By Rob Rains
There are many reasons for baseball fans to look forward to 2023 and it only requires remembering what was going on a year ago to realize that.
On New Year’s Day 2022, baseball was one month into a lockout and nobody knew when spring training or the season would start. The pandemic was still affecting the country, and the world.
Luckily, as we begin this new year, baseball has labor peace. While there are still lingering health concerns, the worst of the pandemic appears to be behind us.
All of that means that for the first time in a few years, we can take a “normal” look into what is coming up with the Cardinals. In what has become a New Year’s Day tradition at STLSportsPage.com, our look ahead focuses on the 10 most interesting Cardinals to watch in the coming year, listed in alphabetical order.
Dusty Blake – One of three new coaches on manager Oli Marmol’s staff, Blake takes over the pitching coaching duties from Mike Maddux. While new bench coach Matt Holliday is well known by Cardinals’ fans, Blake has spent his first two years in St. Louis in the background working as a “pitching strategist.” Blake is eager to show that he is more than just a “numbers” guy and one of his goals, as directed by Marmol, is to see if the team’s pitchers can increase their strikeout total after ranking last in the majors in that category in 2022.
Dylan Carlson – Coming off a third-place finish in the Rookie of the Year voting for 2021, Carlson began his second full season with expectations of an even better performance. That didn’t happen as his home run total dropped from 18 to 8 and he hit just .207 from the left side of the plate, a drop of 36 percentage points from his rookie season, as he struggled with a thumb and wrist injury. Being able to reverse those numbers will be necessary for Carlson to continue to earn the bulk of the playing time in center field, where he excelled defensively last year after the trade that sent Harrison Bader to the Yankees.
Willson Contreras – The biggest off-season addition to the Cardinals’ roster, at least so far, Contreras seems ready to take on the challenge of being the successor to the retired Yadier Molina. Signed to a five-year contract, Contreras should definitely provide an offensive upgrade, where the Cardinals’ catchers were among the worst in the majors last season. There have been questions about Contreras’ performance behind the plate in the past, so he will need to prove himself there – but there is no doubt he was signed primarily for his offensive skills.
Brendan Donovan – If there was an award for who was the biggest surprise for the Cardinals in 2022, Donovan likely would have been a unanimous selection. He arrived in the majors with limited expectations, then proceeded to finish third in the Rookie of the Year voting and won the first Gold Glove given to a utility player. Donovan now has to prove that he can repeat that success, likely in the same role he filled last year, when he started games at six defensive positions and as the DH, as Marmol tried to find the best way to get him as many starts as possible.
Jack Flaherty – One of three holdovers on this list from a year ago, Flaherty goes into 2023 with basically the same questions hanging over his head: Is he healthy, and can he regain the form that made him one of the best pitchers in the game four years ago? Flaherty’s performance since then has been slowed by one injury after another, which limited him to just eight starts and 36 innings in 2022. Since the end of 2019, Flaherty has pitched a combined 154 innings. For the Cardinals to be better than they were a year ago, Flaherty has to step up and become the number one starter. Personally, this is the most important season of his career as he heads into free agency.
Paul Goldschmidt – The Cardinals’ first baseman doesn’t have to be a repeat winner as the NL’s Most Valuable Player for 2023 to be a successful season. What he does need to do is find a way to be just as effective as he was for the first five months of last season – and avoid the collapse that he suffered in September. Nobody realizes that more than Goldschmidt, the team’s best player, who needs to be at his best in the most important time of the season. Goldschmidt should be helped by the addition of Contreras’s big bat in the middle of the lineup.
Nolan Gorman – Another holdover selection from last year’s list, Gorman was the hot new toy a year ago, the top prospect in the Cardinals’ farm system, ready to make his major-league debut. Maybe the expectations were a little too lofty, but there still was a lot to like about Gorman’s rookie season after he was promoted from the minors, including hitting 14 homers in 283 at-bats as a 22-year-old while also playing solid defense at second base. The Cardinals hope he can build off that performance in 2023 with one goal to reduce the number of strikeouts (96 a year ago) which would give the team another power threat in the middle of the lineup to offer protection to Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.
Tyler O’Neill – If there was an award for the most disappointing Cardinal in 2022, it would have to go to O’Neill, primarily because one injury after another kept him off the field. He played in just 96 games, down from 138 in 2021, and saw his home run total drop from 34 to 14. With the Cardinals having numerous players competing for playing time in the outfield, O’Neill will have to show that he can stay healthy, and hit, to hold onto his spot as the primary left fielder.
Adam Wainwright – A year ago there was speculation about whether 2022 would be the final year of Wainwright’s stellar career. There is none of that talk now, as Wainwright has announced that he will retire after 2023. He is going to use that status as a motivator to go out and pitch well – starting with his assignment with the U.S. squad in the World Baseball Classic. He believes pitching in those games will help put him in a more competitive frame of mind for the start of the season. Wainwright has a goal of winning at least 16 games, which would move him into second place, behind Bob Gibson, for the most career victories for the Cardinals surpassing Jesse Haines’ total of 210.
Jordan Walker – Now the top prospect in the organization and one of the best in all of baseball, Walker will be one of the most scrutinized players in the Cardinals’ camp during spring training. A strong performance there, coming off a big 2022 in Double A and the Arizona Fall League, could springboard Walker into the Cardinals’ lineup in right field as a 20-year-old without a single game at the Triple A level. Whether that happens will be dictated by his performance, and the possibility of the Cardinals making other roster moves before the season begins. Whether it’s on opening day or two months into the season, however, Walker appears set to make his major-league debut in 2023 and like Gorman, could become the extra hitter the team wants in the middle of their lineup.
Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains