A lot of things have to go right if a club is going to turn championship dreams into postseason hardware. Here are five things that are going to have to happen for the St. Louis Cardinals to be successful in returning to the playoffs in 2019:
▪ Paul DeJong has to be the player he was in his rookie season as opposed to the one who had an injury-marred campaign in 2018.
It’s not the young infielder’s fault that he was hurt when he was hit by a pitch, missing a good chunk of the season and then struggling to regain his stroke after he came off the disabled list. But when they didn’t grab another bat following the acquisition of Paul Goldschmidt, that effectively means that DeJong can’t sit comfortably in the six or seventh spot in the lineup, He’s likely going to have to be a heart of the order producer. In fact, it’s been speculated that DeJong could find himself in the three hole with Goldschmidt batting second.
That’s an awful lot to ask from a young player. We’ve seen streaks where DeJong gets hot and tears the cover off the ball. But he was a .228 hitter in the second half of 2018 with a .292 on-base percentage. That’s not going to cut in in the two through five spots in the batting order if the Cardinals are contend in the National League Central.
▪ The young pitching has to hold up. The Redbirds are counting on Jack Flaherty to be a key part of the starting rotation, Jordan Hicks to be a shut down late inning reliever and a group that includes Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, John Grant and Daniel Ponce de Leon to be solid contributors. They don’t all have to be great. But it’s hard to imagine this team having much success if Flaherty, Hudson, Hicks and at least one more of them aren’t ready for prime time. Reyes is the wild card here. He’s a guy who could be the best pitcher in the bunch, or his career could be in pretty serious jeopardy if he gets injured a third year in a row. I look for Reyes to build strength in the bullpen to protect his arm, despite pronouncements from the front office that he’s expected to be a starter. If that wasn’t the case, I believe the team would have made a more serious effort to fortify the bullpen beyond adding the lefty Andrew Miller.
▪ Forget about Dexter Fowler. Tyler O’Neill has to be a force in right field if the Birds are going to be an exceptional team. Fowler might still have a role on this club. He could be a valuable fourth outfielder and pinch hitter as one of the few left-handed hitting options on the major league roster. But O’Neill has done all he can do at the Class AAA level. If he goes there in 2019, it’s just a waste of talent. At his best, Fowler is a guy who is going to hit .260 with 15 home runs at this stage of his career. O’Neill has the kind of power that could make him a 40 homer guy if he has a chance to develop his hitting eye and learn to strike out a little bit less. While O’Neill might not best Fowler’s average by much, he covers a lot more ground that Fowler can at this point of his career and is a tremendous defensive upgrade. If St. Louis is going to pass on a chance to land 26-year-old slugger Bryce Harper as a free agent, I hope it’s not to try to prove signing Fowler was a mistake. It should be to give O’Neill a chance to develop into he sort of player he looks like he can be.
▪ Yadier Molina has to stay healthy. The Cardinals gambled that he could do so when it traded heir apparent Carson Kelly to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Goldschmidt swap. St. Louis has prospect Andrew Knizner rising through the ranks. But he’s probably at least a year away from being able to play an extended stretch in the major leagues. Besides, Yadi needs to be on the field where he leads the defense and at the plate where he’s always been a clutch contributor if this club is going to play at peak performance. Molina has played at least 110 games ever year since 2005, including last season when he had the most gruesome of groin injuries. But he’s entering his age 36 campaign and, as superhuman as he has been, nobody outruns Father Time forever.
5) Finally, the big piece of the puzzle is Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt has been the best player in the NL since 2013 according to WAR. But he struggled out of the gate in 2018, hitting only .201 on May 26 before he finally started to get his feet beneath him.
Things like that happen. Everyone goes through slumps and they’re exaggerated when they happen at the start of the season. But the Birds really don’t need that to happen in 2019. If Goldie stumbles two years in a row, will the Cardinals, who are already phobic about long-term contracts, freak out and refuse to commit to the 31-year-old slugger? Will fans turn on the team because it could have done more over the winter? I hope we never find out.