Hope springs eternal.
Spring training is under way and it won’t be long now until the pride of the Gateway City, the St. Louis Cardinals, are once again playing under the arch.
The Cardinals remain locked in what could once again be one of the toughest divisions in baseball after three of the five teams made moves in the offseason to get even better. No matter where teams stand on paper at the beginning of the season, the end of February and beginning of March has a way of turning every baseball fan once again into an unflinching optimist.
As we stand on the precipice of the season of renewal, the Redbirds are not the favorites in the National League Central in this season. In fact, they might not even be the second favorite to win the division currently.
As the flora prepares to redisplay its glory to the world, so too the Cardinals have reshuffled their roster in the hopes of blooming back into a potential division winner — for starters.
The biggest thing the Cardinals lacked in their fall from first to second and then third behind both the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers, they believe they now have — a big power bat to plug into the middle of the lineup.
A budding star, former Miami Marlins slugger Marcell Ozuna joined the Cardinals via trade back in December.
Coming off a season in which he batted .312 with 37 home runs and 124 RBI, the team’s new left fielder vastly outmatched anything last year’s Cardinals could muster. The 2017 Redbirds didn’t have a player with more than 25 home runs and perennial favorite Yadier Molina’s 82 RBIs led the squad.
One position to the right of Ozuna stands another fresh bloom in the Cardinals abundant outfield.
After blossoming into the most promising member of the Cardinals’ roster last season, Tommy Pham has received serious hype all offseason. In fact, the buzz around Pham has some thinking he could be a contender for the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2018.
Pham’s emergence as a breakout star has forced last offseason’s primary acquisition, Dexter Fowler, to migrate from center field over to right.
However, the primary question surrounding Fowler this spring isn’t how well he’ll fare sliding over about 100 feet. Instead, the burning question is whether or not Fowler will supplant first baseman Matt Carpenter as the team’s leadoff hitter.
Carpenter’s success atop the lineup compared to lesser production batting further down the order was much ballyhooed this past summer. If Fowler gets the nod to start being the first man up in the first, the question then becomes whether or not Carpeneter can adapt to life as a No. 2 or No. 3 hitter better than he did a season ago.
The outfield at Busch Stadium isn’t the only reason for the burgeoning optimism.
Joining Carepenter on the infield is young shortstop sensation Paul DeJong. As a rookie in 2017, DeJong played in just 108 games after beginning the year in AAA and having to earn his way into the starting job formerly held by Aledmys Diaz, now with the Toronto Blue Jays.
DeJong, despite not being with the team for most of the first two months, led the team in home runs and slugging percentage. However, after seeing how Diaz wilted so quickly last spring after his breakout season in 2016, even the most optimistic of fans have to be holding their breath in the hopes that DeJong proves himself early this spring to be the real deal.
At catcher, the age-old question of age versus youth has to be on everyone’s mind.
Molina is, of course, a constant given for the team and eternally reliable behind the plate. The job is unquestionably his. However, now at age 35, and presumably set to retire after his contract extension runs out at the end of 2020, how much will we see from top catching prospect Carson Kelly this year?
If the Cardinals aren’t going to allow Kelly to take a healthy amount of games for himself, at what point is it no longer wise to hold him back on the bench for potentially three more seasons when other teams would pay dearly to acquire him from the Cardinals in a trade that could land St. Louis another contributor to help contend for another trip to the World Series now?
Filling out the rest of the projected starting lineup are third baseman Jedd Gyorko and Kolten Wong.
While Gyorko did much to win over the hearts and minds of St. Louis fans at the hot corner in 2017, Wong presents a unique question mark for the team this spring.
After appearing ready to break out at the end of 2014, Wong has been serviceable for the past three seasons, he’s lacked the promise of a brilliant future he once had and left fans to wonder how long his job will remain safe and when the team might seriously consider an upgrade.
One option to upgrade the lineup already exists on the team. After a promising 2017 campaign, at what point could Jose Martinez become a fixture at first base? Doing so would displace Carpenter, who would then play either third base or second base, leaving Gyorko the other position.
The bench will be packed with young players hungry to compete for playing time, such as Harrison Bader, Tyler O’Neill and Luke Voit — just to name a few.
On the mound, the Cardinals have presumably moved on from Lance Lynn, though Lynn remains available on the free agent market even as spring games are underway.
However, Cardinals Nation is excited to see the promise of young ace Carlos Martinez continue to pay potentially bigger dividends.
Behind Martinez is Adam Wainwright, a valuable veteran presence, but again even the most optimistic have to ponder if he will be able to compete at the level the Cardinals need him to this year.
Michael Wacha, while still just 26 years old, presents his share of question marks as well. Much like Wong, Wacha’s once brilliant future isn’t as bright as it once was.
In addition to the set pieces of the rotation, the Cardinals have a bevy of young hurlers like Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty among others who could win a spot, potentially displacing others. Which could begin the year in the big leagues, which might get a chance to shine in the bullpen and which might begin 2018 in Memphis remains up in the air.
The biggest of these names is undoubtedly Alex Reyes, the Cardinals’ top prospect who missed the 2017 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. If the Cardinals opt to put Reyes in the bullpen to start the year, he could potentially fill another of the team’s needs as the new closer.
Throw new addition Miles Mikolas, a huge variable after spending the last couple seasons in Japan, into the rotational mix to shake things up and who knows what order the rotation will look like on the first day of the season, March 29, let alone what it will have flowered into come this August.
Regardless of what shape it takes, the rotation still provides plenty of reason to be excited.
No part of the Cardinals roster has been more deciduous, shedding more metaphorical leaves this offseason, than the bullpen.
Gone are the three players to have spent the most time at closer last season — Trevor Rosenthal, Seung Hwan-Oh and Juan Nicasio.
Also gone is lefty Zach Duke, though the Cardinals saw little of him in 2017 due to injury.
Joining those members of the relief staff that are returning will be new faces Luke Gregerson, Bud Norris and Dominic Leone.
Either Gregerson or Norris could open the season as the team’s closer. While Reyes could also potentially fill that role as well, it seems likely the Cardinals would opt to start the season with a veteran manning the night inning.
A less likely option involves a familiar face. In one of the storylines I’ll be paying attention to the most this spring, former fan favorite Jason Motte, who served as closer during the Cardinals 2011 World Series run and ensuing 2012 season, signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals and will attempt to win a roster spot in camp.
On paper, the Cardinals’ bullpen still seems to be missing something, but names like Tyler Lyons, Ryan Sherriff and Sam Tuivailala are hoping to change that perception and they just might.
Some might argue the Cubs and Brewers have made moves this offseason that are just as flashy or maybe even more so, bringing Yu Darvish, Lorenzo Cain and Ozuna’s former teammate Christian Yelich into the division.
However, even the most optimistic among Chicago and Milwakuee fans have to be looking over their shoulder with concern at what’s growing in St. Louis.