Can the Royals surprise the Cardinals and Cubs and shake up the top of the NL Central? (Interleague preview part 1)

While no official schedule has been released just yet, it has been confirmed that teams will play roughly 40 games against division opponents, and the remaining 20 games will be against their geographic National League counterpart. So in this case, the Royals will be playing 40 games against fellow AL Central opponents, and the remaining 20 will be against NL Central teams, with six of those games designated for I-70 rival St. Louis.

The proposed schedule breakdown should provide a lot of intrigue for baseball fans, as regional bragging rights will be one of the main prizes during this shortened season. Who will be best the best of Midwest? Who will be the top dog in the East Coast? Who will rule supreme in the West Coast? Friend and Top Level Sports Writer Mike Sunderland (a Philly guy who currently resides in Oakland; he goes for the Phillies and A’s) analyzed which divisions would be the most interesting to follow, and as pointed out in the article, this modified schedule of play could produce some intriguing storylines:

However, while I have gone over some “preview” coverage on the AL Central teams, it will be interesting to see how the Royals will stack against fellow NL Central teams in 2020. The NL Central may be a stronger league from top-to-bottom than its AL counterpart, but for the most part, neither Central division is expected to produce a serious World Series contender (the East and West seem more likely to do so, as pointed out in Sunderland’s piece). And thus, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to see the Royals not just surprise in the AL Central, but perhaps even the NL counterpart, due to the lack of a juggernaut existing in MLB’s Midwest divisions.

Hence, let’s take a look at the NL Central opponents and how the Royals will stack against each club in 2020. In part 1, I will take a look at how the Royals will stack up against the two favorites in the division: the St. Louis Cardinals, and the Chicago Cubs. In part 2, I will take a look at other small-market counterparts: the Milwaukee Brewers and the Cincinnati Reds, who are both looking to sneak into the top of the division during a shortened season. And in part 3, I will take a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are expected to be the cellar dwellers of the NL Central, especially after a couple of changes in management throughout the organization.

Past season data will come from Baseball-Reference while Projected Standings data will be courtesy of Fangraphs.

St. Louis Cardinals

2019 record: 91-71 (First in NL Central; lost in NLCS to Washington). Projected 2020 Record: 31-29 (Tied for 2nd). Royals record against STL in 2019: 1-3.

According to what we know so far about the schedule, six of the “Interleague” games will come against “Interleague rivals” which means that the “I-70 Series” will be more important than ever in comparison to years past. Not only will the Royals play their Eastern Missouri rivals two more times than usual, but the six total games will have more impact on the 60-game season than the four games had on the 162 game campaign.

The Royals-Cardinals rivalry has always had a little extra “spice” in comparison to other Interleague rivalries, mostly due to the cultural disdain KC and St. Louis people have for one another. Furthermore, the added intrigue of former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny managing the Royals now should add a fun wrinkle to this six-game series, especially considering how Matheny went out as manager in St. Louis (i.e not great). And thus, with the games now having even more impact than usual on the season, it will not be surprising to see Cardinals and Royals fans at one another’s throats in 2020, even if they may not be able to do so in person at Kauffman or Busch Stadium.

The Cardinals are the defending NL Central champs, but as of now, they seem to be behind the Chicago Cubs in terms of odds to win the division in 2020. The Cardinals let outfielder Marcell Ozuna, acquired after the 2018 season from the Marlins, walk in free agency even though he hit 29 home runs and posted an OPS of .800 in 549 plate appearances (Ozuna ended up signing with the Atlanta Braves whom the Cardinals ousted in the NLDS). That being said, despite the loss of Ozuna, the Cardinals pretty much return everyone from their 2019 lineup, including Paul Goldschmidt, who hit 34 home runs in 2019, and Paul DeJong and Kolten Wong, who were 2nd and 3rd respectively in WAR for the Cardinals in 2019. Unfortunately, while the Cardinals lineup will be familiar to fans in 2020, they will have to show some improvement if they want to repeat as Central champs, as they ranked 11th in the NL in batting average and OPS, and 10th in runs, all mediocre marks. The Cardinals are hoping that No. 2 team prospect Dylan Carlson, a non-roster invitee in Spring Training, can step up in the vacant left field position and boost the offense a bit in 2020, though it is likely that the 21-year-old will go through his share of growing pains during his rookie campaign (Fangraphs projects that Matt Carpenter, a utility wunderkind, will step into the DH spot).

Pitching was a strength for the Cardinals in 2019, and it should continue to be a strong point for the team in 2020, even though there were a couple of minor changes. Jack Flaherty, who led the Cardinals in WAR in 2020 (5.8), should be the anchor of the rotation again, as he went 11-8 with a 2.75 ERA in 33 starts and 196.1 IP. While the rotation did lose No. 5 starter Michael Wacha to the New York Mets in free agency, the Cardinals starting staff does return veteran Adam Wainwright, and will be boosted by Carlos Martinez, who transitions back to the rotation after mostly closing in 2019. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt is banking on 28-year-old Giovanny Gallegos to fill in for Martinez in the closer’s role in 2020, as Gallegos proved to be stellar as a Cardinals setup man, posting a 2.31 ERA and 5.81 BB/K ratio in 73.1 IP last year.

How do the Royals stack up against the Cardinals?

