Cards embark on Central defense as spring begins

Matheny aims to lead St. Louis to division title for third consecutive year

Cards embark on Central defense as spring begins

JUPITER, Fla. -- Even amid the disappointment of another October run stalled short of the end goal, Cardinals players and staff members were already speaking with anticipation of getting their next chance as they packed up for the winter ahead.

Now, almost four months later, the opportunity to script a season with a better ending is ready for its opening chapter.

Later this week, the Cardinals will open their fourth Spring Training under Mike Matheny, the first manager in franchise history and only the fifth anywhere to lead a team to the postseason in his first three years at the helm. Internal expectations are that he will do no less in 2015, a year that portends of a tight race in a National League Central Division that has not had one team take three consecutive division titles since the Cardinals did so from 2004-06.

"This is going to be as tough as the division has been since I've been around, [which is] pretty hard to imagine, because it's been really hard," third baseman Matt Carpenter said. "But the good news is, they're all sitting on the other side thinking the same thing about us."

The Cardinals will continue to be the hunted until knocked from the Central's perch, and that task of staying ahead led the club to address its offensive deficiencies this winter. It did so with the acquisition of outfielder Jason Heyward, the most prominent new face in the clubhouse this spring.

Heyward's fit in right field, along with continued maturation from young position players Kolten Wong and Matt Adams, leave the Cardinals convinced that this is a unit capable of producing better than the 3.8-runs-per-game average it had in 2014. Getting healthy seasons from the club's 30-somethings -- Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jhonny Peralta -- would complement the youthful production.

Outlook: Heyward, RF, STL

Spring Training will be used not so much to determine who will be in the lineup, but where each of the eight will fit.

"Hopefully, we come in this year with the approach of having a good offense and hitting the ball up the middle," Holliday said. "It would be crazy not to think that most of our guys will be back more to what they average in their career."

While Matheny works to craft the perfect lineup, he'll also be sorting out a few roster battles. He has a fifth starter to choose, with Carlos Martinez, Marco Gonzales and Jaime Garcia all ready to make their pitch. There are bullpen spots to fill out, as well as questions about health to be answered. Finding a utility infielder from a group of four candidates is also on the docket.

It's all necessary preparation for the Cardinals' defense of their division title and their quest to end this year later than the last.

"No matter what anyone in the Central is doing, we want to be an October team every year," Wong said. "You look at the [moves] that have been made by the other teams, and you can't help but understand this is going to be a really good season for everyone. We're excited for the challenge. We're excited to get out there."

Pitchers and catchers report:
February 19

Full squad reports:
February 24

First Spring Training game:
Away vs. Marlins, March 5 at 12:05 pm CT

Opening Day:
Away vs. Cubs, April 5 at 7:05 pm CT

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.