First, we counted down the top 20 stories affecting the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015. Not surprisingly, the list was dominated by the regular-season success and post-season disappointment backed by strong individual performances and free agent frustrations.
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 2016 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 2016 Cardinals and the organization’s future.
Without further ado, here are my projected top St. Louis Cardinals stories of 2016. As always, your comments are welcome below.
1. The Re-born Cubs Rivalry
2015 was a preview of what should be very exciting baseball between two of the oldest rivals in the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Never before had three teams from one division put together the best records in baseball. Never before had the Cardinals and Cubs faced off in the post-season.
Now the Cubs, with their young hitters, popular manager and big signings, are the favorite with the Cardinals considered by many to be just a wild card contender.
Of course, the games themselves have yet to be played and should bring a lot of excitement. Who is not in favor of that?
(P.S. I am not selling the Pittsburgh Pirates short here. It is just that rivalry stacks up short in comparison to the tradition and regional focus of Cubs-Cardinals.)
2. The Aging Core
Heyward’s pointed remarks upon signing with Chicago included words to the effect that he did not know what the Cardinals will look like down the road with core players Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday all nearing their mid-30’s.
While some St. Louis fans were insulted, the general point is valid. None of the three were able to fully contribute to the 2015 Cardinals and the team suffered in October as a result. Even as younger players emerge, this core three is needed to be firing on all cylinders for the team to foster World Series hopes.
3. The Young Outfielders
Speaking of younger players, three rookie outfielders – Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty – and later for a shorter, but important stretch – Tommy Pham, really stepped up to fill in for lost performance from other hitters on the 2015 roster.
A big question for 2016 is whether they can keep it up with much higher expectations being placed upon them. As of now, Grichuk and Piscotty are penciled in as two-thirds of the starting outfield, with Grichuk carrying the additional pressure of manning the very important center field position defensively.
Pham suddenly evolved from being the sixth outfielder while playing in Memphis as recently as August to the fourth outfielder on the 2016 roster. The departures of veterans Heyward, Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos mean that depth in and production from the outfield could become an issue unless the three second-year players carry a heavier load.
4. The Correa Aftershocks
Former scouting director Chris Correa will be sentenced in April for five counts of illegal access to the Houston Astros internal computer systems. The upper boundaries for his penalty have been established, however the broader impact – any sanctions to be placed on the Cardinals franchise by Major League Baseball – is yet unknown.
A fine will not be considered sufficient by some, who believe the club should be docked draft picks and/or signing bonus money. The impact of sanctions could be felt for some time, especially for a franchise that has excelled behind strong drafts and player development, more than trades and free agency.
5. Offensive Help
The Cardinals have enjoyed a productive pitching pipeline that has flowed well enough that they could trade away three highly-respected young arms in the last year for offensive help. When the club needed a veteran starting pitcher, they signed one in free agent Mike Leake.
Trades have not brought enough to fix what ails the offense, however. In my opinion, the team still has a need for a top-of-the-lineup hitter and a power bat. The former may be sourced internally, at least for 2016, with the latter depending on a number of previously-injured hitters to step up.
Whether the Cards get help this winter, during the season or next off-season is anyone’s guess, but without continued improvement from the young players and significant bounce-backs from the older ones, the offense as it stands may not be enough to get the 2016 team across the finish line first.
Any incremental help almost certainly would have to come from the outside as there simply isn’t an Alex Reyes-type of impact hitting prospect already in the system.
How this unfolds may be an even bigger story in 2016 than my placement of it at number five.
Bonus 6. Rotation Depth
Adam Wainwright is coming off Achilles surgery. Carlos Martinez’ season ended early with a shoulder injury. Lance Lynn will miss all of 2016. Michael Wacha lost considerable momentum late in the season. Newcomer Mike Leake is an unknown as a Cardinal and Jaime Garcia’s injury history is a long-running novel yet to be completed.
For these reasons, the Cardinals may need young pitchers to step up like the young outfielders did in 2015.
Top prospect Alex Reyes delayed his progress by a bad off-the-field decision that led to a suspension.
The hurlers first in the queue are a trio of left-handers in Tyler Lyons, Tim Cooney and Marco Gonzales. Each has had his moments in the past, but none have as of yet solidified big league roles in the bullpen, let alone the rotation.
One or more of them are almost surely going to be called upon to play a major role in 2016.
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