ST. LOUIS — The 2022 calendar year has certainly set the bar high for St. Louis sports in 2023.
It will be challenging to top a year-long cycle that produced many milestones and memories, including a grand sendoff for Cardinals legend Albert Pujols, a Blues win in the coldest outdoor hockey game ever and an NBA Finals run from St. Louis native Jayson Tatum.
That said, there’s lots to look forward to in 2023. As Gateway City sports fans ring in the new year, here’s a brief look at five things worth following for the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Blues and beyond in St. Louis sports.
1. Adam Wainwright’s sendoff year
Rather than retiring with longtime teammates Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright opted for one more season before he hangs up the cleats. Wainwright is only five victories away from 200, but needs 16 in his final year for sole possession of second place all-time in Cardinals history.
Uncle Charlie has withstood the test of time relatively well (190 innings pitched on average in last three non COVID seasons), and lining him up for home matchups (2.84 career ERA at Busch III) could help the Cardinals get as much out of him as possible as his career wraps up in 2023.
For the first time in nearly two-decades, Yadier Molina will not be the primary catcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. The torch has been passed to longtime Cubs backstop, three-time All-Star and 2016 World Series champion Willson Contreras.
Willson’s workload should be pretty steady (five 800-plus-inning seasons), and he’ll be tasked with adapting to the Cardinals’ pitching staff. Spring training will be a crucial time to learn the sundry strengths of his staff, such as Adam Wainwright’s signature curve and Ryan Helsley’s heat. Familiarity of the NL Central should help as Contreras finds a rhythm to guide St. Louis pitchers. He’ll be eager for a competitive edge after his brother William joined the division-rival Milwaukee Brewers this offseason.
3. Another round of Goldy-Nado
Enter year three with two MVP-caliber Cardinals. Corner infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado finished as the Top 2 WAR leaders of 2022 among National League position players and Goldschmidt enjoyed the first MVP honor of his career with a .317/.404/.578 slash line.
The Goldy-Nado duo is expected to post big numbers again, but there is room for improvement, at least in what their production means from a team standpoint. Both had slightly lower batting averages with runners in scoring position than their overall marks and hit just .232 collectively from September on. Improving upon such splits could help the Cardinals avoid prolonged team slumps on offense at key times, like last season’s tough midsummer stretch and in the NL Wild Card Series.
4. Every opponent on schedule
For the first time in franchise history, the Cardinals are scheduled to play all 29 MLB opponents and all 15 interleague opponents in a season. The 2023 season even begins with an interleague home matchup against the Toronto Blue Jays. The change means fewer division games, including matchups against key foes like the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers, but installs more competitive balance within the league.
Division matchups will still be important, and winning the NL Central is still likely the Cardinals’ easiest path to the postseason, but there’s a larger emphasis on games with several talented American League rosters set to face St. Louis. The Cardinals will need to adjust fast after posting a 45-41 record against non-NL Central foes and a .500 finish in interleague play in 2022.
5. Jordan Walker’s likely arrival
Ranked the sixth-best prospect in baseball per MLB pipeline, Jordan Walker just wrapped up an impressive 2022 campaign for the Double-A Springfield Cardinals. The 2020 first-round pick enjoyed a .306 batting average, 68 RBI, 100 runs scored and a near 20/20 campaign, showing promise of an everyday regular from an offensive standpoint.
The Cardinals should highly consider Walker’s promotion in 2023 to try and maximize his contributions with several regulars near their prime years. When his debut comes, the Cardinals will have to get creative with where Walker takes the field. Walker, developed as a third baseman, likely will be limited at the hot corner as long as Nolan Arenado is healthy. Some possible spots he could emerge is left field (by positioning Tyler O’Neill or Dylan Carlson at center) or designated hitter. The spring will be a big test to see where he can play and if he can sustain offensive consistency throughout the ride.
1. Growth of two young building blocks
St. Louis used the 2022 offseason to secure forwards Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou for the long-haul with matching contract extensions. Their deals now represent the two richest contracts in team history and shows commitment to a youth movement (both under 24 years old).
Early returns suggest the contracts could be worthwhile with Thomas nearly producing at a point-per-game clip (32 points in 35 games) and Kyrou heating up in December (15 points in 11 games). Both will be tasked with taking on larger ice time in 2023 (near 19 minutes each this season), reducing turnovers (47 giveaways combined in 2022-23) and winning more puck battles regardless if split up or together on a line.
2. Development of first-round picks
If the Blues are truly committing to a youth movement, they’ll need to closely monitor their top prospects. Of their last three first-round picks (Jake Neighbours -2020, Zac Bolduc – 2021, Jimmy Snuggerud -2022), only Neighbours has seen NHL action so far.
Neighbours is looking to find a groove after starting the 2022-23 NHL campaign with just one goal in 13 games. Bolduc had found a spark with the Quebec Remparts of the QMJHL with 54 points in 28 games. Snuggerud is embarking on his first college season with the University of Minnesota with 27 points in 20 games. Neighbours could return this campaign with a little more scoring and physicality, but Bolduc and Snuggerud are better bets for NHL debuts for the new season next fall.
3. Revamping special teams
In recent playoff runs, the Blues have surprised opponents with effective power play and penalty kill units. St. Louis found themselves in the Top 5 of both special teams rates last season, though the tale is a bit different entering 2023. The Blues are in the middle of the pack in power play percentage (22.77%) and in the bottom five of penalty killing (70.93%).
Assistant coaches Steve Ott and Mike Van Ryn could draw up some new strategies with the new year, especially with powerplay quarterback Torey Krug expected to miss several weeks to start 2023. Perhaps the Blues could consider some unconventional options at both units, like Noel Acciari for a scoring touch on the powerplay or Alexey Toropchenko’s size on the penalty kill.
4. Contract years and trade deadline approach
One harsh reality the Blues might have to deal with in 2023 is that even more key pieces from the 2019 Stanley Cup championship team could depart. Ryan O’Reilly, Vladimir Tarasenko and Ivan Barbashev are all unrestricted free agents at the season’s end if the Blues don’t agree with them on new contracts.
Entering the new year just outside the playoff picture, the next handful of weeks might determine the fate of all three. Falling victim to another long losing skid (like earlier this season) might prompt St. Louis to explore trades and continue on with a Thomas- and Kyrou-led youth movement. Blues beat writers have reported opponent scout sightings in recent home games, though it’s unclear who might be on the move and how soon. The 2022-23 season trade deadline is set for March 3.
5. Contender or pretender?
The Blues, who have overcome some large standings deficits in recent years, sit four points out of a playoff spot entering the new year. General manager Doug Armstrong was adamant at the beginning of the year he does not want to “rebuild” the squad and believes the team is capable of an 11th playoff run in 12 years.
One encouraging trend that might benefit the Blues, they have more games remaining against teams outside the playoff picture than not, 24 to 21, including a significant strength of schedule edge in the last full month of regular season in March. One trend that needs quick fixing for a playoff run, better luck at home. Take out a four-game home winning streak, the Blues are just 3-7-2 at Enterprise Center this year. St. Louis has a heavy home advantage in January and February, and whether that pushes the Blues back into the playoffs or not will be telling of the current campaign.
Beyond the Cardinals and Blues
The 2023 year could be monumental for others sports teams and figures in the St. Louis area…
1. St. Louis CITY SC will debut on Feb. 25 and host its first game on March 4, adding to a strong St. Louis soccer footprint grown by strong SLU’s men’s and women’s soccer seasons of recent.
2. The Battlehawks return in the XFL’s 2023 revamp, led by former Rams tight end Anthony Becht as coach and former Heisman runner-up A.J. McCarron at quarterback.
3. St. Louis native and Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum continues his push for an MVP as the fifth-leading NBA scorer (31 points per game).
4. Mizzou (12-1), Illinois (9-4) and SLU (9-5) create some large competition as for which college basketball team with ties to the STL region thrives most come March.
5. Lindenwood embarks on its first full year of Division I athletics, already leading to some success in college football (7-3) and big-time matchups in hockey.