By Jack Stephens, from Cardsblog.com
As the season approaches for every club, the anticipation naturally rises. This is a natural part of the sport. With Spring Training especially, a nervous buzz is truly inevitable, as fans, players, and front-office members all carry optimism into the coming season.
With such excitement, however, comes expectation. No matter the team, no matter the most probable outlook, every team experiences expectations. Especially with today's media landscape (Yes, I know I'm a part of it), expectations explode wildly for players and teams, creating enormous pressure.
To make matters even worse, Baseball is the most pressurizing sport known to man. Defined as a "game of failure," players and coaches are put in the public spotlight and expected to defy odds that are undeniably stacked against them.
Put simply, the game is difficult. Slumps are expected and sometimes welcomed, as players must fight tough emotional battles in a long, grueling season. Pressure comes from the fans as well as the game itself -- a truly tough combination.
For the Cardinals, 2017 might offer more pressure than any year in recent memory. Along with the two aforementioned sources, the club faces challenges from other angles. For one, 2016 was, simply put, a tough year. Along with that, several players, at a more individual level, are facing uncertainty in various ways.
Will Kolten Wong ever prove himself as prospect scouts and fans pinned him to be? Is Alex Reyes truly the next superstar of the franchise? Will Lance Lynn be able to replicate the force and consistency of his former self? The list goes on. Finally, to make the raincloud of uncertainty even worse, the Cardinals must break through the tough publicity of the recently settled hacking scandal.
On top of all this, most importantly, is that the Cardinals are faced with the task of reclaiming the NL Central, to once again prove that the division runs through St. Louis.
With the offseason lull officially setting in, we can start looking at minor moves the Cardinals can make to fill the holes in their roster. One such area is the bullpen. The Cardinals bullpen is already looking pretty solid, especially with the addition of Brett Cecil.
Ok, so the Cardinals will face pressure. How do they respond?
Luckily, the Cardinals possess quality veteran leaders. For example, Adam Wainwright has done it all in his career. From winning it all to season ending injury, Wainwright knows about sustained success, along with the inevitable adversity, both mental and physical.
As another example, there is obviously Yadier Molina. A first-ballot hall 0f famer, he might be the best defensive catcher to ever do it. Not only that, but Molina knows Cardinals culture. He understands what makes things go underneath the Arch, and has the unique opportunity to greatly affect both sides of the ball.
Unfortunately, however, both players formerly mentioned are past their primes. While this does not discount their leadership capabilities, this does in fact mean they can no longer carry the load. Younger players must step up, carrying part of the load through top notch performance along with leadership capability.
Enter Dexter Fowler.
After this past season, Fowler elected to become the face of the franchise. While this may seem like a brash comment, he is (at least on paper) the best everyday player in the organization. Along with that title, Fowler boasts the second largest salary on the slub, only trailing Wainwright. As the face of the Cardinals, Fowler has invited some obligations.
First of all, he must perform. Although we expect this from him, people talk about this obligation a lot, as fans and analysts wonder constantly how his offensive and defensive presence will affect the squad. Perhaps overlooked, then, is his obligation as a leader.
I remember when spending money was cool. Shoes Cars Jewels. Now it's cool to be smart. Investments. Homes. Hey young guys, save your money.— Dexter Fowler (@DexterFowler) January 31, 2017
To me, as a center fielder worth $16.5 million over the course of the 2017 season, there is a duty to lead. Especially on a team full of youth and inexperience, Fowler really must step up moving forward. Luckily, I think he may just be the perfect man for the job, especially given the circumstances he has inherited.
First of all, money, in theory, should really be nowhere on Fowler's radar. He got paid, he's the man, and that is settled. Moving forward, Fowler should have a selfless mindset to help thrust the Cards back into the spotlight.
Second, Fowler is coming from a winning culture. Not only that, but he is coming from enemy territory. The Cubs played with astronomical expectations, and did so while having fun and staying light. Especially with the likes of Kolten Wong, Alex Reyes, Harrison Bader, and and Luke Weaver, such an attitude could be very beneficial in 2017.
Frankly, too, any team, no matter the age range, could probably use some fun. The season is simply too long and challenging for a serious, laser-focused mindset to guide the ship 100% of the time. Hopefully, then, Fowler can weather the storm and have fun doing it, picking up his teammates and creating an electric, hard-nosed culture in St. Louis.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, Fowler is in the prime age/talent range to lead a team. At 30 years of age, he is hypothetically in the prime of his career. In this way, he will command respect based on pedigree along with elite performance. He is an All Star caliber player and athlete, yet has also been around multiple organizations, winning at the highest level. While it seems obvious, Fowler's makeup creates the possibility to unite veterans and young guns alike, therefore catalyzing a unified ball club.
As long as he accepts and acts upon this responsibility, which I expect he probably already has, the Cardinals should be in a good place to confront the pressures of 2017.
It may be hard to believe, but the 2017 season will be Wong's fifth at the big league level, and for some, it still feels like he has yet to even come close to reaching his full potential.