An autumn of missed contact led to a winter of discontent.
The Cardinals prepared for 2020 with bitter memories of the 2019 playoffs, when miscalculated swings epitomized the Cardinals’ offense that October and, really, most of the previous months, too.
“I think we’re going to prove a lot of people wrong,” the Cards’ Tommy Edman said from his locker during spring training. “Last year was a little bit of a fluke from an offensive standpoint.”
In the National League Championship Series against the Nationals, the Cards struck out 48 times in the four games. Particularly in Games 1-3, when the Cardinals batted, there was this similar sense to watching the Phillies on that famous and fateful night in 2011. In Game 5 of the 2011 National League Division Series, the Cards’ Chris Carpenter was so dominating, there was just this feeling — none of the guys are going to get a hit, are they?
As for the rejuvenated Redbirds of 2020, “I think some guys are going to have big years,” Edman confidently said.
To which this reporter nodded the direction over Edman’s shoulder, where Paul Goldschmidt stood.
“Yeah,” Edman said. “This guy right here.”
The Cardinals can survive if other hitters struggle, but it’s hard to imagine St. Louis in the postseason if Goldschmidt is pedestrian. The team with baseball’s 23rd-best slugging percentage didn’t sign or trade for a big bat, and their cleanup hitter ended up in Atlanta. Yes, a lot of this was by design — the Cardinals want to see this Tyler O’Neill thing through, and see what a healthy Lane Thomas can do, and, ultimately, see if Dylan Carlson is really ready at age 21. But Goldschmidt is the offensive fulcrum. Last year, the former MVP candidate tallied an .821 on-base plus slugging percentage. In the previous six seasons, his worst OPS was .899 (and his average OPS in those six seasons was .947). As manager Mike Shildt pointed out, “I think the expectation set him up for being anything less than being Superman was going to be perceived a struggle,” but the other problem was that Goldy’s underachieving year was still the best of any Card who played the whole 2019 season.
Yep, only Edman had a higher OPS (.850), and he played in 92 games.
“We want to win the World Series,” Goldschmidt said. “It’s great to have that picture off in the future, but our focus has to be on doing your job each day. Focus on the things you can control. … If you’re too distracted by results, or too distracted by something too far off in the future, you won’t be able to prepare and put in the work now. We know where we’re trying to get to.”
Can the Cards be better offensively? Sure. A few reasons why. For one, it’s hard to imagine as many players having down years again. Second, even if many players do have down years, there are more reinforcements than the season before. Third, the designated hitter allows more at-bats and more opportunities for guys to find in-game rhythm — and more chances for Shildt to mix and match lineups. Someone such as injury plagued Matt Carpenter might not have to wear out his body in the field.
As for offensive opportunities, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said: “Everybody in here understands you got to wear ‘big-boy pants,’ and it’s what they do with it. But we have a lot of optimism, and we really feel like they’re going to make the most of this chance.”
But really, a key reason why the Cards offense should be better is because Goldschmidt should be better … or, even better, should be Goldschmidt. After all, he’s a reliable pro. He was in his pressurized first season in St. Louis, and now he’s got a year under his red belt. And there are some numbers that suggest optimism. While his August was just all right, his overall OPS in the second half of 2019 was .886. That’s pretty good. And in this rare 2020 season, he’ll only face National League teams from his division. Last year, his OPS against Pittsburgh was 1.193 and against Milwaukee was 1.017.
Now, how pitchers throw to Goldschmidt will, in part, be determined by another Paul. Shortstop Paul DeJong will likely hit cleanup and possibly provide protection. He’s coming off a weird year. He hit 30 homers, but batted only .233. He hit a team-high 31 doubles but had a .762 OPS that was fifth-best on the team. Some wondered if DeJong didn’t get enough off days during 2019. A fair question. But here’s another question — in only a 60-game season in 2020, how many off days can a team afford to give its cleanup hitter?
A lot of that will be determined by the slugging of some of the new guys getting their chance in big-boy pants.
“I get the question (from people) — where does your offense come from?” Shildt said. “It comes from everyone in that room. And that’s the mentality. This is an offense that has a chance to be elite.”