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Cardinals look to bounce back against division leader Brewers - A Series Preview

While the Cardinals got swept by the Braves, the Brewers swept the Mets.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the weekend, the Cardinals have what constitutes an important series early in the year. Typically, a series between the two realistic contenders for a division - sorry Cubs - is important, because it’s a chance to separate yourself. That said, short of a sweep by either team, it’s not really a series that will move the needle for the season. A game gained by either team is not vitally important right now.

Unfortunately for the Cards, it’s slightly more important for them than it is for the Brewers, although that depends on how much better or worse you think the Cardinals are than the Brewers. If you think the Brewers are noticeably worse for instance, it’s actually fairly important for the Brewers. For example, if the Brewers are an 86 win team, but they get off to an 8-1 start, those wins are banked in. If they play like an 86 win team after an 8-1 start, now they’re an 89 win team.

In case you aren’t paying attention to the Brewers or didn’t pick up context clues from my example, the Brewers are 5-1 and they aren’t a cheap 5-1. They swept the Mets, and won a 3-game series against the Cubs. In fact, they are on a five-game winning streak. The bane of Brewers’ fans existence the past few seasons - offense - has arrived after a slow start. In the past four games, they’ve scored at least seven runs in each game. I’m sure that comes as a comfort to the fans worried about the Cardinals’ pitching staff.

So let’s talk about the offense. What’s different? Well a lot. Now, this may be a good thing for the 11th best offense in baseball (which is seriously better than I thought, would never guess they had an above average wRC+ last year - 104). But most of the people who left were good hitters or at least good players. Bat-first Kolten Wong (who yes has become bad on defense somehow) and Hunter Renfroe were traded. Andrew McCutchen, Jace Peterson, and Omar Narvaez left for free agency. And he’s still on the team, but Luis Urias got hurt in the first game he played. So we’re seeing a radically different offense here. Two different infielders, a different catcher, and two different outfielders.

They’ve been replaced by mostly young guys. The role of Peterson went to the formerly dependable Brian Anderson, long-time Marlin who was DFA’d one year before he was set to hit free agency. A career 109 wRC+, Anderson has had trouble with injuries the past couple seasons and hasn’t been an above average hitter since the shortened season. But he’s only 30, so he’s not the worst gamble. As was the case last year, he has been used at both 3B and the outfield and has played in every game this year so far.

They went a different route at catcher, absurdly being lucky enough to get involved with the Sean Murphy trade which I still don’t understand. William Contreras, Willson’s brother, is not a sure thing though. For one thing, he had a wOBA considerably better than his xwOBA last year and if you thought Willson came with defensive issues, William has more. He was 45th out of 60 catchers in framing runs and 50th out of 66 catchers in blocking, plus a little below average in catching runners (though with an above average pop time). The Brewers were able to transform Narvaez from a terrible defense catcher to a positive one so I assume they’re hoping to replicate that.

In exchange for Wong, they received bat-first Jesse Winker. The term bat-first does not begin to describe Winker, who is bad at literally everything that isn’t hitting. And bad doesn’t quite capture it either. He is at -11 outs above average per 1,300 innings, which is more or less Jose Martinez level bad. He is also an unbelievably bad baserunner with a -18 BsR over his 2,000 plate appearances, which is legitimately costing him half a win per 600 PAs. They can’t hide his baserunning, but he’s played only DH so far.

And literally replacing Wong is top 100 prospect Brice Turang, off to a blistering start. With a 108 wRC+ in AAA last season and a 85 wRC+ ZiPS projection, good chance he’s not actually a good hitter, but he has a 164 wRC+ in his first six games. He’s walked more than he’s struck out (his K/BB numbers were good in AAA, but 10% and 20%), hit his first homer already, and stolen two bases. He also has a 60 grade fielding scouting-wise, so he’s basically the version of Wong that we knew if he works out, but more of a stolen base threat, although it’s impossible to compare due to the increased bases and pitch clock.

Replacing Urias for the time being is Joey Wiemer, also with a below average projection, but a 170 wRC+ so far. He also has a homer already and good K/BB numbers, though with a 30.8 K% projection, I don’t expect that one to stick. He is another fast runner, good fielder though. I don’t love that two of the breakout guys for the Brewers are in the big leagues for the first time, because while the betting odds say below average.... there’s way more variation in what they can be. Lastly, another young guy, Garrett Mitchell, actually has an above average hitting projection, and has a 210 wRC+ so far with three homers already.

The Brewers run two different lineups, one against RHP and one against LHP. On Saturday against Jordan Montgomery, we’ll see former Cardinal Luke Voit step in for Rowdy Tellez. Voit has two singles and has struck out in four of his nine plate appearances. Mike Brosseau and Owen Miller are also on the platoon squad, subbing for Mitchell and Turang. We will also see Victor Caratini on Sunday is my guess, since they try to start Contreras against every lefty. Old stand-bys Christian Yelich and Willy Adames have gotten off to poor starts, but we’ll see them in every game most likely.

Friday (7:10 PM)

Jack Flaherty (4.25 ERA/4.97 FIP/4.93 xFIP) vs. Brandon Woodruff (3.05 ERA/3.08 FIP/3.14 xFIP)

Woodruff was classic Woodruff in his first start, with eight strikeouts to one walk in 6 innings of one-run ball. The stats I’m sharing are from 2022 if you didn’t notice. More of a sample size, more of a reflection on the pitchers. Although I was at a loss as to what stats to share for Flaherty. Last year doesn’t feel right, because he’ll pitch better if he’s right.

But here’s a warning. Flaherty has been very bad at American Family Field. Very, very bad. Even when his stuff was working and he was pitching like we hope he will, he has gotten crushed. He has a 5.84 ERA in 37 innings and Brewers have hit .291/.355/.514 off him at that park. I think the starting pitching chatter will remain very loud after this game.

My pick: Brewers

Satuday (6:10 PM)

Jordan Montgomery (3.48 ERA/3.61 FIP/3.43 xFIP) vs. Eric Lauer (3.38 ERA/4.54 FIP/4.08 xFIP)

No disrespect to Owen Miller, Mike Brosseau or Luke Voit, but the Cardinals clearly get the better end of the deal, lineup-wise, when those guys are in it. Lauer meanwhile has significant homer issues. He allowed 27 homers in 29 starts last season and has allowed one already. Against a lefty-feasting team and in a relatively homer-happy park, I’ll be disappointed if the Cardinals fail to hit one (and am hoping for two).

It is nice to have the clear favorite in a pitching matchup, we should do that more often.

My pick: Cardinals

Sunday (1:10 PM)

Jake Woodford (2.23 ERA/3.13 FIP/4.18 xFIP) vs. Freddy Peralta (3.58 ERA/3.06 FIP/3.66 xFIP)

The Brewers have a reputation for having a three-headed monster in their starting rotation, but that’s not exactly accurate. While Peralta is undeniably good, he’s just not on Corbin Burnes or Woodruff’s level. Peralta has pitched past the 6th inning in just 8 of his 68 career starts, while in a whopping 27 of them, he pitched less than 5 innings. Now, some of those 27 were either him getting injured, working back from injury, or maybe he was an opener early in his career, but I would guess at least half were games were he hypothetically could have thrown 5 innings.

Facing him is Woodford, who immediately destroyed all the spring training optimism about him with one start. Well, it’s not just one start. Given his minor league history and projection, there’s not much of an indication that he will be a good starting pitcher. Hopefully he shuts his critics up though with a good start against the Brewers. Objectively, the Brewers are the right pick, but I’ve got to predict a series win and I think the Cards offense are going to be a problem for Peralta.

My pick: Cardinals

One thing I didn’t note, because the Cardinals miss him, is that Corbin Burnes has been quite bad in his first two starts, and not in the Miles Mikolas or Jordan Montgomery way where they get crushed, but have good FIPs. He has already allowed over a run per inning with just 6 Ks to 5 BBs in 9.1 IP. So weirdly, might be a bad thing we miss Burnes.

2022 Record: 44-36