We are at least half a decade removed from the peak of people hating the St. Louis Cardinals. Also, the Cardinals were better from 2011 through 2015 than they were from 2016 through 2020. I wonder if the two are related. Probably not. They probably just managed to overcome the objectively bad and evil things about the early-2010s Cardinals teams.
But it is about to come back in full force. But it is less because the St. Louis Cardinals are the evil and universally reviled target of derision that they were in years past–after all, the Houston Astros made the playoffs, too–and more because of the team in the other dugout. The San Diego Padres are America’s team. And they deserve to be.
I am a long-time casual fan of the San Diego Padres, even slightly before they truly became the favorite second team of Baseball Twitter. In May 2018, I traveled (on an airplane, for the first time in my life) to San Diego to see a Cardinals/Padres series, and in preparation of it, I spent quite a bit of time digging into the, frankly, hilarious history of the team. I did a little bit of journalism in the Petco Park stands. And really, I loved the city. The weather was as amazing as they say–by all local accounts, it was a particularly bad weather weekend in San Diego, and I would take it eleven times out of ten in St. Louis. The food and beverage was fantastic. And the stadium itself was beautiful.
The 2018 Padres were a pretty lousy baseball team, with a 66-96 record. By Wins Above Replacement, their best player was Hunter Renfroe. Their second-best player was a relief pitcher. These are typically not the hallmarks of a particularly good team, and this particular one was no exception. But the Padres had built a widely-acclaimed farm system. The previous off-season, the Padres had signed one of the free agent market’s biggest names in former Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer–it didn’t work out particularly well, but it did qualify as a warning shot. The Padres were going to be bad in 2018, and probably still not all that great in 2019, but for the early 2020s, even while playing in the same division as the Los Angeles Dodgers, they were going to be playoff contenders.
The 2020 San Diego Padres have been a delightful bunch. They finished the season 37-23 with a roster that by and large has turned over from the squad that first caught my eye two years ago, with the notable exceptions of the aforementioned Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, who still feels like a top prospect even though he is actually almost thirty. The team’s best player by WAR has been Manny Machado, the 2019 follow-up to the Eric Hosmer contract that, unlike Hosmer, has paid off handsomely for San Diego–he remains a premium defensive third baseman (who can play a solid shortstop, as well) and he had his best offensive season in 2020. But the team’s biggest star is Fernando Tatis Jr., the twenty-one year-old shortstop whose season was filled with highlight-reel catches and supposedly impolite home runs. Not unlike Ronald Acuna Jr. last season during the Cardinals’ first postseason series, Tatis is slightly more famous than he is great–he was a below-average hitter in September–but he is still very much a weapon, and ideally, the Cardinals won’t fall victim to letting him creep into their heads like Acuna in 2019.
With Jake Cronenworth, an old rookie at 26, having cemented his role in the starting lineup at second base, Eric Hosmer having a solid bounce-back season at the plate, and the offensive deficiencies of former catcher Austin Hedges being sealed over by the superior-hitting Austin Nola, there isn’t really a spot of extreme weakness in the lineup. One of the lesser spots has been Our Old Friend Tommy Pham, who has alternated between designated hitter and left field and hasn’t really hit well enough to justify a role in either spot, with a wRC+ of just 78. Of course, this puts him above the 2020 marks of Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson, so it probably isn’t worth getting too snide.
Pitching was never the focal point of the Padres rebuild, but it isn’t Cubs rebuild-level devoid. Dinelson Lamet has been a superstar on the mound for San Diego. In 69 innings this season, Lamet posted a 2.09 ERA and a 2.48 FIP. Mike Clevinger, added during the season from the Cleveland Indians, also figures to start a game in the (I don’t know what the name of this series, and I see no reason to learn it for what is hopefully a one-off round), along with Zach Davies, the former Milwaukee Brewer who had a career-best 2.73 ERA (though a less convincing 3.88 FIP) in his first season in San Diego.
The Cardinals have three starting pitchers right now whom I trust in a playoff start–Jack Flaherty, whom I trust with my life despite a couple of rocky starts in 2020; Kwang-hyun Kim, who has been a revelation in his first MLB season; and Adam Wainwright, who has been the team’s most valuable pitcher in 2020 and delivered two lights-out playoff performances in 2019 which were regrettably unrewarded. And they have a three-game series coming up. So that’s convenient.
The San Diego Padres will be, and should be, favorites in this series. They have a more dynamic lineup and the edge on recent starting pitcher performance. But this is a St. Louis Cardinals team that went over .500 despite having a roster ravaged by the worst pandemic in a century. This is a team that survived with their heads above water during a season in which they barely had days off and were frequently playing double-headers in order to make up for their early-season shut-downs. And even if this team hadn’t shown much in the way of intestinal fortitude–it’s three games. The biggest postseason favorites in the first round will surely be the Los Angeles Dodgers over the Milwaukee Brewers, but it’s three games. Would it shock you if the Brewers won? It may be less likely than the opposite happening, but it shouldn’t be astonishing.
I have been very clear in my belief that this season shouldn’t have happened–while the worst-case scenario thankfully did not happen, it is still too early to declare everything a success. I have also been clear that I consider winning the 2020 World Series simply less valuable than winning any previous or future World Series. But they’re here now. And so the Cardinals might as well just annoy everybody and win this stupid thing.