photo: Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
First, we counted down the top 10 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2019. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season success that culminated in the team reaching the National League Championship Series.
Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year.
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 2020 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Customarily, the top story is the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2020 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.
Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2020. As always, your comments are welcome at The Cardinal Nation’s free message board.
- Back to Back
A segment of Cardinals fans act as if the 91-win division-winning season of 2019 was a fluke. They point to the loss of Marcell Ozuna from the middle of the lineup and assume it cannot be repeated. Others are excited about the team’s young talent and what it might accomplish ahead.
No matter how one feels about 2019, the Cardinals are no longer the underdog. They are the defending Division Champions, with the Cubs and Brewers always a threat, along with the Reds, a team that has made many on-paper improvements for 2020.
Rightfully so, anything short of another first-place finish would be considered a step backward for manager Mike Shildt’s team.
A lot has changed since the Cardinals last won the Central Division in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015.
In fact, just five Cardinals still remain from 2014 – pitchers Adam Wainwright and Carlos Martinez and position players Kolten Wong, Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. The entire coaching staff has turned over, including several positions multiple times.
Two following stories will focus on the team’s longest-tenured players, Molina and Wainwright.
- Molina’s Contract
For a number of years prior to 2020, when newcomer Paul Goldschmidt’s extension kicks in, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were the two highest-paid Cardinals, at $20 million and $19.5 million per season, respectively.
Wainwright’s prior contract concluded in 2018 and he became a free agent that fall. Anxious to return to the Cardinals, but accepting that his level of contribution was diminishing in his later years, he accepted a low-base, high-incentive contract for 2019. It worked out well, as he earned all incentives. In fact, he received another such offer for 2020 with more guaranteed money.
Yet, his annual take was roughly half of his peak earning seasons.
Contrast that to Molina, who in his late 30’s, has avoided much of the injuries that plagued Wainwright earlier. The catcher still takes tremendous pride in playing every day, even as his production gradually declines.
When signing his current three-year, $60 million deal that covers 2018 through 2020, Molina said it would be his final contract. He has since changed his mind, expressing a desire to continue into 2021 and perhaps beyond. His agent and the Cardinals plan to speak in the spring about a new extension.
This puts the Cardinals in a bind. The Collective Bargaining Agreement stipulates that no player remaining under team control can take a pay decrease of more than 20 percent. That means any extension Molina signs while still working under his current contract must pay him at least $16 million per year.
In Wainwright’s case, the two sides had to wait until he actually reached free agency, at which point, the 20 percent maximum cut rule no longer applied.
But will Molina be willing to wait until the fall? Would he consider such an approach disrespectful?
Instead, should the Cardinals potentially overpay in the spring to avoid any possible acrimony with a team icon, even if that money might better be used to improve the team elsewhere? (In hindsight, recall how extending Matt Carpenter a year early worked out.)
The Molina situation has the potential to become anywhere from a non-story to a major distraction for the Cardinals in 2020 as the career conclusion of one of the franchise greats approaches.
Note: Additional background on the Molina contract situation can be found in the following opinion piece.
- Cleaning Up
Say what you want about Marcell Ozuna, but the team’s left fielder in 2018 and 2019 was the club’s regular clean-up hitter, driving in 178 runs. He led the team in the category in his first season and only trailed Paul Goldschmidt in year two.
As the calendar flips over to the New Year, the Cardinals have neither added a player to replace Ozuna’s production nor have identified anyone for Shildt to write into the number four spot for 162 games in 2020. Could it be Paul DeJong, or Matt Carpenter, or Yadier Molina or someone else entirely?
Even with Ozuna, the 2019 Cardinals were a bottom-third offense in the National League. While the club has a number of promising outfielders coming to camp competing for jobs, the offense – and specifically the middle of the lineup, the run-producing part – remains a major open question.
Those I have asked about this sidestep the matter, responding with comments along the lines of, “We are doubling down on run prevention.” What that means is that the 2020 Cardinals could again place their bets on stout pitching and a strong defense, while willing to go to battle with what may again be a below-average offense.
That formula succeeded in 2019 in part, in my opinion, due to a lack of serious injury to front line players. However, against the Nationals in the Championship Series, the Cardinals’ offensive weakness was painfully and definitively exposed.
It is tough to see how the 2020 club as currently constructed could advance further than the final four level achieved in 2019. But as they say, “That is why they play the games.”
- Wainwright’s Swan Song?
2020 has to be at least the third consecutive year I have wondered if the upcoming season would be Adam Wainwright’s last. He had a good 2019 and if he does it again, he may want to continue to throw to his long-time battery-mate Molina in 2021.
At this point, I see any contributions from Wainwright being gravy as the 38-year old has already earned his red jacket as a future selection to the Cardinals team Hall of Fame.
But if his final downturn comes during a pennant race, will his status conflict with the greater needs of the team? Could one of his greatest strengths, his unwavering positive attitude, restrict his objectivity?
My hope is that whenever Wainwright leaves the game, whether in 2020 or later on, that it be with his head held high.
- Carlson is Coming
One of the unspoken reasons that the Cardinals may appear less concerned than many of their fans about the loss of Ozuna’s offense is their confidence in their top prospect, outfielder Dylan Carlson.
But how high will the expectations be – and will they initially be met?
With the 21-year old having just 18 games of Triple-A experience and five more experienced 40-man roster outfielders to be sorted out by the team this spring, Carlson’s time with St. Louis may not begin on Opening Day.
However, it will happen soon enough for the switch-hitter to have the opportunity to make an impact on the 2020 Cardinals. That should definitely qualify Carlson’s debut to be one of the potential biggest stories of the New Year.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
This article concludes this annual series for another year. See you in 12 months to review these predictions from the rear-view mirror.
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