photo: Mike Matheny, John Mabry, Yadier Molina (USA TODAY Sports Images)
First, we counted down the top 10 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season disappointment that culminated in the team’s second consecutive post-season miss.
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 2018 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 – and now the Milwaukee Brewers, as well.
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 2018 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2018. As always, your comments are welcome at The Cardinal Nation’s free message board.
- Escaping third place
No subject is more on the minds of Cardinals fans than the Chicago Cubs, a team that has manhandled St. Louis since the 2015 post-season.
However, pretty much everyone overlooks the Milwaukee Brewers. All the 2017 Brew Crew accomplished is a season series edge over the Cardinals, three more wins overall than St. Louis and a second-place division finish.
Oh, yeah. That was accomplished with the lowest payroll of the 30 MLB teams.
So that blows up the narrative that attributes the Cubs’ dominance to their deeper pockets. According to one analysis, Milwaukee spent $66 million less than St. Louis on its player payroll in 2017.
Yet Milwaukee still fell short of a wild card last season, so St. Louis may have to do more than just catch up to where the Brewers finished 2017.
- Will new coaches help save the manager?
Our #4 story of 2017 outlined the high level of coaching turnover on the Cardinals staff since the end of the 2016 season. That doesn’t mean a number of the most recent moves do not appear to be positive – at least on paper.
Specifically, the Cardinals scored high marks by upgrading their pitching coach from Derek Lilliquist to Mike Maddux. But the changes that really generated hope among a discouraged fan base are the return of two favorites – third base coach Jose Oquendo and outfield/baserunning coach Willie McGee.
If the 2018 Cardinals can play better fundamental baseball while altering their recent downward trend and make the playoffs, the new blood on the coaching staff could receive partial credit.
However, if the season does not go well, all bets could be off, starting with manager Mike Matheny, who along with hitting coach John Mabry are the only remaining coaches in their same jobs as in 2016.
- Is Ozuna “It”?
Early in the off-season, the Cardinals were an aggressor – setting in place two trades with the Miami Marlins. The first, for Giancarlo Stanton, was nixed by the outfielder, while the latter, for Marcell Ozuna, gave the team its much-needed clean-up hitter for the next two seasons.
As the calendar flipped over to January, however, the Cardinals have gone quiet, despite open needs – or at least perceived open needs – at closer, one rotation spot and corner infield.
A major open question is if the Cardinals will make further trades, enter the free agent market, do both or neither – whether during the first quarter of 2018 or around the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
- Wainwright’s swan song?
Adam Wainwright has been a warrior for the Cardinals – his only home as a major leaguer since his 2005 debut. But even he cannot fool Father Time. The last season the now-36-year old delivered a return on his $18 million salary was back in 2014.
2015 was pretty much lost due to injury and in 2016, Wainwright led the National League in the unenviable categories of hits and earned runs allowed. The good news is that he pitched enough innings to accrue those totals. The bad news is that he wasn’t fooling many opposing hitters in the process.
Last season, the right-hander somehow managed to win 12 games despite a career-worst 5.11 ERA over just 123 injury-plagued innings. You can decide the level of correlation there may be between the team’s downward slide and that of their one-time ace.
I imagine every Cardinals fan would like Wainwright to conclude his contract, and likely his St. Louis playing career, with a strong 2018, but it is difficult to project if and how it might come about.
While Wainwright continues to say all the right things, the key question is whether his body is able to oblige. Almost certainly, he will open in the rotation, but if his struggles continue, how long can the Cardinals continue to run him out there every fifth day? If not, in what other role might he be able to contribute?
- From where will the innings come?
The projected opening rotation for 2018 includes multiple question marks – starting with young Luke Weaver and unknown Miles Mikolas expected to carry full starting workloads for the first time in the majors.
They have to replace free agent workhorse Lance Lynn and veteran Mike Leake, who totaled over 340 innings in 2017 despite Leake having been traded away with a month remaining.
The situation with Wainwright was outlined just above. Rookies Alex Reyes (slowed return from Tommy John surgery) and Jack Flaherty (in need of additional Triple-A time) mark the next wave of potential rotation reinforcements, but each has his own open questions.
Returnees Carlos Martinez, who surpassed 200 innings for the first time in 2017, and veteran Michael Wacha, finally healthy again, cannot be expected to pitch appreciably more than last season, when they combined for 62 starts.
If push comes to shove, will the Cardinals need external rotation help, and if so, will they go get it in time?
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