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12 questions for the Cardinals’ 2019 season

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It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

MLB: Spring Training-St. Louis Cardinals at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

There’s always a narrative.

The grass is fresh, the chalk lines are untouched and the bats are free of wear. A blank slate lies before all 30 MLB teams as they prepare to open play on this special day. Anything could happen.

But every team deals with preconceived notions.

For the Cardinals, there’s plenty of optimism—and there should be.

They not only traded for an All-Star first baseman in Paul Goldschmidt, they convinced him to spend the next six seasons in St. Louis before he played a single home game at Busch.

Andrew Miller, fresh off a season of a modest season preceded by a stretch of dominance, now wears the birds on the bat and could be part of a deadly back end of the bullpen.

There’s a new Mike at the helm; one who led his team on a torrid stretch through the last half of 2018.

The roster has quite a bit of young, rising talent and some veterans who are keen to show that their past performance was an aberration, not the start of a decline.

Most of all, there’s a hunger.

From fans, obviously, but from the players, too.

Several Cardinals have commented on the team’s absence from October over the past three years. There’s a visible intensity, even before Game 1.

There are some players who are bringing out the familiar hashtag, adjusted for the upcoming season: #12in19.

As the Cardinals hunt for their 12th Commissioner’s Trophy, here are 12 quick-hit questions (though there are definitely more) ahead of the start of the year.

But before we start looking at them, it’s important to say that there’s no reason not to have optimism headed into this season.

We’re moments away from the first game of 2019, or it may have already been played, depending on when you’re reading this.

The Cardinals are better than they were at the end of last season. Let’s enjoy it.

Baseball is back. I’m looking forward to spending a season taking it in with all of you.

1. Will the new-look bullpen flourish?

In addition to Miller, the Cardinals have two extremely talented arms in Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes for the back of the pen. That makes for a group with quite a bit of potential in shutting teams down in the final innings.

It’s also something the team needs pretty desperately.

The 2018 Cardinal bullpen finished 29th in Win Probability Added last season, just ahead of the Marlins. The top six teams—Athletics, Cubs, Yankees, Rays, Red Sox, Brewers—all won at least 90 games. Five were playoff teams.

The bullpen has been a struggle for the Cardinals for what seems like a stretch that is similar to the playoff drought. Part of it could’ve very well been mismanagement, but it’s also come from injury (Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone) and underperformance (Brett Cecil, Greg Holland).

If those three and the rest of the supporting cast really pull it together, the last three innings (or more) could be lights-out.

2. When—and where—will Carlos Martínez pitch?

When Carlos Martínez came into camp, the Cardinals expressed concern with his offseason workout regimen.

Right shoulder issues continued to snowball until he found himself on the Injured List nursing his rotator cuff.

According to MLB.com, Mike Shildt recently said Martínez is still at least a month away, though he has started a throwing program.

Martínez is an arm the Cardinals need on the active roster. Questions persisted about if he would pitch from the rotation or the bullpen before the injury; issues with his throwing shoulder only compound those questions of use and strain.

Mike Maddux has expressed a ton of interest in Martínez from the pen, but he’s been a brilliant starter in seasons past. Will his own injury concerns and the presence of Alex Reyes necessitate a relief approach, or will midseason injuries elsewhere on the pitching staff put pressure on Martínez to make starts?

3. Does Mikolas stay dominant?

The Lizard King came to St. Louis from the Yomiuri Giants on a two-year deal.

His 2018 was as good as (or better than) anyone could’ve expected, breaking the 200-inning mark while carrying a 1.07 WHIP and 2.83 ERA.

Last season’s 4.3-fWAR campaign was the best season by a Cardinal pitcher since Chris Carpenter in 2011.

After signing a four-year extension this offseason, it looks like the front office wants to see more of that.

Derrick Goold wrote an excellent piece about the Cardinals’ pitch workshop happening this spring, one which detailed a new grip Mikolas is using for his changeup.

Mixed with his splitter, Mikolas could increase the overall deception his pitch arsenal brings and start missing bats at a much higher clip than his 6.55 K/9.

