ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals enter 2015 hopeful of a deeper postseason run than the one that stalled in the National League Championship Series last October. General manager John Mozeliak did most of his offseason heavy lifting early, changing direction swiftly after the death of Oscar Taveras to swing a deal for right fielder Jason Heyward and reliever Jordan Walden. The signing of Matt Belisle further solidified the bullpen.
With most of the winter work done and the countdown to Spring Training begun, here are 10 questions to consider as the Cardinals set their sights on a deeper postseason run in 2015:
10. Will Lance Lynn (or someone else) become the Cardinals' next long-term commitment?
This is actually a question we'll likely know the answer to before Spring Training. But it's certainly a worthy topic of discussion. In recent years, the Cardinals have been proactive in offering extensions to players they see as cornerstones within the organization. Sometimes those go to players nearing free agency (Yadier Molina, 2012; Adam Wainwright, '13); other times, the overtures have been designed to lock up young talent (Allen Craig, '13; Matt Carpenter, '14) before the arbitration process kicks in. Lynn, as a first-year arbitration-eligible player, likely will see his salary increase significantly through that process. If the Cardinals see Lynn as a long-term piece and want to gain some cost certainty in future years, they could see if an agreement could be reached for a multi-year deal.
9. How formidable will the middle of the infield be?
Jhonny Peralta proved to be a terrific fit at shortstop last season, setting a franchise record for single-season homers by a shortstop and posting one of the strongest defensive years by anyone at the position. It was even more than the Cardinals had hoped for when they signed Peralta to a four-year deal before the season. Now, they're eager to see if it can be repeated. His middle-infield partner, Kolten Wong, did not have the same sort of standout regular season, but his spark in October left many believing he may be on the cusp of cementing himself as a capable everyday second baseman. The Cardinals will give him another chance to show he can provide that sort of production and presence over a six-month period.
8. How many starts will the Cardinals get out of Molina?
After starting at least 128 games in five straight seasons, Molina saw that streak snapped by a thumb injury in 2014. He started 106 games behind the plate and then had to watch the end of the postseason on the bench while dealing with an oblique injury. While neither of those season ailments projects to be of long-term concern, they still underscore the fragility of the position and serve as a reminder that Molina, who will be 33 next summer, might see his durability continue to wane. The Cardinals expect to be more proactive in finding days off for Molina in '15, meaning that 120 starts may be a more realistic goal going forward.
7. Will Matt Adams show improvement against left-handed pitching?
The Cardinals offered Adams his first everyday playing opportunity in 2014 and were mostly pleased by how it went. Adams was among the league leaders in batting average until he tired over the final two months of the season. While the Cardinals expect Adams to be more conditioned for the grind in year two, they are particularly interested in seeing if there is improvement made against left-handed pitching. That will be key for Adams to prove himself as an everyday player; if it doesn't come, the Cardinals have Mark Reynolds ready as a platoon partner.
6. How will Heyward fare in new surroundings?
The Cardinals have already talked about the possibility of trying to retain Heyward beyond 2015, but first, the organization has to see the production he can provide this season. There is no question that the Cardinals upgraded with the acquisition -- but to what degree? Heyward hit 27 homers in '12 but didn't combine to hit that many in '13-14. The Cardinals hope there is an uptick next season, particularly if the club opts to move Heyward out of the leadoff spot. They would also like to see Heyward have more success against left-handed pitching. How Heyward fares away from his hometown for the first time will affect not only his value going into free agency but also the potency of the Cardinals' offense.
Rosenthal saved 45 games in 2014, a total topped in the NL only by Atlanta's Craig Kimbrel. Most of his outings, however, were laced with intrigue. Set to be the full-time closer for a second straight season, Rosenthal will be eyeing more dominance and less dramatics. Reducing his walk rate (5.4 per nine innings in 2014) will be key. He'll also have to improve his first-batter efficiency, as 39 percent of the first hitters Rosenthal faced in 2014 reached against him.
4. Can Wainwright and Michael Wacha stay healthy to lead the rotation?
The Cardinals' starting pitching depth took a hit when the club traded away Shelby Miller in November. That makes it even more imperative that the fixtures in that rotation remain on the mound. Wainwright dealt with nagging elbow discomfort throughout much of 2014 and had it addressed with surgery a week after the season ended. Wacha missed much of the season due to a shoulder stress reaction, a rare baseball injury, but one that could resurface. The Cardinals intend to be more deliberate in watching Wainwright's workload, and Wacha has already adjusted his workout regimen in order to reduce the stress placed on that shoulder.
3. Will the offense show more power?
The Cardinals ranked 29th in the Majors with 105 home runs last season, the fewest home runs the club has hit in any season since 1992. That home run total has dropped each year since 2001, when the Cardinals blasted 162. Peralta and Matt Holliday were the club's only players to reach the 20-homer mark. Next year's team projects potential for a power surge. Adams profiles as the slugger the Cardinals seek, though his ability to hit lefties will dictate whether he remains an everyday player. Heyward, Carpenter, Molina and Wong all have the capability to have double-digit homer totals.
2. Who will open the season as the team's fifth starter?
Miller's departure opens the door for Carlos Martinez to get his first extended look as a member of the Cardinals' rotation. Currently, he remains the favorite to win the fifth-starter job, though not a certainty. The Cardinals may still add to their starting depth before Spring Training, picking through the passed-over free-agent pitchers for a late bargain. Internally, Marco Gonzales stands as the strongest competition to Martinez's pursuit of that spot. Gonzales, less than two years removed from pitching at Gonzaga University, had a breakout finish to 2014 as a member of the bullpen. The Cardinals still project him long term to be a piece in the rotation.
1. Can the Cardinals three-peat as division champions?
Since realignment bumped the Cardinals into the NL Central, only once have they won three consecutive division titles. The club has the chance to achieve that three-peat with another year of division supremacy in 2015. It took until the final series of the '13 and '14 seasons for the Cardinals to hold off the Pirates, and the path seems only to be getting harder. The Pirates have had an active offseason and the Cubs are positioning themselves to contend for the first time in years. The NL Central still runs through St. Louis, though the Cardinals are going to need offensive improvement to remain formidable.