Bernie: The St. Louis Pro Sports Scene Is The Home of Three Rising Stars

In a sequel to their Stanley Cup season, the Blues lead the Western Conference and have won seven consecutive games.

The Cardinals are busy in spring training, working on improving their offense with the hope, at minimum, of repeating as NL Central champs in 2020.

The first-year Battlehawks already have established a vibrant, charismatic presence on the St. Louis sports scene, and they play good football, leading the XFL East with a 3-1 record.

In addition to the overall team success, here’s something I really like about the Blues, Cardinals and Battlehawks: the three STL pro franchises have something in common — an ascending young star.

The Blues have Robert Thomas.

The Cardinals have outfielder Dylan Carlson.

And the Battlehawks have quarterback Jordan Ta’amu.

Let’s take a look:

ROBERT THOMAS

Thomas is still only 20 and won’t turn 21 until July 2. Thomas was fine as a 19-year-old rookie last season and earned the trust of coach Craig Berube, who gave the teenager plenty of minutes during the Blues’ postseason run until a wrist injury slowed him down. Thomas made a terrific, determined play to set up Pat Maroon’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 7 of the second-round triumph over Dallas.

This season the NHL sophomore has developed into one of the Blues’ best players. Thomas already has exceeded his rookie-season total for goals, assists and points. Last season he scored 9 and assisted on 24 for 33 points. With 18 games to go on the Blues’ regular-season schedule Thomas has 10 goals and 30 assists for 40 points and is a plus 10.

This season Thomas is tied for 3rd in points among NHL forwards age 20 or younger.

Berube’s decision to move Thomas back to center, his natural position, has given the Blues another artful playmaker and creator to count on.

During the Blues’ seven-game winning spree, Thomas has clicked with linemates Zach Sanford and David Perron. When that trio is on the ice at even-strength play, the Blues have controlled 65 percent of the shots and 64% of the scoring chances.

And even-strength situations bring out Thomas’s premium form. That’s backed up by the numbers, which I harvested from Natural Stat Trick.

Check out these rate stats, which account for a player’s average per 60 minutes of game action:

And the rankings consist of 164 NHL forwards that have played at least 750 minutes at even strength this season:

Thomas ranks 15th with 2.58 points per 60 minutes at even strength.
Thomas ranks fourth among NHL forwards with 1.88 assists per 60 at even strength.
In making the 1st assist on a teammate’s goal, Thomas is tied for second among NHL forwards with 1.33 assists per 60.

By the way, that 2.58/60 points rate at even strength puts Thomas ahead of luminaries such as Alexander Ovechkin, Auston Matthews and Patrick Kane — to mention only a few. With Thomas on the ice at even strength this season, the Blues have scored 52 percent of the goals.

We can see it already: Robert Thomas will be a very special NHL talent for many seasons to come.

DYLAN CARLSON

A consensus top 20 prospect in the major leagues, Carlson has done nothing to decelerate his fast-track status and early arrival in St. Louis.

Last season at age 20, Carlson thumped pitchers at two levels while playing for the Cards’ affiliates in Springfield (Class AA) and Memphis (AAA.) His combined statistics for both teams were highlighted by a .292 average, .372 onbase percentage, and a .542 slugging percentage with 28 doubles, six triples, 20 homers and 20 steals. In 79 plate appearances for Memphis, Carlson went off for a 1.098 OPS. He smoked five homers and 11 extra-base hits overall in just 72 at-bats.

In his fast rise through the minors Carlson has always competed as one of the five youngest players in each league that he competed in. He has an advanced feel for the strike zone. He works counts and draws walks. He fields well at all three outfield positions. And he’s a smart base runner who can steal bags if the opportunity surfaced.

Through Sunday’s exhibition games, the switch-hitting Carlson was making the most of his spring showcase. In his first 18 plate appearances for the Cardinals, the rookie in waiting was batting .500 with a .611 onbase percentage and .786 slug. That adds up to a 1.397 OPS.

Small sample, sure. But Carlson’s talent is obvious, as is his refined plate discipline. At one point Carlson reached base in eight consecutive plate appearances, and has a walk rate of 22 percent. Early on, he’s been one of the top players on display in Florida or Arizona.

Will the Cardinals put him on the roster, and in the starting lineup, for their season opener at Cincinnati on March 26? It’s too soon to make that call. The Cardinals have 21 games remaining on their Grapefruit League schedule (plus a couple of exhibitions) and Carlson obviously will get a closer look … not that he isn’t being scrutinized by the manager, coaches and front office at every turn.

It depends on other contenders for playing time in the outfield. It also depends on management’s priority: go with this prospect right away in recognition of his all-around ability that makes him the most talented outfielder in their camp. Or park him at Memphis for a few weeks to keep his MLB service time under 172 days this season. By limiting Carlson to 171 MLB days or fewer in 2020, the Cardinals can delay his first chance at free agency by a year.

At MLB.com, columnist Richard Justice placed Carlson and the St. Louis outfield at No. 2 on his MLB list of the most compelling competitions in all of spring training.

“Some teams are reluctant to mention their top prospects,”Justice wrote. “Maybe they don’t want to pressure the kid. Maybe they don’t want to increase expectations. Not the Cardinals. They came to spring training hoping top prospect Dylan Carlson would play his way onto the roster, or at least force them into a difficult decision. He’s just 21 years old and has played all of 18 games at Triple-A, but the Cards have seen enough to believe he can contribute in 2020. First, though, he has to play well enough this spring to beat out Lane Thomas, Tyler O’Neill, Justin Williams and others. Go get ‘em, kid.”

JORDAN TA’AMU

Among XFL quarterbacks, Houston’s P.J. Walker has thrown for the most touchdown passes and drawn the most attention over the first four weeks of the season. And Walker is impressive.

But based on preseason expectations, Ta’amu might be the XFL’s biggest surprise at the QB position. First of all, he’s only 22. And Ta’amu came into the new league with no prior pro football experience. Ta’amu was an admirably productive player in one-plus seasons as the starter for a losing Ole Miss squad — definitely underrated — but was overshadowed by other SEC stars.

When the XFL assigned quarterbacks to the league’s eight teams, pundits understandably dwelled on more prominent names including NFL veterans Landry Jones and Josh Johnson, and former Ohio State star Cardale Jones.

Well, Ta’amu is making a name for himself.

Here’s Cody Benjamin, writing on CBS Sports:

“Funny how this XFL thing has worked: The big-name veteran QBs who were supposed to keep the league afloat during Year One (e.g. Jones, Josh Johnson) are either hurt or losers thus far, whereas it’s the young, inexperienced, oft-unorthodox young guns who are doing most of the best work under center — Walker, with Patrick Mahomes-like wrist work in Houston; and Ta’amu, with a truly mobile approach in St. Louis. Ta’amu had literally never started a professional football game before debuting with the BattleHawks this year, but boy should they be grateful they turned to him. The guy doesn’t just complete more passes than anyone; he also runs as much as the XFL’s leading ball-carriers, he rarely turns it over, and he’s unafraid to take deep shots. A total package.”

Ta’amu has completed 75 percent of his passes and averages 8 yards per attempt. He makes tight timing throws into difficult windows, and demonstrates a refined touch in feathering passes into the hole between the linebackers and defensive backs.

You can just see the Ta’amu levels of confidence and poise grow each week. Not only does Ta’amu lead the XFL in total passing yards, but he’s fifth overall in rushing yards — and is the leading rusher among quarterbacks.

I don’t know if we can say “a star is born,” but Ta’amu certainly will gain more notice from NFL scouts who are closely watching the XFL for prospects. There are so many wretched backup quarterbacks in the NFL, I’d find it hard to believe that Ta’amu can’t win a No. 2 job with an NFL team for the 2020 season. We’ll see.

Carlson’s bright future will play out in St. Louis.

Thomas will prosper during his peak years — which should last a long time — here in St. Louis.

Ta’amu should have a chance at a future in the NFL, and if that dream happens for him, I’m happy that he could launch a promising pro career in St. Louis.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie