By Rob Rains
Looking back on the last 12 months, one fact is quickly obvious: It’s going to be hard to top what happened in sports in St. Louis in 2019 in the new year which began on Wednesday.
The Blues’ winning their first Stanley Cup; the Cardinals reaching the NL Championship Series and the city being awarded a Major League Soccer expansion team were all major developments.
What will 2020 bring? Time will tell. The answers could well be determined by the fortunes of 10 people who made our annual New Year’s list of the 10 most important people to watch in St. Louis sports in the coming year.
The list is presented in alphabetical order. It includes four holdovers from our list as we began 2019 – Jeff Albert, Matt Carpenter, Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes. Gone from the list of a year ago are Doug Armstrong, Dexter Fowler, Paul Goldschmidt, Yadier Molina, Mike Shildt and Tom Stillman.
The 2020 list:
Jeff Albert – The Cardinals had a mostly sputtering offense in 2019, the first year Albert was the team’s hitting coach. The Cardinals talked about how they knew the changes they wanted Albert to make would not be a quick fix but more of a long-term philosophical approach, which they emphasized this winter by changing hitting coaches and instructors throughout the organization to make the instructional changes a system-wide plan. Still, there would appear to be increased pressure on Albert if the offense at the major-league level struggles again this season. He will easily be the most scrutinized coach on the Cardinals’ staff.
Harrison Bader – There is really only one question that Bader has to answer in 2020: Can he hit enough to remain the Cardinals’ starting center fielder, or will he be limited to being an extra outfielder brought in primarily for defense? For Bader to become more effective on offense, he will have to stop chasing pitches out of the strike zone, draw more walks and make enough contact that he can get on base more consistently, where his speed also is an asset to his game. With so many young outfielders lined up hoping for more playing time (Dylan Carlson, Lane Thomas, Randy Arozarena, Tyler O’Neill) Bader is going to have a short window to show he can make the necessary changes if he wants to remain a regular.
Jordan Binnington – A year ago, the only people in the St. Louis area who knew much about Binnington were the Blues’ most serious fans. That changed in a six-month period when the rookie goalie carried the team from last place in the NHL to their first Stanley Cup. Binnington and the team have gotten off to a strong start this season, but whether he can duplicate his performance from last year’s playoff run when this year’s postseason begins could be the biggest factor in determining how far the Blues can go in their bid to repeat as league champions.
Dylan Carlson – The most promising offensive prospect the Cardinals have developed since the late Oscar Taveras, the 21-year-old Carlson will become a starting outfielder sometime this season in St. Louis. How soon it happens will depend on his own performance, on how well the other young outfielders play and whether the Cardinals want to hold him back in the minors at the start of the season to limit his service time and gain an extra year of control over his contract. When he does arrive, Carlson will become a top-of-the-order hitter who will hit for average, power, run the bases well and play outstanding defense. If the Cardinals truly believe they need a left-handed hitter in their outfield, the switch-hitting Carlson could very well be their best option.
Matt Carpenter – The pressure facing Carpenter this season might be the greatest it has ever been in his career. He is coming off arguably the worst season of his career, is beginning a new two-year contract that, along with the money the Cardinals still owe Dexter Fowler, is serving as an albatross around their collective necks in their ability to make roster moves. Carpenter will get a chance to begin the year as the starting third baseman, but the team – especially if the overall offense struggles again – can’t afford to keep Carpenter in the lineup if he is not performing, despite the size of his contract. Tommy Edman proved last season he is an above-average third baseman and an effective hitter, which only adds to how Carpenter needs to perform if he wants to stay in the lineup.
Eli Drinkwitz – It didn’t appear that Drinkwitz was Missouri’s first choice to replace Barry Odom as the head football coach, but he certainly got a nice contract for someone with just one year of head coaching experience, at Appalachian State. Drinkwitz won 12 games there, and has experience as an offensive coordinator at North Carolina State and Boise State, but he is taking a big step up into big-boy football in the SEC. There will be a honeymoon period, and Drinkwitz has made a good initial impression with the fan base, but the only thing that really will matter going forward is if the Tigers can be more than the .500 team they have been in recent years. They need to routinely be able to win eight games a year if they want to fill the seats in their expanded stadium.
Jack Flaherty – There was no better pitcher in the second half of 2019 in the National League than Flaherty, who established himself as the Cardinals’ ace and a legitimate Cy Young contender. Now he has to take the next step and do it for an entire season, learning to pitch more efficiently so he can pitch deeper into games. With so many questions surrounding what to expect from the Cardinals’ offensively, they will need to ride their pitching and defense to be successful, and Flaherty has to prove he is capable of leading the staff and setting the tone for the other four starters.
Carlos Martinez – Will he be a starter in 2020 or find himself back in the bullpen? The Cardinals signed left-hander Kwang Hyun Kim out of Korea and said he will come to spring training ready to start, and hopefully Martinez will be well enough physically to compete with Kim for the only open spot in the rotation. Even if Martinez is healthy enough to start, the Cardinals still might decide they would be best served by keeping him in the closer role, especially for the first half of the season, until Jordan Hicks has recovered from last year’s Tommy John surgery.
Alex Pietrangelo – A strong start to the season, after playing such a big role in the Blues winning the Stanley Cup last year, has made Pietrangelo one of the early favorites to win the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the league. What will be more interesting, however, is to see how much Pietrangelo’s success means when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. The Blues’ captain will be in line for a huge payday, and whether the Blues ownership can find a way to retain him and stay under the salary cap will be one of the biggest questions the Blues will have to answer this summer.
Alex Reyes – He might be the biggest wild-card among all of the pitchers on the Cardinals, or among all of those who will be competing for a job in spring training. Nobody has been through more than Reyes has the last three years, when injuries have made it impossible to predict what to expect, just a short while after he was among the best pitching prospects in the game. Now Reyes coming off three seasons in which he barely pitched because of injuries, which has taken a mental as well as the physical toll. If Reyes is able to rekindle his former skill set, he could provide a tremendous boost to the pitching staff as either a starter or a reliever.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports