The 2019 St. Louis Cardinals are about to take flight for what might be called a bridge season for the franchise. The tag will be especially apt when the club visits AutoZone Park to play the Memphis Redbirds in an exhibition game next Monday. After all, they play their home games 280 miles north, on the other side of the Mississippi River.
The Redbirds' parent franchise — winners of 11 World Series, the most a National League team can claim — still suits up veteran pitcher Adam Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina. When the former Memphis players start their first game this year, it will be the 243rd of their careers, the most by a battery in Cardinal history. But if you’re curious about this team’s performance ceiling, the impact variable is the team’s young talent. Can pitcher Jack Flaherty (23) enter Cy Young Award discussions? Can Harrison Bader (24) be an offensive sparkplug to match his defensive impact in center field? What about Alex Reyes (24), perennially one of the game’s top pitching prospects, but coming off two years lost to injury?
Taka Yanagimoto/St. Louis Cardinals
The star of the show — at least for this season — is likely to be a player who falls right between the two “bridge” extremes of aging veterans and rising stars: 31-year-old first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Acquired in a December trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Goldschmidt brings a middle-order threat the Cardinals have lacked, really, since Albert Pujols departed after the 2011 championship season. Goldschmidt won four Silver Slugger awards with Arizona, slamming more than 30 home runs four times and driving in at least 110 runs three. His career slugging percentage (.532) matches the top single-season figure Matt Holliday posted in his seven-year tenure with St. Louis. Goldschmidt also won three Gold Gloves for the Diamondbacks, not an incidental factor for a team that led all of baseball in errors in 2018.
Baseball has never been more about pitching. (The sport produced more strikeouts than hits in 2018.) Wainwright and Flaherty will be joined in the Cardinal rotation by Miles Mikolas (an 18-game winner last season), Michael Wacha (if healthy), and a fifth member from a group that includes Reyes (starting the season in the bullpen), Dakota Hudson (the 2018 Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year for Memphis), John Gant, and former ace Carlos Martinez (currently nursing shoulder soreness). Jordan Hicks — he of the 103 mph fastball — will be joined in the bullpen by free agent acquisition Andrew Miller, just three years ago MVP of the ALCS with Cleveland.
If you’re looking for the metaphorical bridge between these Cardinals and Memphis, gaze into the dugout when the Cardinals are in the field. The last two men to manage here in Memphis — Mike Shildt and Stubby Clapp — are now the manager and first-base coach, respectively, for the parent club. Shildt has climbed the Cardinals’ development ladder as methodically as any player, and won championships at the Rookie League and Double-A levels. Clapp merely won two Pacific Coast League titles (and was twice named PCL Manager of the Year) in his two seasons in Memphis. These two men were never stars as players, but they each understand the game inherently (in part because it challenged them both). Furthermore, they have been embraced by their players, respected for treating every man in the clubhouse like a valuable asset. (A common question from Shildt when greeting someone: “What did you learn today?”)
The most important bridge for the Cardinal franchise is the one that leads back to postseason play. You have to go back to a time when the internet was merely a rumored military tool (1988-95) to find the club’s last four-year playoff drought. (Flaherty was born in October 1995.) This won’t be an easy bridge to cross for St. Louis, as Milwaukee aims to defend its NL Central title with reigning MVP Christian Yelich. The Chicago Cubs have played October baseball four years in a row, and the Cincinnati Reds intend to be in the mix with former Dodger star Yasiel Puig now hitting behind Joey Votto.
There’s a numerical oddity when you look back on more than 120 years of Cardinals history. The franchise has reached a World Series in a year that ends with every digit except 9. For this to change in 2019, a proud franchise must find strength from foundation to superstructure.