photo: Mike Shildt via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)
While anyone can and does make predictions these days, how many of them come back after the fact to self-assess the quality of the guesses? When bows are to be taken, it is more likely to occur, but more often they are forgotten.
That isn’t how we do it here at The Cardinal Nation, however. We do our reviews whether we can strut or have to eat a big piece of humble pie.
Last year at this time, as in each January, I published my predictions of the topics I felt could evolve into the top five stories across the St. Louis Cardinals organization for the then-New Year of 2021.
Now with the benefit of full hindsight, including the Top 10 Stories of 2021 countdown now on the books, it is time to return to my initial forecast.
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 2021 summaries here, so click on the hot links if you’d like to read those detailed five stories.
This year, I characterize my predictive powers as slightly above average. I was on target with four of my top five guesses from one year ago, though one was sixth. However, two others did not make it, which I will explain below.
Almost always, how the Cardinals season ends up becomes my number one story of the year, but it placed just third in 2021. In my assessment, the Nolan Arenado trade and the firing of manager Mike Shildt both have significant long-term implications to the Cardinals, putting them ahead of the Wild Card 2021 Cardinals.
Here is the scoreboard.
|Pre-2021 prediction story||rank||rank||Post-2021 actual story|
|Is 2021 the new 2019?||1||3||17-Game Winning Streak/Wild Card|
|Yadi and Waino’s swan song?||2||4||Molina and Wainwright Forge Ahead|
|Sorting out the outfield (still)||3||6||The Young Outfield Steps Up|
|Third base transition?||4||2||The Nolan Arenado Trade|
|The lefties are coming!||5||not ranked|
Revisiting my predicted top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2021.
- Is 2021 the new 2019?
A year ago, the Cardinals were coming off a 2020 season which was unlike any other due to the many ramifications caused by COVID. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I suggest that everyone’s hope was that 2021 would mark a return to normalcy.
While that happened – more or less – there was still one big difference between 2019 and 2021 – the standings. In manager Mike Shildt’s first full season, the club had retaken the National League Central Division. After the improbable Wild Card finish of 2020, the hope was that St. Louis would re-take the Central title in 2021.
Instead, the Milwaukee Brewers took control of the division and the Cardinals, generally left for dead by September, needing a record-setting 17-game win streak just to reach the Wild Card Game again. It was Shildt’s team’s third playoff appearance in three years, though none of them were easy.
The result of the Wild Card contest was the same in 2021 as it was in 2019 – a road loss.
Maybe 2022 will finally mark a real return to normalcy, but that is difficult to envision between the variants of COVID raging and the ongoing labor dispute between players and owners that has no end in sight.
- Yadi and Waino’s swan song?
Last January, when I made my 2021 predictions, neither Adam Wainwright nor Yadier Molina were signed for the upcoming season. Yes, there were COVD-driven reasons for teams to be cautious in issuing contracts, but these are icons, after all.
Neither was any longer making in the range of $20 million per season nor did they carry that high of expectations. Yet, the contract negotiations dragged out almost up to spring training.
Then the focus turned to their performance in 2021, along with the ongoing question of whether that season would be their last. Both checked off the results box, with Wainwright especially having a strong campaign, his best since 2014.
Not only did the pair express a desire to return for 2022, but this time, the Cardinals moved quickly to work out a deal with the catcher in August. The pitcher followed with his 2022 deal as soon as the season ended.
That still leaves the final question. Will 2022 be their final year as active players? At this point, Wainwright seems most likely to hang up his spikes. Molina has changed direction enough times in the past that his decision will be less predictable.
But the bottom line is that fans will be able to celebrate the feats of the career Cardinals once again in 2021.
- Sorting out the outfield (still)
One of the biggest questions facing the Cardinals coming into 2021 was the outfield situation. Rather than bringing in veterans from the outside, the Cardinals chose to go with their youth. But which of them would step up was unclear.
As the year opened, only rookie Dylan Carlson, who came up in 2020, and veteran Dexter Fowler seemed reasonably set for regular playing time. Contenders with prior experience included Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader, but each had nagging offensive questions attached. Other candidates even less proven included Austin Dean, Justin Williams and Lane Thomas.
Not only did all of them receive playing time opportunity during 2021, so did two other rookies, Scott Hurst and Lars Nootbaar.
When the smoke cleared, O’Neill, Bader and Carlson solidified their hold on everyday at-bats. The former two earned Gold Glove Awards for their defensive prowess.
Fowler had been sent away despite a big contract to help make room. Dean, Williams and Thomas have also left the organization and Hurst lost his 40-man roster spot, with the relatively unheralded Nootbaar stepping up to seize the fourth outfield position.
In just 12 months, the outfield turned from a major question mark into a potential long-term strength.
- Third base transition?
The precipitous slide of veteran Matt Carpenter’s offense left the third base position a major open question for the Cardinals. The surprising non-tender of second baseman Kolten Wong last winter meant the primary in-house option for third, Tommy Edman, was needed on the right side of the keystone. Complicating matters was that top prospect Nolan Gorman was at least a year away.
The long-term complexion of third base for the Cardinals as well as the career of Gorman took a major turn on February 1 with the acquisition of Nolan Arenado from Colorado.
With the perennial Gold Glover committed to St. Louis for the better part of the next decade, the experiment of Gorman trying second base turned into a permanent move. Carpenter became a reserve for his final season with the Cardinals.
For 2022, third base is set, but the timing of Gorman’s MLB arrival and what Edman’s future role will be when that occurs are the new questions needing answers.
- The lefties are coming!
This did not place among the top 10 stories for 2021 but remains a viable contender for 2022 honors.
While top left-handed pitching prospects Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore both received bold promotions from Class-A ball in 2019 to open 2021 in Triple-A, neither was ready to help St. Louis this past season.
Thompson, 24, required a longer period of time to pitch up to the level of Triple-A hitters. The former University of Kentucky hurler improved as the season progressed and topped his year off with a successful stint in the Arizona Fall League prospect showcase.
At this point, Liberatore, 22, seems to be ahead of Thompson. The acquisition from Tampa Bay in the Randy Arozerena trade led the Cardinals system in wins and innings pitched despite missing time pitching for Team USA in the Olympic qualifier. Liberatore also tied for third in the organization in lowest walk rate and best strikeout to walk ratio.
Though neither are yet on the 40-man roster, both should be able to earn their first promotions to St. Louis during 2022. The timing and in what role remain to be seen.
In my final article of this annual series, I will outline my predictions for the top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2022.
The Cardinal Nation’s Top 10 Stories of 2021
Links to all stories in this series can be found here.
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