Before the St. Louis Cardinals’ exhibition game at AutoZone Park last Thursday, a reporter asked outfielder Dexter Fowler — a Chicago Cub this time a year ago — what should be expected from his new team this season. And the 31-year-old veteran answered precisely the way at least half the players in Major League Baseball should this time of year. There is no date for optimism like Opening Day.
A year ago in this space, I wrote about a transformation in Cardinal culture, that from hunted to hunters. The Chicago Cubs had beaten St. Louis handily in a 2015 division series (after the Cards had won 100 games and the National League Central title). It had become abundantly clear that the young, talented North Siders were the team to beat, at least in the NL Central. They proved, of course, to be the best team in all of baseball, winning the franchise’s first World Series in 108 years. Outside a few fans in Boston and Los Angeles (those that cheer the Dodgers), the Cubs are expected to repeat this season, even without Mr. Fowler manning centerfield.
But there are 162 games to play before the postseason, the longest, most grueling regular season in sports. And the Cardinals opened the campaign Sunday night with a thrilling victory over the champs, Randal Grichuk delivering a walk-off single after Chicago had tied the game with a three-run homer by Willson Contreras in the top of the ninth inning.
A few signs that suggest the Cardinals can make the mighty Cubs sweat this season:
• Fowler scored the Cardinals’ first run of the season, on a sacrifice fly after going from first to third on a single. That’s a speed-generated run, something that seemed all but extinct at Busch Stadium in 2016. The man who drove Fowler in was Matt Carpenter, the team’s former leadoff hitter, whose bat fits better in the run-producing third spot in the batting order. Along with improving the team’s outfield on two fronts (his own place in center and sliding Grichuk to left), Fowler’s impact on the Cardinal offense is already positive, and with a ripple effect.
• Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina signed a contract extension (three years, $60 million) just as the unofficial deadline for such a signing — Sunday’s game — arrived. This eliminates the cloud of pending free agency — and endless discussion/deliberation — that would have otherwise been a subtext to anything the Cardinals achieve on the field this season. The extension will keep Molina (34) behind the plate for St. Louis through the 2020 season, securing the face of the franchise, a player who contributes to the team’s pitching success every bit as much as the official pitching coach (Derek Lilliquist).
(Molina’s new contract could make trade bait of 22-year-old Carson Kelly. The top catching prospect in baseball will start the season behind the plate for the Memphis Redbirds, but it’s hard to envision him waiting four years to assume everyday duties for a big-league team.)
• The stars who won last year’s World Series for the Cubs are back, save one: Aroldis Chapman. St. Louis last scored on Chapman before Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty could shave. In Sunday’s opener, Chicago manager Joe Maddon trusted Mike Montgomery with the ninth inning of a tie game. Montgomery allowed two hits, two walks and retired only two batters. If former Royal Wade Davis overcomes recent arm trouble, he could approximate Chapman’s role of last fall. If not, the Cubs have an Achilles heel, and in an area that shows up in the standings.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals will have a say in whether or not the Cubs return to the World Series. Can the Cardinals — now hunters after so many years as the hunted — surprise the baseball gods and declaw their mighty rivals? Keep your eyes on Dexter Fowler over the next six months. If he’s smiling like he was last Thursday at AutoZone Park, they just might.