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The Cardinals’ Opening Day lineup threw me for a loop, with two switch-hitters wrapped around seven straight righties against Pirates righty J.T. Brubaker. It may have just been a fan-service thing, starting Albert Pujols and batting him fifth so the Cards fans could welcome him home.
Since a few people asked me... The Pujols signing is fine. He can platoon at DH with Corey Dickerson or Lars Nootbaar, pinch-hit for the catchers and shortstops, play first base once every couple of weeks. Paul Goldschmidt doesn’t miss much time, so having a below-average backup first baseman isn’t a big deal. Pujols did hit lefty pitching last year, and has done so even in his dotage. He may not be the best use of a roster spot, but he’s not too far from it and there are some reasonable soft factors in play.
The risk is that this goes the way of Ken Griffey Jr.’s return to Seattle, where the player is clearly done and an awkward conversation must ensue. As uncomfortable as Pujols’s end in Anaheim was, it will be worse if the Cardinals need his roster spot in June because Nolan Gorman is hitting .370 in Triple-A.
The Cardinals snuck into the playoffs last year on homers and defense, and they’re running back pretty much that entire team. Steven Matz is here to take Kwang Hyun Kim’s innings, and Dickerson will be the lefty bat Matt Carpenter no longer was. Their top nine players by 2021 playing time all return, a group that was worth 27 WAR in total. They get anything like that from these nine guys again, and they’re most of the way back to the playoffs.
The pitching staff is a bit less stable. The Cardinals are leaning heavily on broken pitchers getting healthy, with Dakota Hudson and Jordan Hicks taking up two rotation spots. Most importantly, the team needs Jack Flaherty to get back to where he was in 2019. He pitched poorly in 2020, missed three months last year with an oblique strain, and starts this one with shoulder inflammation. The Cardinals have the opposite of a stars-and-scrubs roster, so losing one guy isn’t fatal. Flaherty, though, is the one starter they have who can be a six-win pitcher, an ace. They need him on the mound to reach their peak.
Random Player Comment: At some point during the offseason I landed on Paul Goldschmidt and was floored to see that he’s over 50 bWAR through age 33. That’s 70% of a Hall of Fame career, and at 33 he was worth six wins for a playoff team. I have never, for a second, thought of Goldschmidt as a Hall of Famer, but two good years is going to push him close to 60 WAR, and that’s where your Hall case comes down to how much the voters like you.