Note to readers: I wrote this post prior to year-end, obviously long before Thursday evening’s news that Dave Duncan is taking an indefinite leave of absence as Cardinals pitching coach. Rather than update this article, I decided to leave it in its original form. After all, the Duncan news is clearly a 2012 story.
This announcement has the potential of impacting several top stories beyond just number five. Depending on how and in what manner the team decides to replace Duncan, a Derek Lilliquist move would affect the bullpen, story number four, and potentially Mike Matheny’s first year as well (honorable mention).
First, we looked at the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals this past year. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the late- and post-season success of the club, along with the departures of the team’s manager and best player. Quite a lot to consume!
Now it is time for me to make my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year, as well.
Right up front, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2012 team on the field. The nature of that story has yet to be determined, shaped by the items discussed here and many more plot lines not yet developed.
As I compiled my list and rankings, I considered the staying power of the story, how long it might remain in the headlines as well as its potential short- and long-term impact – on the 2012 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2012. As always, your comments are welcome below.
As most everyone knows, last spring, the Cardinals’ co-ace required season-ending Tommy John surgery to reconstruct the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in his right elbow. Adam Wainwright is now working his way back and is said to be ahead of schedule – assumed by many to be poised to pick up right where he left off in 2010.
The bar is high as his most recent season included a career-best 20 wins and a second-place showing in the National League Cy Young Award voting. It remains to be seen how quickly the 30-year-old can live up to those lofty expectations, but it could be a major swing point for the 2012 Cardinals season.
The Cardinals have an interesting challenge with Wainwright’s contract situation. While his 2012 and 2013 options have been picked up, the time may be right to try to secure a new long-term deal – from a buy-low perspective. The price should only go up once Wainwright returns to his past dominance. Yet that is the very reason I question why the pitcher would consider negotiating a new contract now. He should be in the absolute prime of his career and can likely only expect more money later on.
Just as his friend and former teammate Albert Pujols held all the contract cards in his negotiations with the Cardinals, so does catcher Yadier Molina. The 29-year-old is entering the final year of his contract signed prior to the 2008 season and could decide to test free agency for the first time. As such, his situation is more pressing than Wainwright’s.
Coming off his best season offensively in 2011 and already considered the top defensive catcher in the game, Molina is positioned perfectly to score a big payday – if that is what the elite backstop desires.
Watching to see how closely Molina’s situation parallels Pujols’ and of course, what the end result will be, should be one of the most-talked about storylines of 2012.
Put aside the fact that Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are long gone from the game. The Cardinals have re-assembled the two remaining active members of the Houston Astros’ ‘Killer B’s’ from last decade.
Both Carlos Beltran, signed by the Cardinals to a two-year deal as a free agent in December, and Lance Berkman, back for a second year with St. Louis in 2012, are mid-30’s players with checkered health histories.
Likely to bat second and third in Mike Matheny’s lineup, the late-career productivity of the two should be a prime determiner of how far this season’s Cardinals will go.
Looking ahead 12 months, the player most affected by the second year of Beltran’s contract may be his old-new teammate Berkman. If Allen Craig continues to improve, Berkman may find himself pushed out of a job in 2013, as Matt Holliday carries a long-term contract. But, first things first.
Even if veteran left-hander J.C. Romero makes the 2012 Cardinals’ opening day bullpen, the relief corps will be among the youngest, if not the youngest, in MLB. Barring any signings or trades between now and then, the other six members will all be under 30 years old. The pen should consist of some combination of Eduardo Sanchez (22), Lance Lynn (24), Marc Rzepczynski (25), Fernando Salas (26), Mitchell Boggs (27), Kyle McClellan (27) and Jason Motte (29).
Motte seems to have a hold on the closer’s job, but four of the others also picked up saves last season. The ability of this very young (and low-cost) bullpen to deliver consistent results may be a big story in this upcoming season.
Speaking of ensuring those relatively inexperienced pitchers contribute at the level expected, the man most responsible from a guidance perspective is the subject of my next top story prediction.
In my opinion, the key transitional figure between the La Russa and Matheny coaching administrations isn’t Jose Oquendo or Mark McGwire. It has to be pitching coach Dave Duncan. While the 66-year-old is under contract for 2012 and has a 2013 option, some combination of his wife’s poor health and the considerable changes occurring around him on the job could create unstable conditions regarding his future outlook.
In reality, the fortune of the new manager will most likely be intertwined with the on-field results of his club, a topic assumed to be among the top stories of the year by default.
Still, there is potential for newsworthiness in how Matheny personally deals with the inevitable ups and downs during his first year in a most pressure-filled job. Replacing a future Hall-of-Famer and leading the defending champion without baseball’s best player present formidable challenges to the new skipper.
Hopefully, his team will be the story, not him.