By Rob Rains
It was just 12 months ago when everyone happily waved goodbye to 2020 and welcomed 2021 with the hope that the new year certainly could not be as difficult as the one that was ending.
Now here we are, 365 days later, in what almost seems like the exact same position.
Games are being canceled or postponed because of COVID. Hospitals are overcrowded. Masks are still required in some places and recommended in others. It always seems like another variant of the virus is upon us.
As the focus shifts to the start of the new year, with those COVID worries still with us, there is something else for baseball fans to worry about as well.
The bargaining agreement between the owners and players expired on Dec. 1, and the two sides have barely talked since. That has to change soon, or spring training, and the scheduled start to the regular season, could be in jeopardy.
The outcome of the discussions between the owners’ representatives and the leaders of the player’s union will be played out on a national level, with a resolution guaranteed at some point. The only thing fans can do is wait for it to happen.
While waiting, however, it’s not too early to think about the season that will start at some point. In what has become a New Year’s Day tradition at STLSportsPage, here is our list of the 10 most important Cardinals to watch when the season does begin in 2022, presented in alphabetical order:
Jeff Albert – The most polarizing coach on the Cardinals’ staff returns in 2022, perhaps under even more pressure than before. There have been questions about the performance of the team’s hitters almost since Albert was hired as the hitting coach, and the only way those questions are going to go away is if Albert is able to help almost the exact same group achieve better results in 2022.
Paul DeJong – With several high-end shortstops available on the free-agent market this winter, the Cardinals have so far stayed away from that group, expressing optimism that DeJong will bounce back after a couple of tough offensive seasons. He lost the starting job to Edmundo Sosa down the stretch last year, and Sosa will be competing for playing time again this spring. A slow start by DeJong also could lead to Tommy Edman sliding over to short with rookie Nolan Gorman taking over at second base. DeJong has a chance to keep that from happening, and quiet the critics who said the Cardinals should have pursued one of the free agents. The volume of that criticism will only increase if DeJong struggles again.
Jack Flaherty – The ascent of Flaherty to a status of being one of the best pitchers in the game was interrupted by the COVID-shortened season in 2020, and just when he was displaying that type of talent to begin 2021, an injury knocked him back again. He missed two months, then logged only 16 innings over the final two months of the season – and now has pitched just 118 combined innings over the last two years. Now 26, Flaherty has to stay on the mound and pitch like an ace if the Cardinals want to contend for the division title and make a deep run in October.
Nolan Gorman – A strong performance in Triple A last season has the Cardinals’ top prospect on the cusp of the major leagues. Gorman made a successful transition to second base after the team acquired third baseman Nolan Arenado as he continued to progress offensively toward becoming a solid middle-of-the-order bat. The fact that Gorman would fill the need for a lefthanded bat in the lineup also will be a factor in giving him playing time. The Cardinals would be quite happy if Gorman’s rookie season could mirror what Dylan Carlson accomplished as a rookie in 2021.
Jordan Hicks – It probably is not an understatement to say that this could be the most important year of Hicks’s career. Injuries, and his slow recovery, has limited Hicks to just 10 innings in the majors since June of 2019. Hicks threw harder than anybody in baseball before he was injured, but he can’t throw like that again if he can’t get on the mound. He left a rehab stint in the Arizona Fall League after only two appearances, so his health will still be a mystery as he reports to spring training. The Cardinals have said the now 25-year-old might be able to stay healthier on a starter’s routine, but to transition to that role likely will take at least a few months in the minor leagues.
Oli Marmol – The pressure is always on a new manager, especially one who has never managed in the major leagues before. In Marmol’s case, the normal pressure will be compounded by the fact that most people did not see any need for the Cardinals to fire Mike Shildt at the end of the 2021 season. Marmol is taking over a team that earned a playoff spot with a record 17-game winning streak and at the moment would rank as at least the co-favorite with the Brewers to win the NL Central. The fact that the majority of players, and the coaching staff is returning from that successful team puts even more of a target on Marmol’s back when it comes to judging the team’s performance.
Yadier Molina – Molina has said publicly that this will be the final year of his career, and if so, two things need to happen. He needs to be treated to a proper farewell deserving of a future Hall of Famer, and he has to understand that the Cardinals need to begin the transition process to prepare Andrew Knizner, Ivan Herrera or somebody else to take over as the starting catcher in 2023. How to balance that development with Molina’s desire to continue to play as much as possible will be an early test for new manager Oli Marmol.
John Mozeliak – Firing Shildt at the end of a successful season, and three overall productive years in the manager’s chair, made it clear that the Cardinals are Mozeliak’s team – which means he should get credit for the success, or the blame, if the move doesn’t work. Marmol becomes the third manager that Mozeliak has hired in the last decade, and he has fired the other two after less than four years. With some of his recent free-agent signings not having worked out as planned either, this could be a critical year for Mozeliak’s future.
Alex Reyes – The biggest question for Reyes going into the season is how he will be used. Right now, the Cardinals have five starters but the team has said they want to bring him to spring training ready to stretch out as a starter. Reyes had a lot of success in the first half of 2021 in the closer’s role, but the second half of the year was a different story. Now healthy after some tough, lost seasons, this could be the most important year of Reyes’ career and his performance likely will go a long way toward determining his long-term future with the organization.
Adam Wainwright – A lot of people have been ready to say goodbye to Wainwright in recent years, and all he does is continue to prove his value to the team. He was the Cardinals’ best pitcher in 2021 at the age of 39, and he returns for what likely will be his final season – unless he goes out and defies Father Time one more time. What Wainwright brings to the team goes beyond his performance on the mound, and his ability to work with and motivate the younger pitchers on the staff will be a major factor in the Cardinals’ overall success this season. If it is indeed the last season for both Molina and Wainwright, anything short of a pennant-winning year will be viewed as a disappointment.
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports