The 2018 season may be the most pivotal of the past 20 years of St. Louis Cardinals baseball.
After missing the playoffs in two consecutive years -- doing so a third straight time would mark the longest drought this century -- the Cardinals spent the offseason making dramatic changes, albeit not quite as dramatic as some of their increasingly disgruntled fans might have preferred. They traded for Marcell Ozuna, one of the best hitters in the sport, brought in a smattering of new bullpen arms and signed a starting pitcher who sparkled in Japan, but whom no one in America has seen in three years.
St. Louis shipped out former prized young players Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk and waved goodbye to rotation stalwart Lance Lynn. Perhaps most notably, the Cardinals reshuffled their entire coaching staff, hiring pitching coach Mike Maddux from the Nationals and bringing beloved franchise icons Willie McGee and (especially) Jose Oquendo back home, increasing the pressure on manager Mike Matheny to return the team to the October like its fans expect.
The Cardinals believe the past two seasons were a blip, that their inherently pragmatic nature will be rewarded in 2018. Naysayers and skeptics fear that the hated rival Cubs have long since passed the franchise, and the Cards are in danger of slipping further down the National League Central depth chart. (Remember: This was a third-place team in '17.)
If the Cardinals can compete or even pass the Cubs this year, their cautious approach will be vindicated, Matheny's job will be safe and the team will transition into a new era of contention led by the next cadre of young players. If St. Louis misses the playoffs again, the changes could start in the dugout, and might not stop there.
The Cards are not an urgent organization: They are patient, conservative and organized, and always prudent. But if they miss the playoffs this season, fans will demand urgency in a way we perhaps haven't seen in this franchise under its current ownership. Fans in St. Louis have been patient enough. They have watched the Cubs, and now the Brewers, pass their team. If it happens again, there will be a reckoning.
For the third consecutive year, it is time for my Cardinals Roster Audit, a look at every relevant St. Louis player heading into the 2018 season. In one week, we'll get our first look at what this Cardinals team is. For now, here's my best guess. (Also, if you want more Cards business, I host a weekly podcast called "Seeing Red" with legendary St. Louis sports columnist Bernie Miklasz. You can subscribe to it here.)
Jack Flaherty: Flaherty is starting the season in the Minors, but will be the first guy up if any of the next five pitchers go down. With 20 strikeouts in 13 spring innings -- and the Cardinals coaching staff wowed a little more with every appearance -- he's clearly ready. The only question is whose spot he takes.
Carlos Martinez: One of the theoretical reasons to bring in Maddux as pitching coach is to see if some of his Max Scherzer magic can rub off on Martinez, who has been excellent all three years he has been a starter, but never quite become the shutdown ace everyone was hoping for. Asking Martinez to be Scherzer is a bit much, but his ERA jumped more than a half a point last season; there's no reason someone with his stuff shouldn't have a 3.00 ERA or less in his prime (he's still somehow only 26). The right-hander has struggled this spring, but his arm is healthy and fine. Even at his worst, Martinez is the Cards' best starter. But there is still so much more there. If he can't tap into it this year, when will he?
Still, if you don't like Martinez, I'm not sure we can be friends.
Gif: Carlos Martinez Dances
Miles Mikolas: Fans will be charting whether Mikolas or Lynn has a better season, but that seems unfair: The "choice" between the two was hardly binary. Mikolas is a risk, but still a minor one: He costs $15 million over two years rather than Lynn's $12 million over one, a deal widely seen as a bargain. Mikolas had a rough start to spring, but settled down late, calming the most braying Cardinals loyalists. The floor for him is 160 innings at, say, a 4.50 ERA: I bet he does better. Also: Whether you like the nickname or not, Miles, when you eat a live lizard, people are gonna call you the Lizard King. Those are the rules.
Adam Wainwright: It's the last year of Wainwright's deal, and he's one of the most important and beloved Cardinals in history. You give him one more chance at another ride. The veteran's fastball has had enough pop that you have to respect it this spring, and it's fun to watch him pull out all sorts of tricks to get outs however he can. There are rotation options if Wainwright can't go, but it'll be so sad to have to break that emergency glass that, if they must, the Cards will surely do a month later than they should.
Gif: Jason Heyward and Adam Wainwright dance
Luke Weaver: The club's clear best pitcher this spring, Weaver had the calm dominance of, say, Michael Wacha during that amazing 2013 run. He ran out of gas toward the end of '17, but if he can build up his strength, there's a non-zero chance he's their ace heading into next year.
Wacha: The Cardinals and Wacha keep betting on the right-hander's shoulder, which was inflamed heading into 2017, but still held up without surgery all season for 165 innings. Wacha was only slightly better than a league-average starter, and the dominance he showed in his rookie season may never return, but he's still extremely valuable. Still, it's a little concerning that the main attribute Wacha brings now is endurance, considering how scared everyone has been his entire career that he'll get hurt. Early prediction: It's not Wainwright's or Mikolas' spot that Flaherty ends up taking: It's Wacha's.
Other rotation possibilities: I'd guess John Gant is the No. 7 rotation guy, followed by Austin Gomber. I bet Dakota Hudson is a bullpen guy come September after spending most of the year in Triple-A Memphis' rotation. If they need anybody after that, it'll be a free agent bargain or a trade.
Alex Reyes: We save Reyes for last because he won't be ready for Opening Day, and I bet, ends up spending this season in the bullpen before entering the rotation next year. But don't forget what he can do.
Gif: Alex Reyes strikeout reel
We don't have to give a full paragraph on every guy, but here's a brief ranking of the importance of each guy. There are a lot of them.
1. Tyler Lyons: The Cardinals' best bullpen arm last year, Lyons will be unleashed to destroy people with his killer slider. He's about to have a huge year.
2. Dominic Leone: He came over in the Grichuk trade and looks like a wipeout slider guy himself. Leone is definitely a sleeper saves guy if you're into fantasy.
3. Luke Gregerson: His injury history shouldn't be of much concern. The Cards need Gregerson merely to be stable rather than dominant.
4. Brett Cecil: True story: Cecil is the eighth highest-paid Cardinal, and one of only six guys with a guaranteed contract for 2020. So getting some outs would help.
5. Sam Tuivailala: He is out of options, and the team plans on the bullpen being mostly a Memphis-to-St. Louis shuttle all year. So Tuivailala better be good early; there's no place to hide him if he isn't.
6. Bud Norris: For the last time, Norris was not the "reaction to the Cubs getting Darvish" signing. (They should have just waited a couple of days to announce him.)
7. Matt Bowman: He has been extremely useful the past few years, but is starting to get a little too Seth Maness-y for comfort of late.
8. Mike Mayers: His Spring Training revelation is still stuck in the long reliever emergency role, but circumstances might change that quicker than we're ready for.
9. Reyes: He is my guess to be the club's September (and October?) closer.
10. Ryan Sherriff: If Cecil falters again, Sherriff's the guy.
11. Josh Lucas: Loved Lucas in "The Mysteries of Laura!"
12. John Brebbia: He looks weird without the beard.
13. Jason Motte: He is willing to start the season in the Minors, but when he gets called up and appears in his first game, expect one of the loudest Busch Stadium ovations of the year.
14. Sean Gilmartin: He is another potential left-handed one out guy (LOOGY).
15. Dakota Hudson: He could potentially be what Carlos Martinez was in 2013.
16. Daniel Poncedeleon: It's just impressive Poncedeleon's back on the mound.
Carson Kelly: This is Kelly's final year on the MLB Pipeline Top 100 Prospects list, even though he'll start the season in Memphis, and it's for the best: Even if Molina plays out his contract, Kelly will still be 26 when he theoretically takes over. He needs to play every day, and by the way, start hitting again -- something he didn't do in St. Louis last year or Jupiter this spring. At this point, Kelly just needs to be careful Andrew Knizner doesn't catch him from behind.
Yadier Molina: This is actually the first year of Molina's contract extension, and with the demotion of Kelly to Memphis, it's clear the Cardinals are gonna let him catch 140 games if he wants to. Even if Molina were a terrible hitter, it would probably still be worth letting him do what he wants defensively. But he's not terrible: He's only had one poor offensive season this decade. Everybody on the team feels better with Yadi catching, so he just always catches. It's not that complicated, and shouldn't be.
Francisco Pena: Being Molina's backup is one of the coolest jobs in sports: You get great seats every game and a salary. Also, Pena is the son of former Cardinal Tony Pena. I'll take this moment to remind you that the elder Pena was great in the 1987 World Series and probably would have won the Most Valuable Player Award had St. Louis won Game 7.
Matt Carpenter: Now that Carpenter's back is feeling better, the Cardinals are giving him some reps at second and third, but he's still the team's primary first baseman and a lineup staple. Even when Carpenter struggled last year, he still got on base. And he's still waiting for that consolidation year when he hits for power and contact and still gets his walks. Carpenter gets a bum rap from some Cards fans for not being a superstar (and for some baserunning lapses), but this lineup doesn't work without him. There's a scenario where he's a down-ballot NL MVP Award vote guy, and if that happens, the Cardinals might have the best offense in the NL.
Paul DeJong: The decision to extend DeJong was smart because it gives him stability and because it lets the Cardinals pay him like he's an average player while reaping the benefits if he's more. The strikeout-to-walk rates are disturbing, but the power is golden, particularly for a guy who can hang just fine at short. Even if he can't live up to last year, he's still worth it. You still wish the Cards had a backup for him, just in case.
Greg Garcia: You never get excited to see Garcia in the lineup, but he'll end up in the top five on the team in on-base percentage and win a game or two for you out of nowhere.
