These St. Louis Cardinals are keys to 2020 success

Carlos Martinez and Matt Carpenter are among the St. Louis Cardinals whose play could determine Redbird fortunes in 2020. Who else is an x-factor?

Some St. Louis Cardinals players can be counted on, barring catastrophe, to produce in 2020. Paul Goldschmidt, Jack Flaherty, and Kolten Wong could be a little better or worse, but there’s no reason to expect any drastic alterations in their performance.

But others — several others — are like elevators: they could shoot to the top floor, or they could plunge to the cellar (or stop somewhere in between).

Here are five players who could make or break the upcoming Cardinals season:.

#1: Carlos Martinez

Best case scenario: He stays healthy. When his right shoulder, oblique, lat and rotator cuff are fine, Martinez tends to produce. He’s posted ERAs of 3.01, 3.04, 3.64, 3.11, and 3.17 the last five years. The two-time All-Star could return to the starting rotation for the first time since July of 2018, or could resume his 2019 role as bullpen closer.

Compared to last year, “I feel stronger,” Martinez told the Associated Press’ Chuck King last week. “The day after I throw, I don’t feel tired.” As a starter, his experience could be invaluable to a rotation that lost Michael Wacha, who signed with the Mets, and is missing Miles Mikolas for the first part of the season.

Worst case: The shoulder, or something else, fails and he spends most of the year on the injured list. With his string of recent injuries, it’s hard to imagine Martinez skating unscathed through 2020, but the Cards could maybe survive a one-month or six-weeks absence. A multi-month Martinez injury loss could be a disaster.

#2: Matt Carpenter

Best case scenario: He turns back the clock and becomes the 2015-18 Carpenter rather than the Carp Lite (.226 average, .726 OPS) of 2019. At 34, it’s hard to envision a return to the  2018 version of MC (36 homers, a career-high .897 OPS, 111 runs scored), but something approaching the 2015-17 stretch (.871, .885, .835 OPSs) would be lovely. Maybe last year was just a bad dream or an off-year that got blown out of proportion because of Carp’s age.

Worst case: He doesn’t hit a lick but Shildt sticks with him for half a season, hoping he’ll come around. If Carpenter is washed up, it would be better if he started 2 for 80 and forced an early benching than tease along with a .730 OPS that gives false hope that he’s almost there for two or more months.

#3: Paul DeJong

Best case scenario: He resembles the March/April 2019 player who hit .342 with a 1.010 OPS. Realistically, DeJong’s not going to approach those numbers — he’s a .251 hitter with a .785 OPS over three years  — but is a .260 average and .820 OPS too much to ask? The Cards can only hope he keeps fielding well and matches or exceeds last year’s excellent extra-base marks (31 doubles, 30 homers).

Worst case: DeJong’s wretched September/October (.175 average, .655 OPS) spills over into this year, his power numbers slip, and his poor offense affects his fielding. He should be improving at age 26, but what if pitchers have figured him out? A high-strikeout (149 Ks in 2019) shortstop who hits .233 (.318 OBP) is fine when he makes plays in the field and smacks homers, but the Cards lineup will suffer if DeJong becomes an automatic out in 2020.

#4: Tommy Edman

Best case scenario: He hits like he did last year (.304, 850 OPS) while playing nearly every day as a third baseman (if Matt Carpenter falters), corner outfielder, or a José Oquendo-like super-sub, plugging in wherever needed. His good glove and excellent baserunning (eleven stolen bases in 12 attempts in 2019) continue. He produces as a leadoff or No. 2 hitter in the lineup.

Worse case: He suffers a precipitous sophomore swoon like previous infielders Pete Kozma, who plunged from a .952 OPS (in 26 games) in 2012 to a .548 OPS in ’13, or Aledmys Díaz, who tumbled from an .879 OPS in 2016 to a .682 OPS in ’17. Even if Carp has a bounceback season at third, it’ll be a big blow to the Redbirds if Edman fizzles severely in 2020.

#5: Dakota Hudson

Best case scenario: He pitches like he did for Memphis in 2018 (13-3, 2.50 ERA, 1.299 WHIP), when he was the Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year. Or he pitches as he did in the second half of last year (9-3, 3.17, 1.275 WHIP).

If Hudson can significantly reduce his league-leading 86 walks, the 25-year-old could be a strong No. 2 starter, behind Flaherty. Even with the walks, he went 16-7 with a 3.35 ERA in 2019, although his 1.408 WHIP suggests he got lucky. If his excellent sinker, which he throws nearly 50 percent of the time, gets any better, he could be outstanding.

Worst case: The walks keep piling up and come back to bite him. Last year, walks and deep counts led to high pitch counts through early innings; in 42 percent of Hudson’s starts, he failed to last past the fifth inning, which stressed the bullpen.

Others could be listed here — Mikolas and Harrison Bader come to mind, although it’s looking like the latter, who will turn 26 on June 3rd, is destined to be a low-average, high-strikeout player who earns at-bats with his excellent center-field play. As for new lefty starter Kwang-Hyun Kim, it’s anybody’s guess how he’ll adjust to the MLB. The 31-year-old posted an impressive 2.51 ERA and 180 strikeouts in 190.1 innings in the Korean Baseball Organization a year ago, which is cause for optimism.

Oft-injured Alex Reyes could be an asset, but his history of arm troubles prevents him from being someone the Cards should count on. No one should expect prime-time production from old folks Adam Wainwright, 38, Yadier Molina, 37, Andrew Miller, 35 on May 21, and Dexter Fowler, 34 on Opening Day.

Next: The Next Surprising Cardinals Rookie: Two Candidates for 2020

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If they can stay healthy and be reasonably productive, fans should be pleased. If these players do what we all know they can do, the Cardinals should be just fine in 2020.

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