Projected Top St. Louis Cardinals Stories of 2017

First, we counted down the top 10 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season disappointment that culminated in the team’s first post-season miss since 2010.

Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year.

Customarily, I set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2017 team on the field. The nature of that story has yet to be determined, shaped by the items discussed here and many more plot lines not yet developed.

However, I find it impossible to dodge the challenge presented by the Chicago Cubs.

As I compiled my list and rankings, I considered the staying power of the story, how long it might remain in the headlines as well as its potential short- and long-term impact – both on the 2017 Cardinals and the organization’s future.

Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2017. As always, your comments are welcome below.

molina-fowler-usa-2001. “Catching” the Cubs

No subject is more on the minds of Cardinals fans than this one. Yet, there is nowhere near agreement on the target, let alone how to get there.

Some believe the Cardinals should have spent up a storm this winter to try to buy their way into contention. Others believe the team should hold firm with its primary strategy to build from within.

Some think that doing everything reasonably possible to finish first place in 2017 should be the goal. Others are as concerned about trying to remain competitive over the long haul and could be satisfied with another winning team in 2017, not ready to concede how the season may end.

Do the Cardinals need to catch the Cubs in September or will getting to October any way possible and taking it from there be good enough?

2. Is In-Season Help Coming?

Many would have liked for the Cardinals to beef up their 2017 roster more than they did with the additions of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil. Some wanted a top-flight pitcher such as Chris Sale. Others preferred a middle of the order hitter, perhaps to play third base. The wildly optimistic expected both.

Neither occurred this winter, but the Cardinals seem to have the financial flexibility to make a major in-season trade if deemed appropriate. In recent years, the club has typically made a smaller move, adding a reliever (Edward Mujica, John Axford, Zach Duke) or a role player on offense (Brandon Moss).

The only in-season move that could be considered major since the acquisition of Matt Holliday in 2009 was the trade for John Lackey in 2014.

It could be that for the 2017 Cardinals to keep pace for a Wild Card, let alone fight the Cubs for the Central Division title, that a major in-season jump start could be required. Whether the greatest need will be pitching or hitting remains to be seen.

My main question is whether they will act or not?

3. Is Fowler Enough?

As already mentioned, the club’s major off-season addition was a five-year, $82.5 million contract with center fielder Dexter Fowler. Will the insertion of the former Cub into the top spot in the lineup and the resulting move down of prior leadoff man Matt Carpenter be enough to ignite an offense that was station-to-station oriented and overly reliant on the home run in 2016?

Essentially, other than Fowler, all of the other members of the projected 2017 lineup were with the Cardinals in 2016, though several struggled with injury. The switch-hitter is the key difference.

Further, will Fowler’s work in the field be enough to help solidify a Cardinals defense that was clearly a sore spot last season? Even off the field, some expect his easy-going ways to provide a major change to a clubhouse that is now missing a former leader in Holliday.

There seems to be a lot of pressure on the 30-year-old to transform a team that may need more that he can be reasonably expected to provide.

4. Determining Molina’s Fate

Yadier Molina’s final year with St. Louis could be as soon as 2017, as the catcher and the team hold a joint option for 2018. Certainly, no one seems to want his departure, as he nears the end of what could be a Hall of Fame career.

Yet, with prospect Carson Kelly on the doorstep, will the team and the 34-year-old be able to work out a long-term arrangement to keep him in a Cardinals uniform for the remainder of his playing days?

The question appears to be easy, but the answer could become complicated and potentially a major distraction if not resolved.

(I wrote in depth about the Molina situation here.)

5. Can the Rotation Rebound?

When the Cardinals won 100 games – not long ago in 2015 – the starting pitching led the way. Many believe that for the team to be successful in 2017, the rotation – a middle-of-the-pack group in 2016 – must once again set the pace.

An optimist could label starting pitching as the strength of the 2017 Cardinals. After all, there are at least seven, perhaps eight, legitimate rotation candidates.

However, with the exception of Carlos Martinez, every one of the team’s starters has significant questions attached.

Adam Wainwright. Was 2016 an aberration or is the 35-year-old sliding down a late-career decline in performance?

Mike Leake. Was last year’s big free agent addition a victim of shaky defense, making him a rebound candidate, or will his signing prove to be an expensive mistake?

Lance Lynn. Will coming off Tommy John surgery and a shot at the free agent market this fall be motivators or inhibitors in his return to the rotation?

Michael Wacha. Will his shoulder allow him to continue to start? Can he even make the rotation? Would a long relief role help or hurt his health? Can he adapt if needed?

Alex Reyes. Will the mega-prospect survive the inevitable first-year bumps and bruises and become the Rookie of the Year, be a disappointment, or something in between?

Trevor Rosenthal. Anyone who can count should realize that him “stretching out” and preparing for spring on a starters program does not mean there is room for the former closer in the rotation. Perhaps in an ideal world, Wacha and Rosenthal would become “super relievers”. In an ideal world.

Luke Weaver. With just one Triple-A start under his belt, the rookie was clearly rushed to St. Louis last summer. With a bit more time to refine his skills at Memphis, will Weaver be the first to step into the rotation when an opening occurs? Will he be ready when called upon again?

As always, next January, we will return to this list as we look back at the top stories of 2017 as they actually unfolded.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 10 stories of 2016 countdown

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