Mikolas’ peripherals don’t look as overpowering as his actual performance indicated he was, with a 3.28 FIP and 3.67 xFIP. If he can boost the punch outs while still limiting baserunners the way he did last year, we’re in for quite an encore.

4. Is Dakota Hudson’s changeup a difference-maker?

Another benefactor of the pitch lab in Jupiter is Dakota Hudson.

Though Mikolas had a bit of an increase in FIP over ERA, Hudson’s 27-inning cup of coffee in the pen last season had drastic differences between expected performance and reality.

Hudson’s 2.63 ERA and 60.8% ground-ball rate were what one wants to see from a 24-year-old sinkerballer, but his 3.86 FIP and 4.76 xFIP indicate he saw some good luck.

Mix that with the command issues of nearly six walks per nine innings and it’s not easy to see enough upside for a starting role, especially with roughly the same amount of strikeouts per game.

So, what changed?

It looks like it was the addition of a changeup.

As Goold reported, Hudson added the change to his repertoire. This spring, Hudson pitched in six games, starting four, totaling 21.2 innings. He struck out 20 and gave up just three runs over that stretch.

For reference, Hudson struck out 19 batters in his nearly 30 innings last season.

Hudson’s repertoire is heavy on the fastball—sinker, four-seam, cutter—and has been complimented by a slider. That slider is the only offspeed pitch he’s thrown, nearly 10 miles per hour slower than his darting and dropping fastballs. A changeup might provide the extra look he needs to keep hitters guessing when something slower crosses the plate.

5. What can we expect from the outfield?

Plenty has been said about Dexter Fowler’s performance in his first two seasons as a Cardinal.

He was beginning to heat up after a managerial change and a new commitment to playing time, but injury ended his season early.

The Cardinals have once again made a commitment to Fowler in right field. Even though his spring numbers haven’t been great on paper, his exit velocity is already leaps and bounds above what it was last year, which is a good sign for the future:

It’s safe to say Fowler won’t get this level of commitment the entire season, if he continues to perform at the same level he has—especially with Jose Martinez and Tyler O’Neill waiting in the wings.

The same can be said about Marcell Ozuna, to a degree.

Dealing with a shoulder injury for the entirety of the 2018 season, Ozuna didn’t live up to the expectations of his 2017 campaign, offensively and defensively.

He was still an above-average hitter, but the Cardinals were looking for his 144 wRC+ in 2017, not last year’s 106. They were hoping for the defense that won him a Gold Glove.

To his credit, Ozuna was exactly that hitter from August through the end of the season. He also underwent shoulder surgery in the offseason, with the hope that he won’t be hampered by injury through the season.

It’s a walk year for Ozuna and the Cardinals have plenty of young talent to take a chance on if he doesn’t play to a level worth pursuing as a free agent. This season will define the future of the Cardinal outfield.

6. Can Bader hit his stride against righties?

The only long-term guarantee in the outfield to this point is Harrison Bader.

Bader was a rookie sensation with the glove, quickly becoming one of the league’s best defenders with 19 DRS in limited playing time last year.

He had 138 wRC+ in 138 PA against lefties, which explains why he earned a platoon spot to start the season. He had 90 in 289 trips to the plate against right-handers.

As Ben Godar wrote in December, his righty splits aren’t that far below average. But if he can figure out how to move into average or above territory, he has the potential to be a Kevin Kiermaier with offensive upside—to me, that’s a superstar.

7. Just how good will Paul Goldschmidt be?

Since the turn of the century, nine of the Cardinals’ top 14 position player seasons came from Albert Pujols.

Matt Carpenter is an excellent player, but he’s been a positional journeyman.

In 2019, the Cardinals will have a bona fide first baseman with some major star power for the first time since 2011.

Goldy’s career slash line is .298/.398/.532. He’s hit more than 30 home runs in four of the past six seasons. He’s had double-digit steals in five of the past seven.

Now, we get to watch Goldschmidt man first base without wondering if he’ll be back next year. St. Louis has a superstar first bagger once again, one who will wear the birds on the bat through his age 36 season.

