To begin our annual year-end series, we counted down the top five stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2020. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the many challenges presented by COVID followed by the resilience of the team that culminated in their appearance in the Wild Card Series.
Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines that may grab the headlines during this New Year.
The top story is customarily the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the team on the field during the upcoming season. However, that does not mean considerable twists and turns are not ahead, just as the huge impact of COVID was unexpected a year ago at this time. Well, hopefully not as significant as a pandemic, but I hope you get what I mean!
As I compiled the list and set the 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 2021 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2021. As always, your comments are encouraged at The Cardinal Nation’s free message board.
- Is 2021 the new 2019?
A year ago, there was considerable optimism surrounding the Cardinals. In manager Mike Shildt’s first full season, the club had retaken the National League Central Division and a host of young players – pitchers and position players alike – were poised to step up and make major contributions.
However, as everyone well knows, nothing about 2020 – and I mean nothing – went according to plan. The Cardinals still made a very credible showing under extremely trying circumstances.
An often overlooked side benefit is experience gained, in some cases by players who may not have reached the majors at all in a “normal” season. That experience may help the 2021 club.
So when I made the above joke, it was to say that perhaps the 2021 Cardinals can pick up where the 2019 team left off – starting with the division championship. No one wants a repeat of 2020!
- Yadi and Waino’s swan song?
Not long ago, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were the highest-paid Cardinals, at $20 million and $19.5 million per season, respectively.
For the pitcher, this changed in 2019 when he began a string of one-year, incentive-based contracts.
The future Hall of Fame catcher’s three-year, $60 million contract expired following the 2020 season, so he is facing the reality of this huge, late-career salary drop two years later than his long-time battery mate.
Molina made his MLB debut in 2004 with Wainwright following a year later. Undoubtedly, they would like to finish their long careers as Cardinals, but that is not entirely in their hands.
At this juncture, it is unclear whether the two will return to St. Louis for 2021, but many observers believe their new deals will eventually get done.
Assuming they do, odds seem high that Wainwright will be on another one-year contract. Molina is rumored to want two years, but the team may or may not be willing to make that commitment ahead of time, perhaps offering an option, instead.
Even if both are back, the same questions could return in the fall of 2021. Are they done or do they want to continue for 2022?
Instead, if for any reason, either one or both decide to complete their respective careers on another team rather than return to St. Louis in 2021, it might make this an even bigger story than had they stayed. On this list, though, it is difficult to rank higher than number two.
- Sorting out the outfield (still)
Stop me if you’ve heard this tune before.
The Cardinals have a gaggle of promising outfielders who need nothing more than additional playing time to stake out major league jobs and realize their considerable potential.
This was a huge matter heading into 2020, and with the exception of the emergence of Dylan Carlson perhaps, it remains at least as big of a question mark for 2021.
With Carlson scheduled to play every day in one outfield spot and Dexter Fowler playing out the final year of his contract in another, it would leave just one position open for the others to jostle for playing time.
Harrison Bader remains the incumbent in center thanks to his superior defense. Also not to be overlooked is his solid offense in the mess that is also known as 2020. Yet his offensive success has always been skewed toward left-handed pitching, so could Bader become a platoon player?
Another answer could be to bench Fowler, but until he shows he isn’t one of the top three outfielders – which he was for most of 2020 before going on the injured list – the veteran is going to start. Yet, if the Cardinals were playing for the future, instead of aiming for a return to the playoffs, Fowler would probably be traded or at least made a bench regular.
Otherwise, how do NL Gold Glove Award winner Tyler O’Neill, COVID-struck Lane Thomas, Austin Dean and Justin Williams (out of minor league options) get their respective chances?
Like I said, the answers are no clearer now than they were a year ago.
But this needs to be sorted out in 2021 so the club knows before diving into the deep free agent waters expected in the fall if they will be in the market for a veteran fly chaser – or they can direct their spending elsewhere. Like third base perhaps?
- Third base transition?
There seems no doubt that the primary beneficiary of the Cardinals non-tendering second baseman Kolten Wong is Matt Carpenter. With Tommy Edman slated to slide over to second, third base is opened up for the return of the disappointing Carpenter.
Like Fowler, Carpenter is in the final year of a contract that will pay him far more than the value he is expected to return to the team. Without a major unexpected renaissance in 2021 at the age of 35, it seems unlikely that Carpenter will be back in 2022.
That would shift the primary focus to his heir apparent, The Cardinal Nation number two prospect Nolan Gorman.
Loaded with talent, headlined by a power-laden bat, the 20-year-old will almost certainly become St. Louis’ starter at the hot corner one day. The unanswered question is how much longer will it take for Gorman to be ready?
Gorman split his 2019 between two levels of Class-A ball and played well, but not spectacularly. 2020 would have been his Double-A season, with hopes for a breakout stint in the Texas League. Unfortunately, the left-handed hitter was destined to play in just scrimmages in the alternate camp at Hammons Field last summer.
Recently, Mike Shildt shared his belief that Gorman has the talent to play in the majors already. Further, the Cardinals manager said that he thinks Gorman can move ahead more quickly than other prospects.
So, how soon will Gorman be challenged with Triple-A? Will it be out of the (potentially delayed) gates in 2021, or will he be given time back in Springfield first? If all goes well, could he get his feet wet with St. Louis, as Carlson did in 2020?
The rate and pace of Gorman’s progress in 2021 will have a major bearing on St. Louis’ plans for third base in 2022. It should be fun to watch!
- The lefties are coming!
Though Austin Gomber has filled in admirably when needed as a spot starter, St. Louis’ last left-handed pitcher in the ongoing starting rotation was Jaime Garcia, who departed after the 2016 season.
As a result of the Cardinals using their first-round pick in the 2019 draft on one lefty and making a controversial trade in January 2020 for another, the organization now has two very promising left-handers aiming toward the majors.
Zack Thompson is a college-draftee from the University of Kentucky. The Cardinal Nation’s fifth-ranked prospect for 2021 has advanced the furthest on paper, making 11 relief appearances at High-A Palm Beach to close 2019.
Matthew Liberatore was Tampa Bay’s first-rounder in 2018 as a high school star from Arizona. In his last professional action, the now-21-year old pitched the entire 2019 schedule in the Low Class-A Midwest League.
Both were in St. Louis’ two 2020 camps and spent last summer in the Springfield alternate camp getting in as much work as possible. Yet the fact remains that neither has pitched an inning at either Double-A or Triple-A.
Thompson, 23, received good reports from Springfield, but was slowed early by shoulder soreness that later subsided. Liberatore, our number three prospect, was given the most glowing alternate camp reports by Cardinals officials from top to bottom.
For that reason – granted before a pitch has been thrown in 2021 – Liberatore seems to be ahead in the race to St. Louis. General belief is that one or perhaps even both could break into MLB via the bullpen this coming season and lay the groundwork to compete for the rotation in 2022 and beyond.
The Cardinal Nation’s top five stories of the year countdown
This article concludes our annual series for another year, but we will be back in 12 months to see how we did and start the process all over again. Please join us!
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