photo: Marcell Ozuna (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
Last year at this time, as I do each January, I published my predictions of the topics I thought could evolve into the top five stories across the St. Louis Cardinals Nation for the then-New Year of 2018.
Now with the benefit of full hindsight, including the top 10 stories of 2018 countdown now on the books, it is time to take my annual look back at my initial forecast. After all, anyone can make predictions, but how many actually return after the fact to review how they fared?
The original top five projections follow, along with where the stories actually ended up, including links to the appropriate articles. I won’t be repeating my 2018 summaries here, so click on the links if you’d like to read those detailed top 10 stories.
My predictive powers were both very good and very bad this year. I was right on target with three of my top guesses from one year ago in the final top 10. However, I completely whiffed on two others. Still, I’d take a .600 batting average just about any time!
Almost always, how the season ends up becomes my number one story of the year. That did not change, with the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs remaining big reasons why St. Louis missed the playoffs again.
|Pre-2018 prediction story||rank||rank||Post-2018 actual story|
|Escaping Third Place||1||1||Wrong Kind of Three-Peat|
|Will New Coaches Help Save the Manager?||2||2||Matheny Fired|
|Is Ozuna “It”?||3||not ranked|
|Wainwright’s Swan Song?||4||not ranked|
|From Where Will the Innings Come?||5||5||Unexpected Leaders|
Revisiting my predicted top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2018.
- Escaping Third Place
The pessimist will counter that the Cardinals spent most of the season in third place, including at the end, and that the 88 wins were devalued in the era of tanking.
Take whichever view you choose, but the bottom line was the same – a third consecutive year out of the playoffs and a second straight year in third place.
A year after Chicago clinched the division and eliminated the Cardinals from wild card contention on consecutive nights at Busch Stadium in late September, in 2018, it was Milwaukee punching their playoff ticket on the turf in St. Louis, as the Cardinals finished the year with a 1-5 final week against their two primary foes.
For the season as a whole, the division champion Brewers won 11 of 19 against St. Louis, while the Cards actually eked out a 10-9 season edge over the Baby Bears.
This gap does look to be closing with St. Louis’ addition of slugger Paul Goldschmidt to the 2019 lineup. However, as the 2016 Cardinals learned, a second-place finish does not guarantee a wild card.
- Will New Coaches Help Save the Manager?
On July 14, the answer to this question became crystal clear. It is “no”, with manager Mike Matheny, along with hitting coaches John Mabry and Bill Mueller, fired by the Cardinals.
With great fanfare and high hopes last fall, the organization announced the return of infield guru Jose Oquendo to the major league coaching staff after two years of self-imposed exile to the minor leagues. Along with Oquendo, Willie McGee, one of the most popular players in team history, was also added to Matheny’s staff, as an assistant coach. One of MLB’s most respected pitching coaches, Mike Maddux, was hired, as well.
Yet, despite the hard work of the trio – and all the coaches, no doubt – the team continued to have defensive issues and was still not always crisp on the bases. Starting pitching was solid, but the bullpen was a major disappointment. This serves as a good reminder that even the best coaches can only do so much.
Following the season, Oquendo returned to the minors, with McGee and Maddux staying on for 2020. In his first full season, manager Mike Shildt will have a new first base coach in Stubby Clapp and hitting coach in Jeff Albert.
- Is Ozuna “It”?
To add the big bat the team needed at least a year earlier, the Cardinals sent four prospects to Miami for outfielder Marcell Ozuna last December. The former Cardinals are pitchers Sandy Alcantara, Zac Gallen and Daniel Castano and outfielder Magneuris Sierra – good prospects, but not the organization’s best.
Ozuna, the 2017 National League Gold Glove Award winner in left field, looked sluggish defensively, with throws that lacked authority. Ozuna spent the entire season with a sore shoulder that often led to one-handed swings, like the one in the above photo. Still, the right-handed hitter delivered 23 home runs and 88 RBI before having surgery in the fall.
The answer to the initial question is “no”. The addition of Ozuna was not enough for the 2018 Cardinals. The Scott Boras client was good, but not the difference maker he was hoped to be. The 28-year old has been augmented for 2019 by another slugger from the outside, Paul Goldschmidt, and has one more season with the club before becoming free agent eligible in the fall.
- Wainwright’s Swan Song?
Since his last standout season in 2014, right-handed pitcher Adam Wainwright struggled with injury while earning $19.5 million annually. With that contract set to conclude at the end of the 2018 season, the questions coming into the year were whether the always-optimistic starter would finally become a significant contributor again and whether he would decide to retire afterward either way.
The answer to both questions was “no”.
From Opening Day, Wainwright was unable to go due to a hamstring injury suffered in spring camp. The 37-year old made his debut in Game 7 and made three starts before spending another month on the disabled list. He returned in mid-May, but managed to pitch just 2 1/3 innings before going back on the shelf.
With rookie standout Jack Flaherty replacing him each time, Wainwright remained out until September. In four final-month starts as the season got away from the Cardinals, Wainwright had one quality start and one win, finishing his disappointing season with a 4.46 ERA over eight starts.
Even before Wainwright officially became a free agent following the World Series, he came to terms with the club on a one-year $2 million contract plus incentives for 2019. His stature in team history means he will continue to be given the opportunity to start until the 2019 season ends or some earlier point, likely after he had proven he should not.
Hopefully, the career Cardinal will conclude his decorated career with his head held high.
- From Where Will the Innings Come?
A major concern coming into 2018 was which starting pitchers the Cardinals could count on to take the ball every fifth day and pitch deeply into the game.
The departure of workhorse Lance Lynn, the ongoing injury questions with Michael Wacha and the late-career decline of once-ace Adam Wainwright left big open questions as to who would step in.
The returns from those for whom expectations were highest were not particularly encouraging.
Carlos Martinez barely reached half of his 2017 career-best 205 innings, finishing the year in the bullpen. Wacha gave a strong half-season before bowing out with injury again. Wainwright could answer the bell for just eight starts all season (see above), and Luke Weaver suffered a major sophomore slump, eventually losing his spot entirely. The highly-anticipated return of top prospect Alex Reyes ended in his very first outing.
In stepped a crew of relatively unproven replacements. Free agent Miles Mikolas became the new ace and was the only member of the rotation to remain all season long. The 30-year old was the Cardinals only all-star.
Rookie Jack Flaherty became the number two among the starting five and through his 28 starts proved to be one of the top rookies in the National League.
But it did not stop there.
John Gant contributed 19 starts, Austin Gomber 11 and Daniel Ponce de Leon 4, among them delivering the equivalent of one start every fifth day.
No one could have predicted ahead of time how this would turn out, but overall, despite the churn, the rotation was exceptional. The starters finished 2018 with an aggregate ERA of 3.52, third-best in the 15-team National League. This was a major step forward from the 4.13, sixth-place ranking in 2017, and is a testament to the pitchers and their coaches.
Looking ahead into 2019, all of the starters with the exception of the traded Weaver will return, making the rotation the apparent strength of the team once again.
In my final article of this annual series, I will outline my predictions for the top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2019.
The Cardinal Nation’s top 10 stories of the year countdown
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