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Buffa: 2018 St. Louis Cardinals predictions

162 games being played in a season allows for plenty of matters to go haywire, and for the walls of Cardinals Twitter to steam up quick and often. Tilt the coffee pot a little and let's get started.
Sep 12, 2017; St. Louis, MO, USA; Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina (4) celebrates after hitting a two run double off of Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher Robert Stephenson at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

How's 2018 treating you so far, ladies and gents?

Spring training is about six weeks away, so let's ditch the Hot Stove discussion for a second (since it's obviously cooled) and instead get into some predictions for the coming season. What could possibly go right and wrong for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018? Special hat tip to the ferociously unapologetic Scott from Twitter for the inspiration:

162 games being played in a season allows for plenty of matters to go haywire, and for the walls of Cardinals Twitter to steam up quick and often. Tilt the coffee pot a little and let's get started.

Mike Matheny leaves Adam Wainwright in for too long, and things end badly

It happened too much in 2017, so why would this stop now? Remember Miami last year? Waino was hanging on, trying to plow through the 5th inning, and then bad things happened. The truth about Adam is that he is declining, to the point where his spot in the rotation should be in question, and crazies are talking about putting him back in a closer's role. He's a guy who lives on the fringe of semi-quality starts, and an aging lion who could be pounded one start and then dish the next. When it comes down to Wainwright, it's a matter of his manager trying to push him long and hard enough to get him a pitcher win-and that's a mistake.

Matt Carpenter will hit leadoff, produce another solid season, and fans will complain

Matt Carpenter isn't a savior. I wrote it last season and stand by it today. He's basically a solid core player on this team who does a few things quite well:

*Hit leadoff.

*Get on base

*Hit for power

Yes, he can only provide adequate defense at first base, even though he looks painfully awkward over there scooping (must be all that practice). Yes, he make good decisions on the bases. Yes, he doesn't take ownership of said mistakes in the post game conversation. But nobody ever said the guy was a perfect ballplayer. He's a guy who bleeds a pitcher out by seeing all of his pitches, and someone who put up a .384 on base percentage and an overall .835 OPS. He drew 109 walks, hit 23 home runs, and cranked 31 doubles. Man, that's sooo bad, right? Wrong. It's quite good. Watch, he'll do it again.

Tommy Pham will be good, not great, this season

He had an incredible 2017 season, putting up a 6 WAR and going nuts on the baseball diamond. After a career spent battling nagging injuries, Pham stayed on the field for 128 games, hit 23 home runs, and constructed a .931 OPS. Pham got on base 41 percent of the time for beards sake! The million dollar question coming into 2018 is whether he can repeat that goodness, and I'm here to tell you that he won't-but he'll still be quite good.

Pham will finish with a 3 WAR, hit 20 home runs, and see the OPS drop to around .825. Remember, this is a very good season! The soon to be 30 year old won't like to hear this, but the fact is the baseball field is like a casino at times, and the laws of probability state like a man who peaks at 29 will probably run into some callbacks the following season. Pitchers will catch up just enough.

Paul DeJong will do it again

I'm quite bullish about this kid NOT pulling an Aledmys Diaz and taking 45 steps back into utility player oblivion after a breakout season. DeJong came out of nowhere in 2017, making his debut on May 28, and ended up blasting 25 home runs while hitting .285 over 443 at bats.

DeJong provided better defense than Diaz ever did, showing good range and an even better arm at shortstop to heal up part of the Cardinals infield. He also held up over the course of the season, staying strong with his slugging into September. His bat didn't disappear for weeks like some other power/strikeout happy outfielder, so there's hope that he can keep it going.

DeJong also hit lefties and righties evenly in 2017, spraying the majority of his home runs off RHP, but still collecting hits off lefties in 80 at bats. Every rookie runs into a challenge during their second full season. The Cards have seen it with Diaz and Stephen Piscotty, but DeJong's ability to hit for power and work over all pitchers does show that he isn't a flash in the pan.

