St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals are depending on a lot of 'what ifs' in 2018. But what if they pan out?

Cardinals starting pitcher Luke Weaver in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida.
Cardinals starting pitcher Luke Weaver in the dugout during a spring training game in Jupiter, Florida. snagy@bnd.com

"I would hope you would support who we are, not who we are not ... This is your team." — Coach Norman Dale, "Hoosiers"

Let's suspend the hand wringing, just for a while.

If at the All-Star Break, the Cardinals are sitting below .500 and 10 games out of first, then we can all unload on the front office brass for failing to do in the offseason everything we told them they should have done.

But it's Opening Day. The offseason is over. This is your team.

For 2018, the Cardinals have gone all-in on player development. There are nine rookies or second-year players on the roster, including two in the starting rotation, and a 21-year-old flamethrower originally projected for double-A Springfield at the back of the bullpen.

St. Louis' legion of amateur baseball executives already have argued the alternatives and what leaks will be sprung because of the trades that weren't made and the free agents who weren't signed.

What they have left unconsidered is this: What if the "what ifs" actually pan out? What if the gambles the Cardinals have made on young talent pay off in just a few more wins?

Whatever big league experience this roster lacks, it covers with enough upside that the "what ifs" don't seem so implausible.

For instance:

What if ... Alex Reyes joins the roster by the May 1 timeline?

Losing him to Tommy John surgery did as much as anything to derail the Cardinals' plans in 2017. And he'll be limited in his return, probably capped at between 90 and 100 innings.

But in just 46 innings in 2016, the former No. 1 prospect in all of baseball won four games with a 1.56 ERA. Reyes will contribute, either to an already deep bullpen, or by taking spot starts that limit the wear and tear on other arms.

What if ... Waino is just good enough?

Adam Wainwright hasn't been staff ace material since tearing an Achilles tendon in 2015, and he'll be 37 before the new season is over. But the Cardinals already have an ace. All they need is for the fourth or fifth guy in the rotation to keep his team close enough through six innings.

Wainwright has looked capable of better in the spring, the hamstring strain that has landed him on the disabled list notwithstanding. His arm is fine. Through three starts and 10.2 innings, Wainwright allowed one earned run while striking out 10.

What if ... Luke Weaver and/or Jack Flaherty are really ready?

Weaver, 24, was likely going to get his shot in the rotation anyway. But he earned it through his dominance in the spring. In five starts and 16.1 innings, he had a 0.55 ERA and 19 strikeouts. This comes after an encouraging 2017 in which he won seven of 10 starts.

Flaherty, 22, will get a start this weekend in place of Wainwright. His 24 strikeouts in 15.2 spring innings could be a preview of things to come.

What if ... Having a single lock-down closer is overrated?

The bullpen looks like one of the Cardinals' strengths, but much of the aforementioned hand-wringing is due to the team's unwillingness to identify that one guy to handle the ninth. That could be because they have three guys who can do the job.

Domic Leone saved four spring games, striking out 13 while giving up just four hits. Bullpen workhorse Tyler Lyons will get his turn, too, as could Bud Norris, who had 13 saves by the All-Star break in 2017.

This makes no mention of Luke Gregerson, who has been limited by oblique and hamstring issues.

What if ... Having a single lock-down closer isn't overrated, and Jordan Hicks proves he can be that guy?

John Mozeliak said during the team's annual Winter Warm-Up that the 21-year-old flamethrower was viewed as a future closer and that he could make his debut in 2018. Hicks' 11th-hour addition to the Opening Day roster was a stunner nonetheless.

Now that's he's gotten his chance, what other surprises might Hicks and his 102 mph fastball have in store?

What if ... A new coaching staff makes Mike Matheny a few wins smarter?

Mozeliak and GM Mike Girsch have rebuilt the coaching staff with their eyes fixed on the areas where Matheny has struggled.

The Cardinals bullpen, for example, coughed up 41 leads last year and allowed 32 percent of inherited base runners to score. Mo and Co. didn't just replace most of its arms, they brought in new "pitching coordinator" Mike Maddux to exert some influence. He'll set the rotation, align the bullpen and be in Matheny's ear with every pitching change.

Former minor league manager Mike Shildt will be there, too, with an expertise in advanced analytics that helps find the best matchups.

Don't discount what Jose Oquendo has done to bring some accountability back to spring drills, and what Willie McGee and Chris Carpenter can do for clubhouse culture.

What if ... Outfielder Tommy Pham and shortstop Paul DeJong can repeat on their breakout seasons? Both can only benefit by the protection Marcell Ozuna gives them in the middle of the batting order.

What if ... Jedd Gyorko continues to improve at the plate, as he has each of the past three years?

What if ... Matt Carpenter flourishes in the leadoff spot, now that Ozuna, Pham and DeJong have shored up the middle?

What if ... Miles Mikolas can bring the rotation some of the success he found in the Japanese professional league?

And what if ... The Cardinals can mine just four more wins from all of these contingencies? That would close all the ground that existed last season between a playoff spot and their second straight October at home.

That's not too much to hope for, is it?

Todd Eschman is the sports editor of the Belleville News-Democrat. Reach him at 618-239-2540.
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