By Rob Rains
One of the beauties of a new year is that it always brings a chance to start over, to begin again, to forget about all of the mistakes and things that didn’t go as planned the previous 12 months.
For the Blues, even though they are in the middle of their season, the hope for a deep playoff run awaits. For the Cardinals, 2018 offers a chance to get back to the playoffs and end a two-year drought.
The Missouri Tigers enjoyed an historic turnaround in the middle of their season and earned a trip to the Texas Bowl, raising expectations for next season.
It will be up to the players, coaches and management to see what will happen to the Blues, Cardinals and Tigers in 2018. Here is a look at the 10 most important people to watch in St. Louis sports this year, presented in alphabetical order:
Jake Allen – A team’s success or failure in the NHL playoffs often depends on the performance of the goalie, and that will likely be true for the Blues this season. Allen has played well so far this year but the team’s lack of offense has put even more pressure on the goalies to be almost perfect every night if the Blues want to win. An uptick in the team’s offense will help the chances for success, but Allen’s play still will likely determine how deep the Blues can go in the playoffs.
Paul DeJong – The Cardinals’ shortstop and home-run leader in 2017 was not in the team’s plans on New Year’s Day last year, so that is just one example of how quickly things can change. DeJong has to prove that last season was not a fluke and avoid the same fate as his predecessor, Aledmys Diaz, who went from being an NL All-Star in 2016 to a minor-leaguer again in 2017 before being traded to Toronto.
Dexter Fowler – His first season in St. Louis did not go exactly as Fowler or the Cardinals had hoped, but part of his performance – at least defensively – might have been attributed to some nagging foot injuries. He did hit a career-high 18 homers and now gets a fresh start this year with a projected move to right field, and barring a trade between now and the start of the season, will go into the year expecting to hit either second or third instead of leadoff. How Fowler can adjust to that role will be critical to the Cardinals’ success, as Matt Carpenter’s inability to hit anywhere other than leadoff definitely altered the team’s plans in 2017.
Drew Lock – The Missouri quarterback , who set SEC and school records for touchdown passes as a junior, faces the decision of whether he wants to declare early for the NFL draft or come back for his senior season. What he decides will have a major impact on the expectations for the Tigers’ next fall, when they hope to follow up their six-game winning streak and bowl trip that ended a 2017 season that began with the Tigers losing five of their first six games.
Mike Matheny – The Cardinals’ ownership and management want to be loyal to their manager, but two years of missing the playoffs has definitely put the focus more on Matheny going into this season. The team’s win total has declined each of the last three years, and a drop again would put the team dangerously close to the .500 mark. The team has shuffled Matheny’s coaching staff, and brought in a power-hitting outfielder, hoping those changes will be enough to send the Cardinals back into the postseason. If the Cardinals endure a third consecutive season without a postseason trip, however, the pressure to change managers will only get more intense.
Marcell Ozuna – The Cardinals traded three of their top 15 prospects to the Marlins for Ozuna, hoping he can be the impact hitter the team has lacked since the departure of Albert Pujols. That’s a lot of pressure to place on the 27-year-old Ozuna, coming off a 37-homer, 124-RBI, .312 season, but he seemed comfortable being in that position when he talked after the trade. What Ozuna will need to prove is that he can repeat that performance with the Cardinals, without hitting in the same lineup with Giancarlo Stanton.
Alex Reyes – Exactly what Reyes’ role with the Cardinals will be as he returns from Tommy John surgery, which forced him to miss all of 2017, is still to be determined. Whatever it is, however, he will need to pitch like he did before the surgery, when he ranked as one of the top prospects in baseball, if the Cardinals want to improve from 2017. More than likely, Reyes will begin the season in the bullpen in an attempt to control his innings, but he probably will find himself moving into the rotation sometime near the middle of the year.
Jaden Schwartz – How important Schwartz is to the Blues has been quite evident in watching the team struggle to score goals since he went down with an ankle injury. The pressure on Schwartz when he returns in late January will be to return to the pace he was enjoyng before he was hurt, easily the best start to a season in his career. Schwartz should have plenty of time to get back to full strength before the playoffs, when the Blues will need him the most.
Vladimir Tarasenko – Tarasenko remains the best player on the Blues, and one of the best in the NHL, but his scoring slump in December was perplexing. He seems to be playing tentative and without his normal level of confidence, and that can’t be blamed on the injury to Schwartz because the two had been playing on different lines before Schwartz was hurt. For the Blues to have any chance of making a deep run in the playoffs Tarasenko will need to find his old swagger, the sooner the better.
Adam Wainwright – Now 36, Wainwright enters the final year of his contract with the goals of remaining in the Cardinals’ starting rotation and staying healthy, which could go hand-in-hand. Wainwright battled elbow issues throughout 2017 which required a cleanup medical procedure after a season in which he made just 23 starts and had the highest ERA of his career at 5.11. With the departure of Lance Lynn as a free agent and the uncertainty of Reyes’ role, the Cardinals need Wainwright to pitch like the Wainwright of old for one more year.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
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