Is 2017 the year we finally see the Cardinals initiate a changing of the guard for Opening Day? Every year since 2012, it’s been Adam Wainwright, a familiar presence on the mound to kick off the season. The decision this year, however, may not be so clear-cut.

I’m not going to mess around and waste time pretending that someone like Mike Leake or Alex Reyes should be starting Opening Day (although it may not be too long until Reyes stakes his claim to that distinction). For Mike Matheny, the choice is clear, at least clear enough to narrow it down to two worthy candidates.

In one corner, standing an enormous 6′ 7″ at 229 pounds, you have Uncle Charlie and his impressive track record that includes four top-3 Cy Young Award finishes and a 3.17 lifetime ERA. In the other corner, at a more nimble 6′ 0″ 185 pounds, you have Carlos Martinez, affectionately known as Baby Pedro in some circles, who reached new heights last season in a career year.

Right away, the impending conflict is obvious. It’s a matter of old-school vs. new-school, experience vs. excitement, and consistency vs. potential. And in case it wasn’t clear, Wainwright’s the old-school while Martinez represents the new-school.

There’s something to be said about having your “guy,” your veteran clubhouse leader out on the mound to set the tone against the defending World Champion Cubs. If there’s one thing we can be sure of about Adam Wainwright, it’s that there’s no stage too big for him.

He’s seen it all, even closing out the 2006 World Series as a 23-year-old rookie. Sticking with Wainwright would have the added benefit of not “rocking the boat,” as his streak of five straight opening day starts would remain intact for another season.

On the flip side of things, Wainwright didn’t exactly turn in a 2016 performance that screams “Opening Day Starter.” He went 13-9 with a career-worst 4.62 ERA despite a full season of health.

Now, it’s easy to point at some bad luck and say he’s sure to bounce back to his old self this year, but it’s not as simple to ignore a drop in velocity or the inevitable decline that goes along with being a 35-year-old professional athlete.

Screen Shot 2017-02-12 at 12.22.09 AMOf course, that brings us to a guy the Cardinals recently signed to a long-term extension, Carlos Martinez. Martinez knows it too. Martinez knows the title is up for grabs, so sure of it that he recently told Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I respect (Wainwright), but I want (to start the first game).

And why shouldn’t he be? General Manager John Mozeliak just handed him an extension worthy of an Opening Day starter, one that guarantees $51 million over 5 years.

He might not be the longest-tenured member of the rotation, but his outstanding performance on the field unofficially warrants him the title of “ace,” which is usually a prerequisite to an Opening Day nod.

Martinez went 16-9 with a 3.04 ERA while carrying a banged up rotation throughout long portions of a tough summer. No matter which way you slice it, Martinez is the best pitcher on the team in 2017. Period. The truth is, when the Cards and the Cubs kick off the season, there’s a lot on the line.

It’s one thing to protect egos and avoid creating a disgruntled veteran when you have a mediocre ball club, but the Cardinals don’t anticipate mediocrity. When they meet up with Chicago, both teams are on equal footing. Sending your ace, Carlos Martinez, to the mound gives the Cardinals the best chance to come away with a victory.

Remember, that’s what’s most important: a victory on day one of the season. It’s easy to forget something so simple in an era where we’re constantly worrying about platoon splits, infield shifting, or adjusting the strike zone. There’s no question we’ll be getting Chicago’s best, be it Lester, Arrieta, or Hendricks, so we should be sure to give them ours, and that’s Carlos Martinez.

Photo by © Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports