Following the mad dash of the 2020 pandemic-shortened season, the St. Louis Cardinals open the 162-game marathon Thursday in Cincinnati.
There will be fans, at least some, and there will be a minor league season, but COVID-19 will still have an impact on the game.
Doubleheaders will be two seven-inning games, the extra-inning rule with a runner starting on second base is back, and teams will have a taxi squad with up to five players on all road trips while using an alternate training site for up to 28 players.
The designated hitter is out for National League games and the playoff field is back to five teams per league.
That means the Cardinals must win the NL Central or be one of two Wild Card teams to face off in a one-game playoff in order to make the postseason for a third straight year.
With the addition of All-Star third baseman Nolan Arenado, the middle of the lineup and infield got an upgrade while the outfield got younger with 27-year-old Harrison Bader the elder statesman of the group.
Yadier Molina was brought back for his 18th season with the team on a one-year deal for the catcher who ranks sixth all-time in games behind the plate.
Adam Wainwright is also back in the rotation led by ace Jack Flaherty, lefty Kwang Hyun Kim and Carlos Martinez. Miles Mikolas, who missed all of 2020, will miss the start of the season with a shoulder injury so John Gant and Daniel Ponce de Leon have been getting starts.
Flamethrower Jordan Hicks is back in the bullpen for the first time since June 2019.
How well the Cardinals, or any team, manages its pitching staff over the long season will be key following the shortened 2020 season. Minor leaguers and player development will be another thing to watch considering there was no season for many players.
Even though he played in 35 of the team’s 58 games last season, 22-year-old Dylan Carlson will be considered a rookie this year. He will likely start in center field with Bader working through an injury with 26-year-old Tyler O’Neill in left and an opening in right for Lane Thomas or Justin Williams, both 25.
Having a corner infield of Arenado and Paul Goldschmidt, with the two All-Stars hitting consecutively in the order, should provide a boost to an offense that ranked third from last in runs last year.
It’s not like the Cardinals wasted a lot of chances last year. They finished fourth from the bottom in runners left on base and hit the fewest home runs in all of baseball.
Tommy Edman moves over to second base and will likely lead off after a strong spring in which he has more hits (13) than strikeouts (9) in 15 games.
At 39, Wainwright has had an impressive spring in which he struck out 20, walked three and gave up four runs in nearly 20 innings. The last time he had similar numbers in Florida, Wainwright finished third in the Cy Young Award vote.
On the flip side, Arenado and shortstop Paul DeJong have just one homer and five RBIs between them this spring with both hitting under .212. Matt Carpenter, looking to help this season off the bench, is just 1 for 33 this spring but he’s always been a slow starter with a .412 slugging percentage and .768 OPS before May 1, well below his career averages of .457 and .828.
Four of the five teams in the NL Central made the expanded postseason last year with the Cardinals and Red tied for second place, three games behind the Chicago Cubs. Both of those teams lost their ace among some other offseason moves while the Milwaukee Brewers added Gold Glove winners Kolton Wong and Jackie Bradley Jr. Outside of Pittsburgh, which is rebuilding under a second-year general manager, it could be another competitive season.
Busch Stadium will be at up to 32% capacity to start the season.
Single-game tickets are on sale for games in April with fans being able to purchase pods of one, two, three, or four. Face coverings will be required to be worn over the nose and mouth at all times unless fans are eating or drinking. All transactions will be cashless and tickets will be delivered on the MLB Ballpark app that will direct fans to designated entry gates. Bags will also not be permitted, except for medical or diaper bags.
With the collective bargaining agreement between the league and players up after this season, enjoy as much baseball as possible.
This year, at least, we get a marathon before the postseason sprint.