First, we looked at the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals this past year. Not surprisingly, the list was headlined by the post-season run by the club, along with the recognition of fine individual seasons put together by Yadier Molina and Kyle Lohse.
Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year, as well.
As is customary, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2013 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 2013 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2013. As always, your comments are welcome below.
The Cardinals’ resolution of star player contracts in each of the past two years went very differently. In 2011, Albert Pujols’ touchy standoff with the club drew headlines all season long before culminating in a somewhat messy divorce. Last year, the club and Molina had a much different resolution. They quickly and painlessly came to terms on an extension in the spring, heading off the potential of fall free agency.
Now, it is Adam Wainwright’s turn in the barrel. Given the escalation of pitching prices in the open market, the pressure on the Cardinals is increasing. With a wealth of young arms reaching the majors and others close, might the club be tempted to let Wainwright walk rather than pay him to be the club’s pitching leader in the post-Chris Carpenter years?
This story has all the potential of becoming almost Pujolsian in magnitude. Note that I said, “almost!”
No, the Cardinals’ second base situation is not so bad that dusting off the old Abbott and Costello comedy routine is needed. On the other hand, it is as blurry as a 1940’s black and white film.
Skip Schumaker was traded away. Like Schumaker before him, Matt Carpenter has been asked to learn second base as a very difficult homework assignment. Returnee Daniel Descalso hasn’t shown he has enough bat to be an everyday player for a contender. Pete Kozma offered a surprising burst in September, but few believe it can be repeated over an entire season.
Barring a trade or free agent signing, that leaves prospect Kolten Wong as the best potential answer – for the long-haul, at least. With no career at-bats above Double-A, the team’s first-rounder in 2011 could use some time in Triple-A.
A slow start by the second base incumbents and/or a hot start by Wong at Memphis could accelerate the time table. Another option might be the acquisition of a rental player to provide a late-season boost. Otherwise, even with everyone healthy, the second base position looks to be the weakest on the club.
Speaking of healthy, one of the externally-supplied sparkplugs that helped fire the Cardinals’ engine to fly to the 2011 championship was shortstop Rafael Furcal. He is the man who coined the term “Happy Flights” to celebrate final-game road series wins. During last off-season, general manager John Mozeliak surprised many by giving Furcal a two-year contract covering 2012 and 2013.
Like another of the Cards’ aging, injury-plagued 2011 stars, Lance Berkman, Furcal did not make it through the 2012 season unscathed. Elbow problems that apparently did not require surgery remain a red flag for the now-35-year-old, who has a checkered injury past.
Though rumors had the Cardinals looking for alternatives this winter, the apparent high price of shortstops on the open market led to no action. As a result, the high risk remains.
Beyond Kozma, untested Ryan Jackson or playing Descalso out of position, the Cardinals have no obvious plan to cover themselves at the most crucial infield position in 2013 if (when?) Furcal goes down again.
In 2012, Lance Lynn seized the rotation spot vacated by injured Chris Carpenter and was named a National League all-star. Though he cooled a bit in the second half, Lynn won 18 games for the Cardinals, including 17 as a starter.
With one fewer starter in 2013 (the departure of Lohse as a free agent) and injury questions with Jaime Garcia and Chris Carpenter, the Cardinals may need help again. One or both of their top pitching prospects – Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal could be asked to join the starting five at some point.
Which one would receive the call first and who has the best chance of most quickly thriving in the role?
In reality, the fortunes of the second-year 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 Mike Matheny personally deals with the inevitable ups and downs during his sophomore year in a most pressure-filled job.
He has proven he can lead his team into the playoffs and with so many young, promising players on hand and on deck, anything short of returning to the post-season may set him up as a 2013 disappointment.
Hopefully, his team will be the story, not him.