Carlos Martinez is going into full ACE mode

After a couple very good years, this is the year where Martinez finally enters the level of the true elite pitcher. I'm talking 2.75 or lower ERA and someone who maintains great stuff over a six week period. Last season saw the young phenom struggle with the first inning and go into a couple spells, but 2018 will eliminate any doubt there was. Believe it or not, El Gallo is only 26 years old, with a whole career ahead of him striking out batters, stacking cups, and smiling ear to ear most nights.

2017 featured a better Martinez than some people think. He pitched 205.1 innings, averaged 9.5 strikeouts per nine, and faced the most batters of his career (858). He also had two complete game shutouts, which ranked in the top 5 in the National League, as did the strikeout total (217).

I'm talking about an ascension to greatness, and Martinez is on it. I still say he lost a year of starting toying away in the bullpen.

Yadier Molina will keep earning his time behind the plate

Here's the funny thing about the Carson Kelly lovers: they are wrong. The past two seasons, all Molina has done is prove the spot should still belong to him. In 2016, he hit .307. Last year, he smoked 18 home runs and was an All Star. Sure, he hasn't won a Gold Glove in two years, but that is driven more by a love for offense (Buster Posey) and Tucker Barnhart just taking over last year. Molina's popup speed and mph to second base held up strength last year, and his bat showed 2012 levels of joy. I can't see why he'll take a step back in 2018. The man is a medical marvel.

Marcell Ozuna will blast 30 home runs, liven up the clubhouse, but won't be an MVP candidate

I think the power with the newest Cardinal is legit, Ozuna will smash in 2018, but I do think the other parts of his offensive arsenal will come back to Earth. The batting average will roll back to .260 and the OBP will be around .315-.320-and that's completely fine. His defense in left field will be better than anything the Cardinals have had recently, and he will give them a worthy middle of the lineup presence. The man will give the clubhouse some flavor and bring the team some joy. Just don't expect him to save the day. That's not who he is.

Alex Reyes will be the closer at midseason

After the Cardinals resist the urge to bring in Wade Davis or Greg Holland, they sign Addison Reed instead. They will ride the Luke Gregerson/Reed late inning express until June, when the #1 arm in the organization returns. Instead of slotting Reyes in for starter minutes, the bosses wisely pencil him as a closer. Imagine that 100 mph gas and backbreaking offspeed stuff coming at you three hours into a game. It's not even close to fair.

This won't hinder Reyes' development or future; it will preserve his arm in recovery and give the Cardinals a silver bullet in the pen when they need it.

Miles Mikolas is going to shock everyone

I'm not talking a Kent Bottenfield styled awakening here, but I do believe Cardinals pitching coach Mike Maddux will pull a Woody Williams 2.0 with the Japanese league stud. I have no spreadsheet or graph to tell you this will happen. Just a hunch. He saw the kid back in his Rangers days, so he should know how to translate overseas success quicker than other coaches. Mikolas will give the Cardinals a solid #4-5 type starter, proving plenty of doubters (including yours truly) wrong. Mikolas' success will last a year, before something similar to Seung hwan Oh happens. All the Cardinals need is one solid year.

Mike Matheny will drive fans nuts, but remain the manager

At this point, it's science. As much as I'd like to dream about Jose Oquendo taking over for Matheny in August, that would mean the Cardinals are in pretty bad shape-and I don't see that happening. Matheny will mishandle starters, some bullpen arms, and construct 144 different lineups. The fact is that he just can't climb over that hill as an effective baseball mind. In-game strategy isn't an easy thing to teach or learn so late in the game, so Matheny's entire skillset started as an overestimation. We will spend the summer wondering what the WAM (wins above Matheny) is-and should have been.

That's all I got, for now at least. What do you see happening? Will Kolten Wong put it together for a whole season? What about Michael Wacha's shoulder? So many things to talk about, and the time to get answers is almost here.

Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!

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