By Rob Rains
A trend that developed during the Cardinals’ eight intra-squad games in their summer camp was obvious to Jack Flaherty when he twice went up against most of the team’s regular starters.
On Friday night he will be glad to watch those hitters do the same thing to pitchers on an opposing team that they did to him.
“Did you see the last game I pitched?” Flaherty said. “They kind of hit my (crap) around. I think if they take those at-bats we’ll be in a good spot.”
The Cardinals will begin the shortened, delayed regular season against the Pirates at Busch Stadium, beginning the 60-game sprint with more questions about what they will be able to accomplish offensively than with any other aspect of their game. Flaherty will get the first opening-day assignment of his career, 120 days after he was scheduled to start on March 26 in Cincinnati if the season had not been interrupted because of the coronavirus.
The Cardinals’ starting pitching is expected to be among the best in the lead. Already the best defensive team in the NL last year, they should be even better. Even without a couple of their big guns in the bullpen, the depth should be better than it was a year ago.
That leaves the offense, and specifically the offense from the outfielders, as the greatest unknown.
Manager Mike Shildt, always an optimist by nature, believes what he saw from his hitters during the last three weeks, especially in Flaherty’s final two starts and in Wednesday’s exhibition game against the Royals, should continue in the regular season.
In the first five innings against Kansas City, with all of the projected starters except Kolten Wong in the lineup, the Cardinals forced the opposing pitchers to throw 109 pitches through the first five innings.
“Exactly the offense that was indicative of the last week and a lot of the camp,” Shildt said. “You saw guys take quality at-bats from the top to the bottom of the lineup. Working pitchers, taking their walks, having a good approach, understanding how they are going to get pitched, what they are looking for, staying within themselves, still being aggressive.”
Flaherty saw first-hand how frustrating that approach can be for a pitcher. In his last intra-squad start he made 92 pitches and recorded 10 outs.
“I was pissed with how they got me,” he said. “They put together some really good at-bats. That’s something that has evolved and continued to get better and better as camp has gone on. As frustrating as it was it was fun to compete with those guys in situations like that. It was a dogfight with every single hitter.”
The new-look offense has to replace Marcell Ozuna, who hit 29 home runs and had 89 RBIs last season out of the cleanup spot, and Jose Martinez, who chipped in seven homers and 31 RBIs.
Even with those performances, the combined Cardinals outfield last season ranked 16th in MLB in on-base percentage and 12th in the NL, ahead of only the Padres, Giants and Marlins. The outfield ranked 18th in the majors in runs scored, 15th in RBI, 19th in home runs and 24th in batting average.
The three likely starters on Friday night – Dexter Fowler in right, Harrison Bader in center and Tyler O’Neill in left – combined to hit 35 homers and drive in 120 runs. It’s no coincidence that they are expected to fill the final three spots in the team’s batting order.
Lane Thomas also should get his share of starts early in the season, and just a week into the year the team can promote top prospect Dylan Carlson if it feels it is in need of an offensive jolt.
“We’re just putting good swings on balls as a team,” O’Neill said. “One through nine we’re just trying to dominate the strike zone, swing at good pitches and we can do damage when we get pitches to hit. We’ve got a good lineup. I think we’re a little underrated in that aspect.”
The addition of the designated hitter in the NL this season should help the Cardinals, adding a hitter into the lineup instead of a pitcher. It most cases that spot is expected to be filled by Matt Carpenter, with Tommy Edman getting most of his work at third base, which will also be an upgrade defensively.
“Especially with the DH I really like our lineup,” DeJong said. “We have confidence in the guys we have on this team. For us to win games we have to work together as a unit; a guy having a long at bat and the next guy getting ready to hit the first pitch; working pitchers over is our biggest advantage.
“It’s a relentless type of approach, not necessarily taking pitches to take but to have good at bats and trust that the guy behind you can do something so we’re not all out there trying to hit a home run every time.”
What also could provide an offensive boost is better performances out of the top two spots in the lineup, which would directly increase the RBI chances for third-place hitter Paul Goldschmidt and DeJong, who inherits the cleanup spot.
A year ago the Cardinals ranked 12th in the NL in runs out of the leadoff spot and 10th in on-base percentage. Their combined second-place hitters ranked 13th in the league in runs and 11th in on-base percentage.
Goldschmidt came to bat only 147 times with a runner in scoring position, an average of less than one plate appearance per game with a runner on second or third. Nearly half, 15, of his 34 home runs came with nobody on base.
Wong has become the team’s primary leadoff hitter, with either Edman or Carpenter expected to hit second the majority of the games.
“Elite offenses get pitches in the zone and have long tough at-bats,” Shildt said. “It doesn’t mean we can’t do damage early in the count because we clearly can. The ability to work guys and go deep and the ability in the strike zone to put good swings on good pitches is always the overall concept of what we are doing.
“We’ve got good players who can do a lot of different things.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports