The 2018 St. Louis Cardinals open their season Thursday with a matinee in New York against the Mets. (Quick side note: When I’m finally running things, no baseball game will be played until the Final Four is behind us.) Rarely is a new “era” officially recognized, but you get the feeling this storied franchise is turning a corner of sorts. Consider this oddity: The Cardinals have made the playoffs 12 times since the turn of the century, yet their next October hero may well be a postseason rookie. St. Louis is in danger of missing the playoffs a third straight season for the first time since Bill Clinton was president (1997-99). Marcell Ozuna, Paul DeJong, Luke Weaver, and Alex Reyes have never suited up for a meaningful October baseball game. If the Cardinals are to again contend for a National League pennant, all four of these players will need to make positive headlines.
Three questions to ponder as the Cardinals’ 127th season takes flight:
• Can Marcell Ozuna be The Guy in the Cardinals’ batting order?
It’s been seven full seasons since a Cardinal bashed 30 homers and drove in 100 runs (Albert Pujols in 2010). That’s a long time — with two World Series appearances it should be noted — for a franchise to go without a muscle man in the middle of the lineup. Ozuna may have been the consolation prize in the Cardinals’ pursuit of free agent Giancarlo Stanton, but the 27-year-old leftfielder is a premium Plan B. He won both a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger with Miami last season, hitting 37 home runs with 124 RBIs. Ozuna has hit three home runs in 19 spring-training games and posted a slugging percentage of .642. The two-time All-Star will sell a lot of jerseys in St. Louis if he can match his 2017 numbers (and perhaps reduce his 144 strikeouts). Ozuna is two seasons from free agency, so motivation won’t be an issue whether or not he takes an immediate liking to the Gateway City. The Cardinals of recent vintage have been built around the Oscar-equivalent of supporting actors. This guy is a leading man.
• Is the Cardinals’ rotation a matter of “if” or “when”?
If Adam Wainwright can come off the disabled list (hamstring) and shave a few years off his curveball, he may be among the best number-two starters in the National League. If Carlos Martinez makes the natural progression a 26-year-old ace should, he’ll contend for the Cy Young Award. If Michael Wacha finds a slice of the magic that made him a postseason phenom as a rookie in 2013, he’ll give the Cardinals a trio better than most in franchise history. If Alex Reyes returns from Tommy John surgery and displays the arsenal that made him baseball’s top pitching prospect in 2016, he will either solidify the rotation or make a fearsome closer for the time being.
If Luke Weaver shows the promise he did after his promotion from Memphis last year (7-2 over 10 starts), the Cardinals will have a talented and affordable arm to replace the departed (and generally durable) Lance Lynn. If Miles Mikolas approximates the 2.18 ERA he posted over two seasons with the Giants — the Yomiuri Giants — he might steal a headline from another import from Japan you may have heard of. (Mikolas is not expected to play the role of slugger when he’s not pitching, as is the case with the Angels’ Shohei Ohtani.) Now, replace all of those “ifs” with “when” and Cardinal fans can purchase their 2018 playoff tickets today.
• Where is the edge in the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry?
I’m not one to advocate bench-clearing brawls, but here I’m going to promote one before the 2018 season even begins. St. Louis has been looking up to the Chicago Cubs for going on three seasons now, ever since the North Siders plucked the Cards’ feathers in the 2015 playoffs (the Cardinals’ last postseason appearance). The Cardinals went 5-14 against the Cubs last season after losing “only” 10 of 19 in 2016. While St. Louis added Mikolas to the roster last winter, the Cubs landed perhaps the best pitcher on the market in Yu Darvish. (Darvish will fill the slot vacated by former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, now a Philadelphia Phillie.) The Cubs are the superior franchise now, and every player on their roster knows it.
Among the qualities the Cardinals lost when Tony LaRussa retired after the 2011 World Series is an emotional edge. Mike Matheny, to his credit, is made of emotional granite. (And physical toughness. As a Brewer, the man once took a fastball to the jaw and didn’t fall down.) But Matheny’s club has played the National League nice guys for going on seven years now. “The Cardinal Way” is one thing when the team is playing in late October, and quite another when staring up at the Cubs in the standings.
The Cards and Cubs will face either for the first time this season in a series at Wrigley Field, April 16-18. But you might circle late July on your calendar, when the clubs collide for seven games in 11 days (July 19-29). By then we’ll have a sense of whether or not the Cardinals are a threat to the Cubs’ rule over the NL Central. And a seven-game crunch over such a short period breeds contempt even in teams that don’t have a history of discord like these two. Here’s hoping no baseball meets a batter’s jaw. But an overflow of tension on a sultry summer night in Chicago or St. Louis? One of these two franchises could use such a jolt.