The Royals went 1-3 against the Cardinals last year, which included the Cardinals not just sweeping the Royals at Kauffman last August, but also holding them to zero runs combined in the two-game series. While Royals baseball fans are a loyal bunch, Royals-Cardinals games can be a St. Louis takeover, as it is common for the Kauffman seats to be decked out in red, not Royal blue, during Royals home games against St. Louis, especially during the past couple of years as the Royals have struggled. However, with no fans expected to be in the stands, this could actually improve the Royals’ chances as the stadium will not feel like a home-field environment for the Cardinals, even at Kauffman Stadium. While this is only a minute difference, I could see this lack of a “Cardinals Crowd” helping the Royals in 2020 against their “I-70” rival, and it could help the Royals sneak a couple of win in this six-game series.

Projection: Royals go 2-4 against the Cardinals in 2020

Chicago Cubs

2019 record: 84-78 (Third in NL Central; missed playoffs). Projected 2020 Record: 32-28 (1st). Royals record against CHC in 2019: Did not play each other.

A late-season swoon sunk the Cubs from a postseason appearance in 2019, as they went 11-16 during the last month of play. While the Cubs’ 90-72 Pythagorean record suggested that they were pretty unlucky last season, losing out to the Cardinals and Brewers in the postseason race certainly stung Cubs fans who are used to the organization being competitive during the Theo Epstein era.

The Cubs made a big change this off-season, as they parted ways with manager Joe Maddon (he ended up going to the Angles), and replaced him with rookie manager David Ross, a former Cub who has been in the broadcast booth since retiring after wining the 2016 World Series with the Chicago Cubs. A postseason hero who helped bring the North Side their first championship since 1908, Ross has the fanfare to succeed in Wrigleyville. That being said, it will be interesting to see how his lack of managerial experience will affect him in 2020, especially during this weird, COVID-affected debut season.

Despite Ross’ lack of experience, the Cubs are the early favorites to come out of the NL Central on top, mostly due to the star power they have in this lineup. Javier Baez is the best of the bunch, a fringe-MVP candidate who led the Cubs with a 6.0 WAR, and also hit 28 home runs and posted an .847 OPS in 138 games and 561 plate appearances. Baez has his share of plate discipline issues (156 strikeouts a year ago), but his bat and strong glove in the field make him one of the best two-way infielders in the division, and perhaps the National League overall. In addition to Baez, the lineup was boosted by the emergence of Kyle Schwarber, who ended up getting more at-bats in 2019 after being used primarily as a platoon player before last season. Schwarber led the Cubs with 38 home runs and also posted an .871 OPS in 155 games. Furthermore, the Cubs will once again welcome familiar potent bats in the lineup such as third baseman Kris Bryant (.903 OPS), Catcher Wilson Contreras (.888 OPS), and first baseman Anthony Rizzo (.924 OPS). Lastly, the Cubs also replaced Addison Russell, who dealt with problems on and off the field in 2019, with former Indian Jason Kipnis, who brings some pop and a veteran presence to this lineup.

The Cubs without a doubt have the strongest lineup 1-9 in the NL Central. However, their pitching will most likely make or break their club in 2020. Yu Darvish, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks have a history of success in the starting rotation, but they have all struggled through bouts of either injury or inconsistency the past couple of seasons. Jose Quintana has added some stability to the rotation since coming over from the Cubs’ South Side rival, but the start of his season is in doubt after he injured himself washing dishes (yes you read that right). And if the questions in the rotation aren’t enough, the bullpen may not just be the biggest concern for the Cubs, but it may be the hardest to project of all the NL Central teams. On paper, Craig Kimbrel is slated to be the Cubs closer, and he certainly has the chops to do so after successful stints with the Braves and Red Sox. However, due to him holding out, he got off to a late start in 2019, and failed to impress with the Cubs, for even though he earned 13 saves, he also posted a 6.53 ERA in 20.2 IP. If the Cubs want to seal the Central in 2020, they will need a much better Kimbrel in the 9th (or find someone at least to handle that role if Kimbrel isn’t up to the task).

How do the Royals stack up against the Cubs?

The Royals did not play against the Cubs in 2019, though I’m sure the Cubs would have liked some games against the 59-103 Royals. One thing that hurt the Cubs in 2019, in addition to a late-season swoon, was their struggle against division opponents. The Cubs had losing records against the Cardinals, Brewers and even Reds last season (they did have a winning record against the Pirates, but Pittsburgh finished in last place). Thus, they certainly would have welcome some games against an AL Central team they most likely would have had a lot of success against, especially considering the Royals pitching woes in 2019.

Once again, the Cubs’ strength is in their hitting and the weakness of the Royals is in their pitching, so the Cubs may be a worse matchup for the Royals than the Cardinals. Furthermore, because of the St. Louis-contempt, many Royals fans in this area consider the Cubs a “second favorite” team of sorts. Thus, while the Royals may be able to play up in intensity against the Cardinals due to the “I-70 Rivalry”, they won’t have that kind of motivation against the Cubs, which makes the possibility of the Royals stealing this series unlikely. Lastly, the “Whit to the Cubs” rumors could also be circulating by the time these two teams play, especially if the Royals are out of contention and the Cubs are in a dead heat with the Cardinals for the Central division crown. That also would make things tougher for the Royals, as dealing with the distractions of a possible Whit trade could only deflate the Royals’ chances against Chicago’s North Side team even more.

Projection: Royals go 1-3 against the Cubs in 2020 (if they play 4 games; 0-3 if they only play 3).

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