First, we counted down the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2014. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season and post-season run by the club, followed by the tragic death of Oscar Taveras and the resultant trade for Jason Heyward trying to alter the course of a black-cloud year for the Cardinals’ right field situation.
Now it is time for my annual predictions for the top story lines of this New Year.
As is customary, I will set aside the easiest and most logical entry – the results of the 2015 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 – both on the 2015 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
One thing that makes this year’s list a bit different is that Heyward’s arrival created a major impending contract situation hanging over the organization’s head, a problem that did not exist prior.
Without further ado, here are my projected top five St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2015. As always, your comments are welcome below.
Simply put, the 2015 Cardinals will be dead in the water unless ace Adam Wainwright is healthy enough to make his customary 32 starts and throw 200-plus innings with an ERA well under 3.00.
Despite struggling with a minor elbow problem that was addressed in off-season surgery, Wainwright won 20 games for the second time in his career in 2014. But at age 33 and with over 1500 Major League innings on his right arm, it may be closer to the end of Wainwright’s career than its start.
At the other end of the experience spectrum is Michael Wacha. Only time will tell if rest will be enough to enable the right-hander to return to prior heights. Though the 2014 Cardinals proved they could continue without the talented 23-year-old, a healthy and productive Wacha in 2015 would go a long way toward easing concerns about the starting staff as a whole.
2. Healthy Hitting
The topic of the dramatic downturn in the Cardinals offensive numbers from 2013 to 2014 has already been covered in-depth here and elsewhere. The hope of many is that the middle ground is where the 2015 club might land.
The addition of Jason Heyward to shore up the club’s worst position offensively last season, right field, should help. So would a return to prior levels of production from 30-something veterans Matt Holliday and Yadier Molina and youngsters like Matt Adams and Kolten Wong taking the next step.
The pitching and defense should again be there, but unless the offense can score more runs and take some pressure off them, the 2015 Cardinals may not be as resilient as the 2014 edition. That club had the lowest run differential of any playoff team.
3. Heyward’s Happiness
As noted above, the Cardinals acquired their largest looming contract question in new right fielder Jason Heyward. The 25-year-old will play his first year in St. Louis in 2015 on the final year of his Atlanta contract.
Whether the two sides like the new arrangement and when they might sit down to discuss a new contract is pure speculation. As soon as Heyward has a good game, however, some unknowledgeable fans will cry out for the team to get a long-term deal done – as if it was so easy.
On the field, Heyward should be anxious to put his recent inconsistent seasons behind him and prove he is worth a mega-contract ahead. No one but him and his agent know the level of their resolve to test the free agent market next fall.
Matt Holliday did it but still ended up returning to the Cardinals. If the Heyward-Cardinals marriage is meant to be, both sides have the wherewithal to make it eventually happen.
Between now and then, however, many of us will become weary of the topic.
4. Trevor’s Theatrics
2014 was the best of years and worst of years for closer Trevor Rosenthal. The hard-thrower ranked among the Cardinals all-time single-season save leaders, but also was among league leaders in losses by a closer and blown saves. Too many baserunners, especially early in innings, led to far too many difficult outings for Rosenthal, who threw more pitches than any other MLB closer.
With the Cardinals awash in rotation candidates, Rosenthal’s long-standing wish to return to starting is likely to continue to be ignored.
However, in the Heyward trade, the Cardinals quietly added a former closer in Jordan Walden. They then quickly signed the 27-year-old to a two-year extension, giving them a potential ninth-inning alternative on those occasions when Rosenthal needs rest or on a more recurring basis if his problems worsen.
5. Lynn’s Pending Payday
As we have seen in recent years with Matt Carpenter and less successfully with Allen Craig and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals have made it a practice to offer long-term contracts to arbitration-eligible players they consider to be core members of the team.
Next up is always-underrated Lance Lynn. With the 27-year-old right-hander hitting arbitration for the first time, it is likely that both sides are already talking about a deal that would be three years minimum, with a couple more club option years.
The rub could be the money, but if the Cardinals see Lynn as a long-term, 200-inning rotation member, the deal will get done. If not, he will see a huge salary increase on a one-year contract for 2015 and this story will return next winter.
Other topics considered among the top stories of 2015 include Molina’s Mileage and Adams’ Bat.
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