By Rob Rains
Even with contact lenses, my vision has never quite reached 20-20 status. That forces me to focus a little more intently on the crystal ball to try to forsee what is going to happen with the 2020 Cardinals.
Less than three weeks are left in the off-season before pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter, Fla., and in less than a month spring training games will begin.
That’s when the answers to some of the team’s biggest questions will start to be revealed, but there is no reason to wait for that to happen to make 10 bold predictions about the 2020 season for the Cardinals.
1. The combined offensive numbers for the Cardinals’ starting leftfielders this season will be better than the numbers Marcell Ozuna puts up for the Braves.
How the Cardinals divide up the playing time is to be determined, but someone from the Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Dylan Carlson group is going to get the bulk of the playing time and put up the biggest numbers. My opinion is that it is not unrealistic to predict this trio will hit a combined 30 homers and drive in close to 100 runs.
2. Lane Thomas will be the starter in left field on opening day, holding the spot until Dylan Carlson arrives sometime in May.
Thomas might not have a glitzy prospect ranking, but he can play and if given the chance will play well. Consider, how many people at this time last year expected another young player without many accolades – Tommy Edman – to do what he did last season? Thomas is a different type of player but can have a very similar impact on the Cardinals 2020 season as Edman had a year ago.
3. Carlson will play virtually every day once he gets to St. Louis, with Thomas still playing on an almost daily basis in either center field or right field.
Carlson is coming off an MVP season in the Texas League who played briefly at Memphis at the end of last year, which is why the Cardinals will want him to begin this year at Triple A. This does a couple of things – it gives another of the young outfielders more playing time in April and gets Carlson regular at-bats as well. It also will give the Cardinals another year of control over Carlson, who will play this full season as a 21-year-old.
The hype is real. Carlson is the best position player and hitting prospect the Cardinals have developed since the late Oscar Taveras.
4. Paul DeJong will be the primary cleanup hitter.
Is he a prototype fourth-place hitter? No, but he is the best option on the Cardinals’ roster. DeJong can repeat his 30-homer season from 2019, and the rest of his offensive performance should improve if he gets more days off in the first half of the year. DeJong was worn out in August and September last year but the Cardinals had no viable option to play shortstop if they wanted to give DeJong a rest. Edman should get enough starts there this year to keep DeJong fresh.
5. Matt Carpenter will be the opening day third baseman, but Tommy Edman will have more starts at third than Carpenter by the end of the season.
The Cardinals are going to give Carpenter the first chance at the position, similar to what they did last year with Dexter Fowler in right field. Edman has to play, however, and if the team’s combination of young outfielders performs up to expectations that will reduce Edman’s appearances in the outfield and move him into the starting role at third base.
Carpenter had success in a reserve role toward the end of last year, and especially if he is not trying to work his way out of another giant rut, can be a contributor to the Cardinals this season being used the same way.
6. Jack Flaherty will pick up where he left off last season, win 20 games for the first time and win the Cy Young Award.
It’s probably unrealistic to expect Flaherty to put up numbers for an entire season which match how well he pitched after the All-Star break last season, which was an historic performance.
That experience, however, has only served to motivate Flaherty toward loftier goals. He has learned over the course of the last two seasons what he has to do to win, and that knowledge will carry him to an even better season than he had last year.
7. The Cardinals offense will score more runs than last season.
The team’s total of 764 runs scored last season ranked 10th in the National League, an average of 4.72 runs a game. The Dodgers scored the most runs in the league, 886, an average of 5.47 runs per game, so averaging just a half-run more per game would close that gap considerably.
Where will that half a run come from? The hitters in front of Paul Goldschmidt need to get on base more consistently, giving him more RBI chances, and the young outfielders will have to produce no matter where they are in the lineup.
8. Until Jordan Hicks returns, Ryan Helsley will get the bulk of the closing assignments.
This prediction assumes that Carlos Martinez starts the year in the rotation. If that happens, the combination of Helsley, Giovanny Gallegos and Andrew Miller will all no doubt get a turn closing out games, but of that group the best option the majority of the time should be Helsley.
9. Adam Wainwright will announce his retirement at the end of the season but Yadier Molina will be back in 2021.
It would be an incredible story if the two iconic Cardinals walked off the stage together but Molina is talking about wanting to continue to play while Wainwright seems much more open to retirement. What Wainwright decides will ultimately be based on his health and how well he pitches this season, when he hopes to equal or exceed how he performed last year. If that happens, he might decide to push retirement back for another season.
10. The Cardinals will win more than the 91 games they won in 2019, will repeat as the Central Division champs, will win the NL pennant and return to the World Series.
The easiest part of this prediction is the win total and the division title, both of which are based on the fact the NL Central should not be nearly as competitive as it was last year. The Cubs have had an even quieter winter than the Cardinals, the Brewers have regressed and the Pirates will challenge the Orioles as one of the worst teams in baseball. The Reds are better, but they finished 16 games behind the Cardinals last season and that is a big gap to erase.
In the postseason, anything can happen but pitching almost always dominates at that time of the year … and if Flaherty is at the top of his game, there’s no reason to think he can’t lead the Cardinals back to the World Series.
Now, we wait … nine months from now, we will find out how many of these predictions came true.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains