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St. Louis Cardinals vs. Chicago Cubs opening series preview

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Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs open the season tonight at Wrigley Field. Instead of opening day; it's opening night. This year opening night doesn't follow a down-under opening series so the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game is the MLB season opener. The field is clear for the Cards vs. Cubs. It seems that MLB may have jumped the gun by a year with its scheduling.

The Cardinals are good as they have been with astonishing regularity over these last 15 seasons. As Aaron Finkel wrote in a post with a lot of fun charts, it's a golden age of St. Louis baseball for a franchise with more than its fair share of golden ages. The Cardinals are coming off their fourth consecutive NLCS appearance. They won 97 games in 2013 and the pennant. in 2011, St. Louis won the organization's 11th World Series championship (their first since 2006—it's a hard-knock life).

The Cubs, on the other hand, haven't made it to the postseason since 2008 and haven't had a winning record since 2009. They haven't won the pennant since 1945. And of course the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908.

Despite the Cubs and Cardinals rarely competing directly for October glory, there is little if anything better in sport than the Cardinals facing the Cubs at Wrigley. Of course this is most true during the day when there are bleachers at Wrigley that are full of fans as opposed to a cold April night game with no bleachers beyond the ivy-covered brick outfield wall. One of the oldest parks in the game will be half-finished for tonight's tilt, kind of like the Cubs' roster.

It seems probably (though I haven't read anything one way or the other) that when tapping the Cubs-Cards for opening night at Wrigley, MLB didn't know that there would be no bleachers. Likewise the schedule-making brass probably assumed that the Cubs' future would be playing a part in the spotlight on the closest thing the sport has to center stage. They were mostly wrong on both counts.

Yes, Jorge Soler will be in the Cubs' starting lineup tonight. Watching Soler's ascent through the Chicago farm and up prospect lists has been hard for me. I wanted the Cards to sign him and now he appears capable of hitting for the type of power that the Cardinals' primary lineup is lacking. Soler hit .292/.330/.573 (.386 wOBA, 146 wRC+) during a 97-PA cup of coffee at the end of last season. ZiPS forecasts a .252/.310/.470 (.335 wOBA, 111 wRC+) performance from Soler for 2015. Soler's ZiPS-projected Isolated Power (ISO) of .208 is higher than the system's 2015 ISO for any Cardinals batter. Winter is coming, or at least it very well could be.

You've probably heard that the Cubs have assigned all-world prospect Kris Bryant to minor-league camp to start the season. As I wrote last year, the MLB-MLBPA collective bargaining agreement (CBA) effectively gives teams seven years of control of a player if they're clever enough to start him in the minors at the very start of the season. That's just what the Cubs have done with Bryant. Sure he strikes out a lot (which may prove to be this Achilles's heel) and isn't all that great defensively at third (which has led some to expect him to follow a Ryan Braun-esque defensive path to the outfield). The Chicago brass is claiming these deficiencies give them sufficient baseball reasons to relegate him to Triple-A Iowa to start the year. Personally, I'm cool with the decision because it means I'll get to see this exquisite baseball talent up close and in person a couple more times before Chicago comes a calling. But his .325/.438/.661 slash line between Double- and Triple-A last year sure looks like it belongs to a big-league-ready player (even with the 27.2 K% and fielding questions). It appears the slugger will make his Chicago debut not under the bright lights of opening night but the afternoon sun at a bleacher-less Wrigley sometime later in April.

Javier Baez, he with the viciously fast bat propelled through the zone by a hole-filled swing, will also be absent this evening. Last season, Baez made his MLB debut and showed the otherworldly power that makes scouts drool as well as the strikeout propensity that gives scouts pause. Nine of Baez's 36 hits over 229 PA were homers. He K'd in 41.5% of those PA (seriously). Baez's .169/.227/.324 (.248 wOBA, 51 wRC+) was a sobering reminder of just how difficult it is for prospects to break into the majors in this day and age of video, advanced scouting, and Pitchf/x data that allows the opposition to know a hitter inside and out before ever being in the same city as him.

So who will be in the Chicago lineup tonight?

The current cornerstones of the Cubs core, Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, will start of course. Dexter Fowler, whom the Cubs acquired from Houston during the offseason will bat leadoff. Miguel Montero will catch. At third base, will probably be Tommy La Stella. Someone in blue pinstripes (I'm not sure who) will start in left.

Batting at the bottom of the order and, more importantly, starting on the mound will be Jon Lester, $155 million staff ace. After a bout of the dead arm earlier this spring caused him to sit out a start, Lester is in good enough shape to take the ball on opening night. The lefty will face a Cardinals lineup chock full of same-handed hitters. Here are Lester's career platoon splits:

Split

TBF

HR

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

vs. LHB

1664

40

.243

.300

.380

.680

.137

Overall

6683

145

.248

.315

.379

.693

.131

vs. RHB

5019

105

.250

.319

.378

.698

.128


Split

TBF

K%

BB%

LD%

GB%

FB%

FIP

xFIP

vs. LHB

1664

23.7

6.8

19.1

47.2

33.7

3.39

3.33

Overall

6683

21.8

8.2

19.3

46.8

33.8

3.58

3.67

vs. RHB

5019

21.2

8.6

19.5

46.7

33.8

3.65

3.78

Not surprisingly, Lester performs better against lefties than rights. Most pitchers do. I won't rehash Nick's post pondering whether the Cardinals lineup will hit better against lefties this season. Nor will I rehash Joe's dive into the Pitchf/x data on Lester (except to note that Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs have different BA, OBP, and SLG for Lester's platoon splits). All I will say is that the Cardinals will likely trot out a lineup against Lester than gives the new Cubs ace an advantage on paper.

FanDuel

SB Nation and FanDuel have formed an exclusive partnership for daily fantasy baseball this season. Part of that includes paying me to help promote it. SB Nation is hosting a $6,000 one-day Fantasy Baseball league for MLB Opening Day on FanDuel. It's $5 to join and first place wins $1,000 and four tickets to a game. Click here to play. I'd be tempted to go with Jon Lester and then try to make myself feel better about having done so by also playing Matt Holliday.