A look ahead to 2021 – who will be the 10 most important players in St. Louis sports this year?

By Rob Rains

The start of a new year might never have been more anticipated than waiting for the clock to strike midnight on Thursday so everyone could waive goodbye to 2020 and welcome in 2021.

To say that the last year has been a challenging one is a vast understatement for everyone in the world because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, and that was certainly true in the St. Louis sports world.

Dealing with stops and starts to their seasons, having players and staff members become ill with the virus, facing the economic realities of not being able to allow fans to attend their games became a fact of life for  the Cardinals, Blues and Saint Louis University Billikens.

As the new year begins, some of those same obstacles remain as the course back to normalcy remains a work in progress. That will be something every athlete, coach and fan in St. Louis will have to deal with.

Some athletes, however, know that 2021 will pose more challenges for a variety of reasons. In what has become a New Year’s Day tradition @STLSportsPage, we present our list of the 10 most important people to watch in St. Louis sports for the new year, presented in alphabetical order:

Dylan Carlson – The Cardinals top prospect made his major-league debut in 2020 and progressed enough in two months to find himself, at 21, batting cleanup in a playoff game. Whether he remains in that spot in the batting order this season is to be determined, but he will be in there somewhere on a daily basis. The hopes for improvement in the team’s offense might be riding on the outfielder’s young shoulders, especially if no moves are made to bring in outside help before the season begins. How he handled all of the obstacles in 2020 only reinforced the Cardinals opinion that Carlson is ready to play, and have success, in the major leagues.

Yuri Collins – There might be other players on the Saint Louis U. Billikens who will score more points or generate more headlines, but Collins has developed into one of the team’s leaders. The sophomore point guard has the ability to make other players around him better and his success will go a long way toward determining how deep the Billikens can play into March. The Billikens are the best team in the A-10, should be a top 25 team and it isn’t a stretch to predict this could be one of the best seasons in school history.

Tommy Edman  – Even though it was based primarily on economics, the Cardinals’ decision to not pick up Kolten Wong’s $12 million option for 2021 was also due in part to their confidence that Edman can become an above-average replacement as the starting second baseman, both offensively and defensively. Edman, 25, became a virtual regular in the lineup the last two years even if it came at a variety of positions. Being asked to play just one primary position, especially one where he should be quite comfortable, might provide a solid base that will allow Edman to become even more of a threat on offense in 2021. He also is mature enough that trying to succeed a two-time Gold Glove winner will not affect him mentally.

Jack Flaherty – The ace of the Cardinals’ pitching staff found himself involved in a lot of the chaotic developments that became front-page news in 2020 beyond the pandemic. He was outspoken with his opinions about the Black Lives Matter movement, civil unrest and racial injustice, finding himself on the receiving end of criticism from some fans for perhaps the first time in his life. Flaherty will no doubt be involved again with those issues this year, but he also faces the challenge of proving he can be a better pitcher than he was in 2020, especially as be begins the climb to a higher spot on baseball’s economic ladder. With questions about how good the Cardinals’ offense will be, for the team to have the success it wants the pitching staff will need to be dominant, starting with Flaherty.

Jordan Goodwin – One of the picks as the pre-season player of the year in the Atlantic 10, Goodwin is enjoying a solid senior season as he continues to climb the ranks of the all-time leaders in several categories in Billikens history. Goodwin, like Collins, also is a smart player, knowing that they have several teammates who could be on this list and that they are both just part of a quality team which will make the Billikens even more danagerous as the season progresses.

Jordan Hicks – He hasn’t thrown a pitch in the major leagues since June 22, 2019, after opting out of the shortened 2020 season because of being a higher risk candidate to contract coronavirus as he was completing his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The extra months of not pitching might have a positive effect on Hicks’ return, but he also was not able to complete a normal minor-league rehab assignment in preparation for returning to his spot as the Cardinals’ closer with the minor leagues being shut down in 2020. If Hicks can return early in the season, and become dominant again, it will make an already above-average bullpen even better.

Torey Krug – When the Blues could not reach an agreement with Alex Pietrangelo on a new contract, they turned to Krug, signing the former Boston Bruins defenseman to a seven-year deal. The comparison between the two will be predictable, even though Krug figures to fill a different role with the Blues than did their longtime captain and defense anchor. The team hopes Krug will provide a boost to their power play even if he likely won’t come close to logging as much ice time as Pietrangelo did on a nightly basis. Over his last four seasons with the Bruins, Krug tied for the most power-play points by a defenseman in the league.

Yadier Molina – There are two seasons why Molina makes the list this year. The first is the question of whether he will be back for another season with the Cardinals. After becoming a free agent for the first time in his career, the 38-year-old Molina has spent the last two months exploring his options even though he reportedly has said his preference is to return. He is said to be seeking a two-year deal and if he does return, then the focus will shift to his on-field performance, proving again that he can defy Father Time for at least one more year. If Molina does depart, then Andrew Knizner will inherit not only the catching role but Molina’s spot on this list.

Vladimir Tarasenko – One of the best players in the NHL when he is healthy, Tarasenko’s performance has been limited for the last two years because of an injury to his left shoulder that has required three operations in the last three years. He played only 10 games last year, and has at least two months left on his latest rehab assignment before possibly rejoining the active roster. The injury snapped a string of five consecutive seasons scoring 33 or more goals and there is no way to predict whether Tarasenko will be able to match that level of success when he comes back. Coming close, however, would provide a major offensive boost for the Blues’ playoff chances.

Adam Wainwright – As is the case with Molina’s future, the first reason Wainwright is on this list is because of the question of whether he will be pitching for the Cardinals or a different team in 2021. A bounce-back season which included a complete game on his 39th birthday in 2020 showed that Wainwright still has something to offer on the days he pitches, in addition to the leadership role he provides to the team’s young pitchers every day of the week. As is also the case with Molina, the Cardinals need to know if Wainwright will be back before they can move on to other possible roster moves before the season begins.

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.