Back to Busch Stadium: Things to watch in the new Cardinals year

| Staff Reporter

The St. Louis Cardinals have had an uneven start to 2019, going 2-3 through Tuesday’s action, but no matter—St. Louis is home sweet home, set for the home opener tomorrow after a rainout today. Hope springs eternal and the Redbirds have a realistic shot at a 12th World Series, so here’s what to keep your eyes peeled for this season.

A tight National League (NL) Central race

This year’s NL Central is tight. It might be one of the tightest division races in MLB history. It’s so tight, in fact, that on January 22, FanGraphs projected the reigning champion Milwaukee Brewers to finish last with 79 wins. The projected first-place Cubs were pegged only eight wins higher, at 87.

That means two things. One: it will not be easy for the Cardinals, but winning never is. Two: every game matters, from tomorrow to 162 (and last year’s division took 163 games to sort out). Division games will be heated.

The Cubs games always are, of course; that’s the nature of the rivalry. The Brewers are the team to topple, and they showed the Cardinals last weekend that they won’t cave quietly. The Reds pushed their chips to the center this year and will compete. It isn’t obvious what the Pirates excel at, but the Cardinals have had trap game issues in the past. Whatever happens, the playoff race starts early this year.

A bonafide MVP candidate makes St. Louis his home

Since heralded first baseman Albert Pujols departed in 2011, the Cardinals have settled into a specific identity: depth and magic. That’s gotten them a lot of wins, but they’ve also come up just a bit short the last three years.

The Cardinals have missed the presence of a true franchise superstar. They’ve tried hard to find one. Jason Heyward showed promise, before he left for the big, bad Cubs. The Cardinals wanted Giancarlo Stanton, but he wouldn’t come. No more.

Paul Goldschmidt is here, and he’s here to stay after signing the largest contract in franchise history before even playing a game. He’s everything you’d want in the face of your franchise, averaging 6.1 wins above replacement over the last six years, with three top-three MVP finishes. And given that those finishes have come in the odd years, Goldschmidt may be due for another in 2019. If so, he’s off to a blazing start, with a three-homer game already. It’s going to be a lot of fun with Goldschmidt entrenched in the two-hole.

Run, Bader, run

Speaking of fun, watching fast athletes run fast is fun. Sprint speed measures a player’s top speed, with values ranging from Pujols at 22.2 feet per second to elite runners at 30.0 feet per second. Harrison Bader is one of seven players in baseball at that 30.0 mark. He’s fast, and he’s fun.

More importantly, that speed translates to wins on the diamond. Bader had 19 defensive runs saved in limited time last year, tied with fellow Cardinal Kolten Wong for sixth in the bigs. He made plays that are categorized as “unlikely” (10 to 40% catch probability) two-thirds of the time. He made plays that are categorized as “remote” (1 to 10% catch probability) 16.7% of the time. He’s going to make some plays that just wow you from your seat.

Flashy young pitchers

The great Cardinals teams have always been built on sensational pitching, from Bob Gibson’s league-changing 1968 season to Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright finishing 2-3 in the 2009 Cy Young vote. This Cardinals team is different. I’m not sure it has a true ace, but what it does have is a small handful of exciting young talent.

Jordan Hicks snatched away Aroldis Chapman’s long-held title of fastest thrower of objects in the world last year. This year, he has already thrown the six fastest pitches in baseball. Entrenched as closer, he’s going to be at the center of many exciting battles this summer.

Alex Reyes has flown under the radar. After years of injuries—he threw just four MLB innings from 2017-18 after a sterling 2016 debut—Reyes may finally be healthy and ready to unleash the 100 mph heat and knee-buckling curveball that made him the No. 1 prospect in baseball. He’ll start in the bullpen as part of a sensational pair with Hicks, but the long-term vision is still to unleash Reyes as a starter.

Jack Flaherty could settle in as the next staff ace sooner rather than later. At only 22 years old, he showed poise and maturity, pitching like a seasoned veteran to the tune of 182 strikeouts in 151 innings to earn Rookie of the Year votes. My bet is he’ll be the guy you want on the mound in a big game come August.

Strong April and September schedules

From a Washington University point of view, students have it good. We’re around in April, September and bits of May and August, and the schedule is stacked with strong opponents. It starts this weekend with newly-minted Padres Manny Machado and Manny Machado Jr. (Fernando Tatis Jr., to be exact)—I’m partial to Chris Paddack and will be there Saturday.

Then the schedule rolls right into the twice-defending NL champ Dodgers, 2018 Cy Young award-winner Jacob deGrom and the Mets, and MVP Christian Yelich and the Brewers. Before finals end, superstar Bryce Harper and his new Philadelphia Phillies team come to town.

The weekend before school is back in session, Nolan Arenado’s Rockies stop in St. Louis. The end of the regular season could feature two top-flight squads, the Nationals (and the potential of facing Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin) and the Cubs—how’s that for a final series with the playoffs possibly on the line?

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