photo: Paul Goldschmidt (St. Louis Cardinals)
First, we counted down the top 10 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season disappointment that culminated in the team’s third consecutive post-season miss.
Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year.
Customarily, the top story is the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2019 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.
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 2019 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2019. As always, your comments are welcome at The Cardinal Nation’s free message board.
- October Bound
When all is said and done, beating the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs in the National League Central Division standings is what matters most. Secondary to winning the division would be to claim one of the two wild cards.
What is more important than any individual detail is returning to the post-season for the first time since 2015 and reversing the longest playoff dry spell for the Cardinals since 1995, before the current ownership took over.
- Goldy Going, Going, Gone?
Our #3 story of 2018 outlined the gamble taken by the Cardinals in giving up three prospects plus a draft pick to acquire the 2019 services of star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
While the slugger should provide a significant benefit to the 2019 Cardinals lineup, the question that will dog the player and team all year long is his future.
At this point, it is unknown if the 31-year old is willing to forego free agency this coming fall, and even if so, what it will take to get the job done. The Cards have expressed an interest in discussing an extension that may be up to five years at $30 million per year.
- More Mikolas?
One year ago, the Cardinals made what turned into the best signing of any free agent pitcher in all of Major League Baseball when they inked former Japanese League hurler Miles Mikolas to a two-year, $15.5 million contract.
With long-time rotation leader Adam Wainwright likely in his last season, will the Cardinals be able to convince the 30-year old Mikolas to be the long-term veteran anchor of the starting staff?
If so, when will the front office be convinced? Was Mikolas’ 2018 enough to try to push a deal this coming spring rather than wait until the fall and risk a potential increased resolve from the right-hander to test the free agent market?
And will Mikolas be able to repeat his all-star 2018 performance?
- Ozuna Up or Up and Out?
The other key move of the prior off-season was the trade of four prospects to the Miami Marlins for left-fielder Marcell Ozuna. The 2017 Gold Glove Award winner did not look good in the field, hampered by an injured right shoulder. Despite that leading to him swinging almost one-handed at times, he still hit 23 home runs and drove in 88.
With Ozuna scheduled to join Goldschmidt and a number of other Cardinals in free agency next fall, will the Cardinals try to keep the Scott Boras client? And if so, how far will they go?
More than in the case of the very consistent Goldschmidt, the Cardinals will likely be looking to see a return to the 2017-vintage Ozuna before making any long-term offer.
- Bullpen Rebirth?
While there were several positive stories in the 2018 bullpen, such as Bud Norris, Jordan Hicks and Dakota Hudson, they were overshadowed by the major disappointments from relievers Brett Cecil, Luke Gregerson and Greg Holland.
Overall, the 2018 bullpen ERA of 4.38 was fourth-worst in the 15-team National League, compared to 3.81 in 2017, which was fourth-best. St. Louis’ bullpen WHIP, a surrogate for baserunners allowed, was second-worst in the NL at 1.47 last season.
Needless to say, major improvement in his area will be crucial for the team to return to the post-season. The addition of free agent left-hander Andrew Miller is a good first step, but the remaining players need to step up as well.
- Right-field Recovery?
I could not stop at five, with the extra story that of the improvement needed from right field. The story of the lost 2018 of Dexter Fowler need not be retold here.
Despite Fowler having been one of the worst hitters in Major League Baseball last season, the front office and manager have reaffirmed their confidence in the 32-year old as the starter in right field to open the 2019 season.
If Fowler can return to pre-2018 performance levels, pressure will be lessened.
However, if he continues his 2018 struggles, the open question will be how long to stick with him before moving to an alternative. When Fowler suffered a season-ending foot injury last season, manager Mike Shildt went to Jose Martinez more often than rookie slugger Tyler O’Neill.
What occurs in right field could be a crucial element in the club’s move to return to the post-season.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
This article concludes this annual series for another year.
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