Jedd Gyorko: Gyorko was fantastic for the first half of 2017 but faded late, probably because he's best used four to five days a week rather than six or seven. That might work out perfectly this year, thanks to …
Jose Martinez: Here is something on Martinez from a beautiful Mike Petriello piece back in January:
Martinez doesn't have to do that again to get playing time. But if he does, playing time will absolutely find him. He's a sleeper late-1985 Cesar Cedeno. Get excited.
Yairo Munoz: Munoz came over in the Piscotty trade and he had a huge spring. He can play everywhere too, and there's a small possibility he makes the roster as the 25th man ahead of Harrison Bader simply because of his versatility.
Luke Voit: I'd think Jose Martinez's emergence would make any need for another, lesser-talented right-handed-hitting first baseman null and Voit, but he's worth keeping around just in case, I guess.
Kolten Wong: The OBP looks higher than it probably should be because Wong batted eighth all of 2017, but he'll probably be doing the same thing this year. The power that was once was there appears to be gone, but if he plays great defense and gets on at a .376 clip again, who cares? Plus, if you need to spell him against lefties, Gyorko can play second to get Martinez's bat in the lineup. Flexibility!
Bader: He's got speed to burn and surprising pop, making him the perfect fourth outfielder, particularly now that Grichuk is gone. He can play a mean center field, too, and surely will. He's probably starting in a couple of years, but in this role, he's plenty handy.
Adolis Garcia: The younger brother of Adonis, Garcia has power and speed, and he wowed people in spring. In case you were wondering why the Cardinals felt so comfortable trading Piscotty and Grichuk, it's because they have tons of guys like him hanging around. (And we don't even have time to get into Randy Arozarena.)
Dexter Fowler: It doesn't really matter what order you put the Cards' top three hitters in: Carpenter, Pham, Fowler; Fowler, Carpenter, Pham; Fowler, Pham, Carpenter (which looks like the Opening Day plan), they're all OBP guys with pop ahead of Ozuna, who was brought in specifically to drive them all in. I still kind of like Fowler in the three spot; the power last year was real, and there's an argument to be made that he could age into a corner outfield power bat. For now, if Fowler's healthy -- and that's always the question -- he has had his best two OPS-plus seasons in the past two years. He's getting better as he gets older. If only we could all say the same.
Tyler O'Neill: Another power bat lacking plate discipline, O'Neill's suffered an oblique injury that set him back this spring. But he might be the perfect guy for some lineup punch during the doldrums of August.
Ozuna: Ozuna was actually a bit of an admission on the Cardinals part that the Cubs spooked them a bit: He's only signed for two years, which means St. Louis is going for it now without the promise of future stability, but with a short-term big run producer in the middle of the lineup. Ozuna changes the entire look of the Cards, particularly with those three batting ahead of him. He also seems delighted to get to play in front of actual fans. If your fantasy league still values RBIs, you've got yourself a sleeper star. Oh, and he just won an NL Gold Glove Award, too.
Tommy Pham: Because Pham exploded on the scene last year, there is a sense that he is young. He's not; he's 30. He is older than, say, Kyle Seager, Clayton Kershaw, Rick Porcello, Craig Kimbrel or Freddie Freeman. For years, he was the pet project of Cardinals stat dorks like myself, the guy who would dominate if he could only stay healthy and get a chance. Last year, he finally did both, and he was one of the best players in baseball.
The Cardinals are all-in on Pham this year: They've awarded him center field and the No. 2 spot in the order, acting as if they expect a repeat. Pham clearly thinks the same thing; after he refused to accept less money than what he thought he deserved during a renegotiation, the Cards simply renewed his contract at the league minimum this year. Pham is betting on himself, and why wouldn't he? He has almost immediately become the emotional pulse of the club in every possible way: He's magnetic and charismatic in a fashion no Cardinals player has been in many a moon. He's unmissable. I want him to hit 70 homers and steal 70 bases, and then develop wings and learn to fly, and also to invent cold fusion. Pham is not to be doubted again.
Gif: Pham monster HR
Mike Matheny: The bloom on the Matheny rose is mostly off at this point, but even those of us who have been Matheny skeptics for years have to admit it has been a good spring for him. He has accepted the new domains of both Maddux and Oquendo without much argument. He seems less antsy and paranoid around the media. He has been relaxed about the uncertain bullpen, always a problem for him. And he seems down with all the young players filtering in and out.
The problem with Matheny has always been that he is dogmatic for a roster that demands flexibility, that he is, as I once put it, "a one-plan man." But he seems open to the notion that that can't be the strategy for this particular roster, in this particular season. Perhaps he understands the urgency (that word again) after missing the postseason two consecutive seasons.
But something is different this spring. Can it last? Will he go back to the old Matheny, or try to wrest the reigns from Maddux and/or Oquendo? The season may depend on the answer. It's not just Matheny's job that rides on 2018. But it's certainly his that rides the most on it.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.