Baseball is close, ladies and gentlemen. It's around the corner, waiting to dictate and dominate our lives for the next seven months. Baseball is greedier than any other sport, demanding your time even when the team is in the offseason.
After an unusually chilly episode of the Hot Stove, the players are back on the field, taking reps, playing some exhibition games, and setting up to disappoint many, satisfy some, or surprise everyone.
Who plays those roles for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2018? Which pitcher will fare the best? Which will crumble? Is there a player out there who can promise rewards today?
Inspired by the following tweet, I found it difficult to answer these questions right off the bat, so I thought on them and decided to come to the KSDK news desk here and dispense.
BEST POSITION PLAYER: Marcell Ozuna
The minute the Cards traded for Ozuna, I had to go back to the drawing board on whether or not his 2017 breakout campaign was for real. Why was I putting him below Giancarlo Stanton (obvious) and Christian Yelich (skeptical)? He had won a gold glove and demolished baseballs left and right. Rusty Groppel of Redbird Daily started my transition game on Ozuna, noting how his bat got ruthless in 2016, before an injury abruptly stopped it. Ozuna is what the Cardinals needed: a big moment explosive bat with the potential to change the way a lineup looks. With OBP machines like Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler ahead of him, he will get plenty of opportunities. I hear his glove isn't that bad in left field either. I fully expect Ozuna to dominate and for the Cardinals to extend him next winter.
Runner-up: Matt Carpenter. It doesn't matter where he hits, the man will produce. I expect him to give us a taste of 2013 Carp this season.
BEST PITCHER: Dominic Leone
I could have yawned and said Carlos Martinez, but I'm going another way. Leone coming in via the Grichuk departure rescued the bullpen in a low key way. He hasn't recorded a save in his life, but the man should be able to handle the ninth inning. I think he will end up helping out in the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings. Leone is going to be like Matt Bowman, only he will close, not be used every game, and has more gas on his fastball. With a rotation lacking the innings load insurance, the Cardinals will need someone like Leone to play a number of roles. I think he can do it, and do it well.
Runner-up: Carlos Martinez. It was hard to say no on him the first time.
BREAKOUT PLAYER: Luke Weaver
Weaver is going to shut me up this season. For the past few months, I've worried about a guy being able to provide the kind of innings that a MLB team needs, but he's looked sharp this spring. In just nine innings, he struck out nine and allowed a single earned run. Before a rough finish to the season, Weaver fired up seven quality performances in a row for an ailing Cardinals team last season. He's a got a lively fastball and great backdoor pitches to keep hitters honest. At 24 years old, Weaver is set to break out in 2018-and boy do the Cardinals need it.
Runner-up: Jack Flaherty. Take one look at that slider and tell me otherwise. I can see why John Mozeliak is holding onto this kid like I would a 16 ounce filet mignon at Tucker's.
MOST DISAPPOINTING PLAYER: Miles Mikolas
I don't trust the guy. He looked good against the Houston Astros in his last start, but overall this spring, hitters have found a way to hurt him way too often. I wrote a couple months ago that Mikolas may surprise me and others this season, but I don't see it. Adam Wainwright is a liability and Michael Wacha's shoulder could fall apart at any moment, but I don't have a lot of faith in a guy who doesn't have any MLB success suddenly finding it. If I'm eating a Mikolas salad in October after he dazzles, so be it. Right now, I think he is going to disappoint.
Runner-up: Luke Gregerson, if they let him close games
MOST LIKELY TO BE TRADED: Harrison Bader
With the arrival of Tyler O'Neill and Ozuna, I don't think Bader's time on the Cardinals past 2018 is guaranteed. Tommy Pham has to prove he is a great player and not just a great season, but Bader is young and valuable-two things other teams covet. Everybody assumes other General Managers will just want Cardinal pitching if the Birds need to make a July trade, but I think another team could ask about Bader as well. He can hit, run, field, and is very cheap. I love what he brings, but I don't see where he will be able to truly show his skills in St. Louis unless someone gets hurt.
Runner-up: Michael Wacha. With that shoulder condition, I imagine the Cards trading high on his stock if he started the season in fine fashion. Sooner or later, the team will have to give him a multi-year contract.
What do you think? In a season with so many "ifs" stuffed inside, there are bound to be a few bright lights and dim moments. Who provides a spark and who will put it out? The answers start arriving soon.
Thanks for reading.