By Rob Rains
As we say our final goodbyes to 2018, we do so with a hope that 2019 will be a much better year on the St. Louis sports scene.
In the past 12 months, we saw our town’s two major-league franchises, the Cardinals and Blues, both fail to make the playoffs. That was only the second time that happened in the same year since 1979.
Both teams also changed coaches during the season. The only other time that happened in the same year was in 1978.
So as we look ahead to 2019, here is our annual list of the 10 most important people to watch in St. Louis sports this year. Hopefully these individuals, listed in alphabetical order, will ensure that area sports fans do not suffer a repeat of what they watched last year.
Jeff Albert – The Cardinals’ new hitting coach arrives from Houston and will be charged with the responsibility of improving the team’s offense. One of the ways he can do that is by helping his hitters develop a better recognition of the strike zone, hoping to reduce the number of strikeouts. His work with youngsters such as Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill could be a key to the team’s overall success this season. Albert also worked with Matt Carpenter during his years in the Cardinals’ farm system before he was hired away by the Astros.
Doug Armstrong – The general manager of the Blues fired another coach, Mike Yeo, after the team’s poor start this season. Unless the roster of players he has filled with trades and free agent signings starts to establish more success, sooner or later the pressure should begin to mount more on Armstrong than on whoever is coaching the team at the moment. Failing to make the playoffs again this season might leave the Blues’ ownership with no choice but to find a new person to put in charge of the team’s operations.
Matt Carpenter – He knows where he is going to hit in the Cardinals’ lineup, the place where he wants to hit. He knows he is going to play third base, and even if it is not his best position, he is happy to play there because he knows adding Paul Goldschmidt makes the Cardinals a better team. Now the question for Carpenter is can he avoid disappearing for two months of the season, like he did in April and September last season. A consistent performance out of the leadoff spot from Carpenter would greatly improve the team’s offense.
Dexter Fowler – If this list was ranked first to 10th instead of in alphabetical order, Fowler might be listed as the most important person in St. Louis sports in 2019. The Cardinals say they are committed to him playing right field despite his horrible season in 2018, so much so they didn’t really make a serious run at signing Bryce Harper. Will Fowler prove to be worthy of that faith? His singular performance will play a major role in how much success the Cardinals have this season.
Paul Goldschmidt – Whether or not Goldschmidt can become the face of the Cardinals that the team has lacked since Albert Pujols left after the 2011 season will depend on if 2019 is his only season in St. Louis. He is the best player the Cardinals have had on their roster since Pujols left, and signing him to a contract extension before he can become a free agent should be the top priority on John Mozeliak’s to-do list this season.
Carlos Martinez – This could be the most important season of Martinez’s career. Limited by injuries in 2018, Martinez was used as a late-inning option near the end of the year to try to keep him on the field, but he is projected to return to the Cardinals’ rotation this year. Can he make it through the year in that role, especially if the Cardinals find themselves needing a closer again? How Martinez performs this season, in whatever capacity, could be a determining factor in whether his future includes staying in St. Louis.
Yadier Molina – One of the most used phrases in sports when discussing a player’s advancing age is that Father Time is undefeated. He may have found a worthy opponent in Molina, who seems to not only refuse to age but refuse to concede playing time to whoever is the Cardinals’ backup catcher. Can he do it again this season? The Cardinals certainly seem to be counting on that being the case, hoping Molina can stay healthy and productive for at least one more season.
Alex Reyes – There might not have been a more disappointed player on the Cardinals in 2018 then Reyes, their best pitching prospect for each of the last few years. Recovered from Tommy John surgery that forced him to miss all of 2017, Reyes returned in 2018 to pitch a total of four innings before getting hurt again. Making it through this season without another injury has to be Reyes’ primary goal, and if he can do that, then capitalizing on his talent should follow – whether he is used out of the bullpen to try to limit his innings or as a starter.
Mike Shildt – The Cardinals got a quick idea of what Shildt could do as the manager when he took over the team in mid-season last year, but now he gets to start fresh in spring training. Shildt earned this opportunity by his work last season, and his years or preparation in the Cardinals’ farm system. Nobody will work harder or be more prepared, and it will be up to the players to follow Shildt’s leadership if they hope to end a three-year absence from the postseason.
Tom Stillman – The owner of the Blues cannot be happy with his team’s performance. Who pays the price for their disappointing play? How involved will Stillman get in making decisions that could affect the team for years to come – concerning the general manager, the coach, or by trading away key veteran players. Stillman has given Doug Armstrong almost carte blanche authority to make decisions in recent years, but maybe this is the year that he steps in and takes more control over personnel moves.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by Jeff Curry/USA Today Sports