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Central Casting: Cardinals continue search for offense in schedule-heavy division play

Central Casting: Cardinals continue search for offense in schedule-heavy division play

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MILWAUKEE — Of all the things that have been shortened by Major League Baseball to make this season possible — the schedule, preseason workouts, team travel, possibly doubleheaders, restaurant tabs, showers — there is one element of the 2020 irregular season that has been increased.

Within the 60-game dash for the postseason, teams will play a higher percentage of games within their division.

“You can have a bad week, maybe,” Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright said, “but you can’t have two.”

After ducking briefly out of the National League Central to visit one of the leading teams in the American League, the Cardinals continue their first road trip of the season with a stop at a familiar roost, Miller Park, and the second opponent’s home opener of this Midwest tour. The Brewers return home after division visits to Chicago and Pittsburgh. The schedule has been compacted and gerrymandered into geographic regions, and as a result teams are set to play 40 games against division rivals.

In the schedule ripped up and rewritten by the pandemic, teams were set to play the usual, 46.9% (76 games), against division rivals. There were swings through California, stops in Queens, and the annual pit stop in Colorado to break up the Pitt stops and Wrigley weekends. The new abbreviated schedule has all teams playing 67% of their games against division rivals. That means the menu is all Skyline Chili, deep-dish pizza, and cheese curds in 2020.

Delivery, of course.

“I can’t say there are no secrets,” Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “But there are very few secrets.”

The Cardinals reach Miller Park on a three-game losing streak with the brakes still on their offense. The lineup didn’t get a runner safely to second Wednesday against the Twins, and in the past three games they’ve scored four runs. The shorter calendar implies teams will have to make swifter decisions, and the Cardinals have several options — ranging from rearranging the lineup, subbing in a player like Lane Thomas from the bench, or fast-forwarding the arrival of Dylan Carlson. This weekend marks the passing of the date that would cost the Cardinals a year of contract control for their leading prospect. Officials have insisted they want to get more initial opportunities for the outfielders in the majors before making a significant move, though when they promote Carlson they expect him to start, daily.

After the shutout Wednesday, Shildt insisted there would not be “wholesale” changes, though each day they struggle gets them closer to them because blink and the Cardinals are through one-tenth of their season.

By the end of the weekend, the Brewers will almost be a fourth of the way done with their division schedule. The Cardinals close with 20 division games in September, including a season finale at home against the Brewers. But by Sept. 1, the Brewers will have played 27 of their division games. They started with division road series in Wrigley and Pittsburgh, and reach their first home game of 2020 with offensive questions of their own. Former MVP Christian Yelich has started the season one-for-27 (.037) with 12 strikeouts. Few things have corrected his swing quite like Miller Park, where he hit 27 of his 44 homers in 2019 and had a 1.201 OPS.

Or, the Cardinals.

Eight of those 44 home runs came against the division rival.

“We’re having to pick up a guy who’s carried us for large portions of the last two years,” said Brewers general manager David Stearns during a Zoom videoconference with Milwaukee media. “I’d be a little careful reading into trends this year. It’s possible that pitchers were able to keep their arms going during shutdown where it’s much tougher for hitters to see quality live pitching in a quarantine environment. … It also could turn on its head here really quickly.”

Whether the offense — which is sluggish around baseball — perks up, the division has played, really early, as tightly as expected.

The Cubs (4-2) hang eight runs on the Reds in each of the first two games at Great American Ball Park this week, then lose 12-7 on Wednesday and have to sit idly for an eventual rainout Thursday. The Brewers (3-3) lost two of three at Wrigley, then take two of three at PNC Park. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections for the 60-game schedule pegs the NL Central for the most clustered finish in baseball. It’s the only division with four teams projected to win 30 games, and they’re all lumped in the bandwidth of averaging 30.0 to 33.1 wins.

Even the runs scored expectancy for every team other than Pittsburgh is bunched, from the Cardinals’ 300 to the Cubs’ 323.

“Familiarity is important,” Shildt said. “Chicago has a nucleus of players that have been with them and we’ve competed against for several years now. … Milwaukee has had a few moving parts, but again there is some history there and we’re just trying to find that sweet spot that we talk a lot about. It’s where are we in the moment with the competition? (New) management in Chicago, so trying to figure out what that looks, the style of play, tendency. Cincinnati, you mention has got a lot of guys who have been over there that we’re familiar with as well, and some guys coming up. Gather information. Figure out how best we can compete.

“Inherently, based on the number of games,” Shildt added, “everybody starts from the same spot. Inherently, you’re going to get some cluster there. It won’t be (much) separation taking place.”

There is, however, an imbalance to the division-heavy roster. This week, the Cubs had their first of two visits to Cincinnati. The Reds go to Wrigley once. The Cardinals and Brewers visit Wrigley twice, and the Reds have to come to St. Louis and Milwaukee twice. This weekend is the first of two series at Miller Park for the Cardinals.

With expanded playoffs, eight teams from the NL will reach the postseason, including the top two teams from all three divisions. That leaves two spots for the teams with the next best winning percentages. Even fattening its record against Pittsburgh isn’t likely to get the fourth-place team from the NL Central into a playoff berth. The teams will be too busy cannibalizing their records in the standings with so much of their season spent playing teams that are so evenly matched and have seen so much of each other in recent years.

The division is no longer the only way into the playoffs.

A lack of success in it is still the quickest way out of them.

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