The only real question here is just how good he’ll be.

8. Who will be the next product of Cardinal Devil Magic™?

It seems to happen every year.

At some point, injuries force the promotion of an under-the-radar prospect who comes up and turns into an average or above-average major leaguer, at least for the season.

Paul DeJong was a solid prospect, but he was by no means a superstar in the making. He got a chance in 2017 and finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. His 2018 was hampered by injury, but he’s the Cardinals’ shortstop of the present and future.

Last season, we saw a mix of young pitchers come up and dazzle with performances in the rotation and out of the bullpen.

Should we talk about 2012 Pete Kozma?

It’s come to be something we can expect. Who will carry the mantle in 2019?

9. Who won’t be a Cardinal by August?

The hope is that this team is perfectly constructed, injuries won’t cause any issues and the Cardinals will win 162 games, followed by a sweep of the postseason.

Realistically, it probably won’t go that way.

The other hope, then, is that the Cardinals are in a position to make a major postseason push and the front office acquires a piece that fills a need before the trade deadline.

That will mean parting with prospects, but also possibly some major leaguers.

Here’s the obligatory mention of José Martínez. Jedd Gyorko is also discussed as a trade piece. There’s plenty of pitching available to pull from.

Last year we saw a few players leave in trades, but the most notable was Tommy Pham. This offseason said goodbye to Carson Kelly, Luke Weaver and Andy Young. Who might not be in St. Louis after July 31?

10. What will happen in Mike Shildt’s first full season at the helm?

Mike Shildt went 41-28 after taking over for Mike Matheny right before the All-Star Break. That run included a red-hot 22-6 August, all while managing a group filled with plenty of young and inexperienced players.

The question now is what will he be able to do with a full year?

The roster has improved since the end of last season. The Post-Dispatch has consistently said that camp felt different this year. What can we expect from the real start of the Mike Shildt era?

11. Just how tough will the NL Central be?

This division is no slouch.

Before the Cardinals’ late-season slip, they were in a heated three-way race with the Brewers and Cubs for the Central crown.

All three of those teams have either maintained or improved.

The Cubs were dealing with injuries and underperformance from some of their key pieces for most of 2018. The Brewers bring back the NL MVP and added Yasmani Grandal behind the plate.

Often overlooked when discussing 2018 is that the Pirates were above .500, at 82-79. They’ll now have a full season of Chris Archer and look to see if Jung-Ho Kang can return to form. Top prospect Colin Moran is in a reserve role at this point.

Last year’s cellar dweller, the Reds, have overhauled their roster composition this offseason by adding some notable names. Yasiel Puig is now is now in the outfield. After struggling to develop pitching—and waiting for the next crop to rise further—they added Alex Wood, Tanner Roark and Sonny Gray to their rotation.

That aggression from Cincinnati has made it conceivable that they could be very competitive. The NL Central is, without a doubt, the league’s toughest division from top to bottom.

It’s going to make for some fun baseball to watch, but it’ll be agonizing at times, too.

12. Will the Cardinals break their postseason drought?

This is the overarching narrative. The storm cloud that has loomed over the Redbirds’ heads, slowly swelling year by year.

It’s been three seasons. The last time the Cardinals went more than that many years without seeing October baseball was the stretch from 1988 to 1995.

The front office has been strangely forward about prioritizing the success of 2019. Usually the responses to questions about the season have focused on a long-term view.

They still do, but that isn’t the priority.

This season will more than likely determine if the Cardinals move into territory that the recent generation of Cardinal fans has never seen from the storied franchise: selling.

Conversely, a successful push into meaningful fall baseball could see the team making some big moves before the trade deadline and into the next offseason.

Matt Carpenter said earlier this offseason that it felt like a transitional time for the team; an era shift. His contract is nearing its end. Same with Molina and Wainwright. Paul Goldschmidt signs an extension, along with Mikolas, and a crop of young players rises through.

This season is going to dictate if that era is another stretch of dominance, or one of preparation.

At this point, I feel pretty good about it being the former.

Happy Opening Day, everyone. Go Cards.