JUPITER, Fla. -- Following their historic success hitting with runners in scoring position, the Cardinals opened the 2014 season with few believing they could do it again. And, as it turned out, they couldn't. The club posted a much more pedestrian .254 batting average a year after hitting .330 in such spots.
The murmur has been much the same heading into the 2016 season, this time regarding the rotation. But contrary to the dip the Cardinals experienced on offense two years ago, there is reason to believe the rotation can repeat its remarkable 2015 run -- or, perhaps, be even better.
With a 2.99 ERA from their starters last season, the Cardinals became the third team since 1988 -- joining the 2011 Phillies (2.86) and 1992 Braves (2.95) -- to boast a rotation ERA below 3.
Since the Braves' incredible run of 11 straight years leading the Majors in rotation ERA came to an end in 2002, no club has topped that leaderboard in consecutive seasons. Could the Cardinals, who also led the Majors with 72 wins and 106 quality starts last year, change that?
"It was a very good year last year, and you don't have those kinds of years all the time," ace Adam Wainwright acknowledged. "I'm optimistic, so I always feel like we can do it again. I think we can go out there and do some great things, too."
The Cardinals have built a top-of-the-line rotation despite losing two-fifths of it over the offseason. John Lackey left for Chicago, and Lance Lynn landed on the disabled list after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Together, the two accounted for 40 percent of the rotation's innings last season.
But replacing the pair of right-handers will be Wainwright, back from an Achilles injury, and Mike Leake, who signed a five-year contract in December. Surrounding them will be two young pitchers (Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha) who no longer have to be cautious about workload, and a lefty (Jaime Garcia), who had 15 quality starts in 20 outings last year.
The career ERAs from Wainwright (2.98) and Leake (3.88) stack up favorably against those lost with Lynn (3.37) and Lackey (3.92) out.
"I think there is some upside in our rotation," general manager John Mozeliak said. "But to have the type of results we had last year, you're going to have to see all those guys replicate the type of year they had. But when you think about young players in terms of Wacha and Carlos Martinez, you do feel some level of confidence that they are able to do that."
With upside evident and expectation high, the success of the rotation will likely hinge upon health and individual improvement.
"We're asking guys to do something they have the capacity to do and then try to figure out how to be better," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's really how we should look at our pitching -- not necessarily [that] there's one particular statistic that tells the whole story. If each individual guy gets better, we will."