2019 St. Louis Cardinals Season Preview: Health is the biggest question

Editor’s note: Baseball is back and Yahoo Sports is previewing all 30 teams over the next month. This year’s previews will focus on fantasy and reality, as our MLB news staff and our fantasy baseball crew come together to assess each team before opening day. Next up, the St. Louis Cardinals.

We talk about the Chicago Cubs, we talk about the Milwaukee Brewers — heck, we even talk about the Cincinnati Reds and their interesting offseason. But the St. Louis Cardinals might be the team in the NL Central that can zoom past everyone if things go their way this year.

The Cards didn’t sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. They didn’t strike a nine-figure deal for a star. They made what could oddly seem like an under-the-radar move at this point, the way the offseason became obsessed with Machado and Harper. St. Louis traded for Paul Goldschmidt and that, more than anything, could wind up being the move that pushed a non-playoff team last year into the postseason this year.

Granted, they need a lot of things to go right, but if Harrison Bader continues to climb, Matt Carpenter keeps going with the good-luck salsa vibes, Marcell Ozuna gets healthy, Dexter Fowler bounces back and the pitching staff comes together, the Cardinals are dangerous.

The pitching is an interesting part of this. Miles Mikolas was superb last year and 23-year-old Jack Flaherty showed plenty of promise. Still, a lot rides on them keeping that up in 2019, plus Adam Wainwright having something left in the tank and Michael Wacha making positive contributions. There are question marks in Alex Reyes and Carlos Martinez, again related to health.

St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas throws during the first inning of an exhibition spring training baseball game against the Miami Marlins Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Miles Mikolas will be expected to continue his resurgence if the Cardinals are to compete in 2019. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

All those things work out, though, and the Cardinals are a legit contender.

On the fantasy end of things, there’s just as much to like. Whether we’re talking about the earlier-round picks like Goldschmidt, Carpenter and Ozuna, or some of the most eyebrow-raising youngsters like Flaherty, Bader, and closer Jordan Hicks.

Keep an eye on these Cardinals.

Cardinals’ offseason grade

The Cardinals did well. It wasn’t a huge overhaul, but rather a continued reshaping of the roster to address some issues. Getting Goldschmidt was huge, especially if they can extend him. They also signed Andrew Miller, who will be an effective weapon if he’s couple-years-ago Andrew Miller. Matt Wieters came aboard as a back-up catcher.

Mostly, though, the Cardinals just need good health and their young players to take another step forward.

Our grade: A- — A quality offseason, if not Phillies-esque in its flashiness. But, hey, these are the Cardinals. They’re not flashy. - Mike Oz

Cardinals’ projected lineup and pitching staff

The projected 2019 St. Louis Cardinals lineup (Yahoo Sports)
The projected 2019 St. Louis Cardinals lineup (Yahoo Sports)

Who will be St. Louis’ fantasy breakout?

This team’s projected everyday players should already be well known to fantasy owners. They’ve all broken out, at least to some extent. Harrison Bader has a shot at a special fantasy season after going 12/15 in homers and steals last year over just 379 at-bats. Bader’s glove should keep him on the field even if he slumps, and he has a 20-homer season to his credit in the minors. Don’t be surprised if he makes a run at a 20/20 campaign. Also, if Tyler O’Neill finds a path to regular playing time this year, he’s capable of providing significant help in the power categories. - Andy Behrens

What is St. Louis’ biggest fantasy question?

For fantasy purposes, the big unknown for the Cardinals right now is the team’s ninth inning plan. Flame-throwing Jordan Hicks has the look of a lockdown closer, but we expect St. Louis to maximize R/L matchups in the late innings, using Andrew Miller (and others) in key spots. Carlos Martinez has to be considered a potential wild card in this closing situation as well, as he’s working his way back from shoulder issues. Last year, Hicks saved six games for the Cards and Martinez saved five. - Andy Behrens

Cardinals’ prospects to watch

Remember Alex Reyes? You know, the prospect who was supposed to dominate for the Cardinals in 2017? Well, thanks to Tommy John surgery, he’s still a rookie in 2019. Reyes should play a big role for the Cardinals, but it’s unclear how many innings they’ll let him pitch after he spent much of 2018 recovering from the surgery.

[Batter up: Join or create a 2019 Yahoo Fantasy Baseball league for free today]

Outfielder Tyler O’Neill got to show off his immense power and his propensity for strikeouts last season. If he gets a shot at extended playing time, expect a low average, but a fair amount of home runs. Pitcher Dakota Hudson should also see some time with the team. He carved out a role as a reliever late last season, but has primarily been used as a starter in the minors. - Chris Cwik

Things that MUST go right for St. Louis

1. Better health: The Cardinals were hit harder than most by injuries last season. Dexter Fowler (foot), Marcell Ozuna (shoulder), Yadier Molina (groin, hamstring), Carlos Martinez (shoulder, lat), Michael Wacha (oblique), Dominic Leone (nerve), Adam Wainwright (elbow) and Luke Gregerson (arm) were all limited to some degree. The Cardinals will need that group to come back strong this season. They're counting on a bounce-back season from Fowler in particular, who's yet to hit his stride in St. Louis. If they keep their core on the field, it will go a long ways toward a successful season.

2. Alex Reyes' comeback: We didn't lump Reyes in with that group because his situation could have short-term and long-term impact. The former top prospect has been limited to four innings in the majors the past two seasons due to shoulder and elbow surgeries. The Cardinals main goal is to get him back to full strength, no matter how long it takes. If there are no setbacks, he could be a major contributor in several potential roles this season. But the most important thing is: No setbacks.

3. Improved bullpen: The Cardinals bullpen went from a top-seven unit in 2017 to the NL Central's worst last season. The talent is there for a big turnaround. The addition of All-Star Andrew Miller, who will join young flamethrower Jordan Hicks and the impressive John Brebbia, gives the Cardinals a strong bullpen trio. They have other experienced options too, such as Luke Gregerson, Brett Cecil, Dominic Leone and Chasen Shreve. Not all of them will hit, but the Cardinals will need them to produce or they’ll need a couple more additions to solidify a unit that held them back in 2018. - Mark Townsend

If this team had a walk-up song, what would it be?

Not falling ourselves to be too creative here, so let’s go with “A Bay Bay” by Hurricane Chris, the 2004 hit that might as well be Harrison Bader’s theme song. His Twitter handle is @AyBayBayder. There is no other choice. - Mike Oz

More 2019 MLB Previews From Yahoo Sports

Baltimore | Miami | Kansas City | Detroit | Texas | Toronto | San Diego

Chicago (AL) | Minnesota | San Francisco | Pittsburgh | Arizona | Seattle

Cincinnati | Los Angeles (AL) | Oakland | Tampa Bay | Colorado | Cleveland

New York (NL) | St. Louis | Atlanta | Philadelphia | Milwaukee | Chicago

Washington | Los Angeles (NL) | Houston | New York (AL) | Boston