B - Nolan Gorman

3B - Nolan Arenado

SS - Masyn Winn

LF - Jordan Walker

CF - Ramon Lauereno

RF - Dylan Carlson

DH - Juan Yepez

SP - Matthew Liberatore

Paul Goldschmidt is technically a free agent by this point. However, he strikes me as someone who will age well, and if he ages well, as someone the Cardinals will want to re-sign. And I suspect he might not be signed as the full-time starter, but if he’s signed at all, for the home opener at least, he’s starting at 1B. Assuming he doesn’t “bust” (which I put in quotes for a reason), this is about the time Winn would be ready. Bader doesn’t strike me as someone you re-sign, but there isn’t a whole lot on the market for CF. So I went with what right now looks like the best option at CF. He doesn’t strike me as someone who will be out of the Cards price range, but who knows?

2026

C - Ivan Herrera

1B - Paul Goldschmidt

2B - Nolan Gorman

3B - Nolan Arenado

SS - Masyn Winn

LF - Jordan Walker

CF - Ramon Lauereno

RF - Dylan Carlson

DH - Juan Yepez

SP - Matthew Liberatore

So if you’re wondering, I’m thinking a two-year deal for Goldschmidt and by 2026, he’s definitely getting the Pujols start. If Juan Yepez is still around, I suspect he’s starting at 1B by this point. Otherwise, it’s the exact same as the year before.

2027

C - Ivan Herrera

1B - Juan Yepez

2B - Nolan Gorman

3B - Nolan Arenado

SS - Masyn Winn

LF - Jordan Walker

CF - Joshua Baez

RF - Ramon Laureno

DH - Alex Verdugo

SP - Alec Willis

Baez now ready, he pushes the aging Laureno to right field. Alex Verdugo is effectively Corey Dickerson in 2027 in this situation. Juan Yepez finally gets an Opening Day start at 1B with Goldschmidt retiring. No particular reason I switched to Alec Willis, just wanted to switch it up at starting pitcher. And Willis has that kind of potential.

I feel fairly confident about first and third obviously. I’m moderately confident about second base, though would not be surprised if Gorman’s role changes or even if he’s traded. It seems like corner outfield, first base, and arguably DH is pretty much covered by people already on the team or internal options. They just have so many bat first prospects, they have to play somewhere. If the Cards are trading for a future Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado, it seems like it has to be at short or center. It’s not really their style to acquire a starter that way.

A couple fun facts. Yadier Molina is starting his 18th straight Opening Day and likely last. This is Goldschmidt’s fourth straight Opening Day and Arenado’s second straight as Cardinals. This will be Albert Pujols’ 12th Opening Day as a Cardinal. He already has played three Opening Days as the LFer, eight as the first baseman and this will be his first as a DH. This will be Edman’s second straight and DeJong’s fifth straight. O’Neill is starting his third straight Opening Day. Bader is also starting in his third Opening Day, having missed last year’s to injury. Dylan Carlson’s second Opening Day, but first as a right fielder. And lastly, Adam Wainwright - who has been reserved for home openers in the past couple seasons - is pitching in his sixth Opening Day start, and first in six years.

If that is indeed the lineup for today’s game, that means every player has played in a prior Opening Day game for the Cardinals. Here’s a real fun fact for you. This will be the first time since 1968 that the Cardinals entire starting lineup on Opening Day have all previously played in a prior Opening Day for the Cardinals. That seems unbelievable, but I double checked. Starting pitchers were the most common culprit, but each era also seemed to feature a revolving door of players of at least one position. For example, from 2008 to 2018 when DeJong started his first game, the Cardinals had 10 different starting SS.

That 1968 lineup, if you were wondering was Tim McCarver at catcher (in his third game), Orlando Cepeda at 1B (in second game), Julian Javier at 2B (eight Opening Day), Mike Shannon at 3B (second one), Dal Maxvill at SS (also second), Lou Brock at LF (third game), Curt Flood at CF (seventh Opening Day start), Roger Maris at RF (in second game), and Bob Gibson (also his third).

With Yadier Molina set to retire, we will certainly have a brand new Cardinal start Opening Day as a Cardinal for the first time. How long will it take until we have an entire lineup of Opening Day Cards who’ve been there before? I have them repeating in four years, which given how long it took, I doubt happens. But I also think it’ll happen faster than 54 years, you know?