ST. LOUIS -- The process of evaluating ways to improve for the following season began a bit earlier than usual for the Cardinals this fall. Instead of spending October prepping for playoff opponents, the 86-win Cardinals passed the time beginning their work for 2017.
General manager John Mozeliak didn't see a need for a dramatic shakeup, but a shift in priorities was immediately evident. He wanted this club to be anchored by its pitching and defense, and he sought to inject athleticism onto the roster. More than a quarter of the 40-man roster has already turned over.
Whether the roster changes and additions of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil will be enough to close the 17 1/2-game gap in the National League Central is unknown. But the Cardinals' pursuit to return to the postseason stage will, in large part, be dictated by the answers to these five pressing questions:
1. Will the defense be markedly improved?
The Cardinals ranked 13th in the Majors with +4 Defensive Runs Saved and 24th with a Defensive Efficiency Ratio of .696 in 2016. The porous defense led to all sorts of complications for a rotation that was largely built to be a pitch-to-contact group. Consider that the rotation's 4.33 ERA ranked 13th in the Majors, but the unit moved up to sixth in Fielding Independent Pitching, with a mark of 3.92 per FanGraphs.
The club worked to address those defensive holes this winter. By bringing in Fowler, the Cardinals have fortified their outfield. The organization also believes that playing Kolten Wong regularly at second will offer above-average coverage, and that Aledmys Diaz will be better with a year of experience under his belt.
2. What will Alex Reyes do in his rookie season?
Reyes, the organization's top prospect, burst onto the Major League scene last August and had immediate success. He ended September as a member of the rotation and will come into Spring Training with an opportunity to keep that starting job. But the Cardinals will have workload issues to work through with Reyes, who logged 111 1/3 innings between MLB and Triple-A Memphis in 2016. Expecting him to push toward the 200-inning benchmark is unrealistic.
How the Cardinals curtail that work has not yet been defined. It may require Reyes spending some time in the bullpen or taking a midseason break. But whatever the plan, the Cardinals hope Reyes can rejuvenate a rotation with his impressive fastball-changeup-curveball mix.
3. Are Wong and Randal Grichuk ready to seize everyday roles?
A year after planning to include Wong and Grichuk as fixtures in the everyday lineup, the Cardinals are asserting those intentions again. But will manager Mike Matheny follow through this time? Both Grichuk and Wong struggled to find traction during the first half of last season, and both were eventually sent down to the Minors to find their swing and their confidence. Grichuk found some success late in the season when Matheny committed to playing him regularly. Wong never did.
The Cardinals insist they're ready to stick with both players now. And if the two can take steps toward being more consistent, they could help in the Cardinals' efforts to field a more defensively-sound and athletic team.
4. Can the Cardinals compensate for a projected dip in power output?
The Cardinals' offensive identity has been ever-evolving in recent years. The team enjoyed historic success with runners in scoring position in 2013, turned labor-intensive from 2014-15 and then saw a power surge in 2016. But after leading the National League in home runs last season, the Cardinals aren't built to reproduce that yield next year.
Fowler will take over as the new leadoff hitter, and that will push Matt Carpenter into more of a run-production spot. With Diaz and Stephen Piscotty also likely to slot in around them, the Cardinals should have an OBP-heavy top half of the lineup. What isn't so obvious is whether the Cardinals will have much power production behind them now that Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss are gone.
5. Are bounce-back seasons in store for Adam Wainwright and Trevor Rosenthal?
Wainwright labored in his first full season back from an Achilles injury and rarely looked like the ace he has long been for the Cardinals. He finished with the highest ERA (4.62) of his career and never felt in sync for any extended period of time. Perhaps another offseason to strengthen his legs will put Wainwright in position for increased success. While he may no longer profile as the team's ace, he can still be a key piece in the rotation.
Rosenthal lost his job as closer and dealt with arm issues during a tumultuous 2016. Now, he'll enter a season with an undefined role. The Cardinals will give Rosenthal the opportunity to stretch out in Spring Training to allow for some flexibility in how he fits. It's still likely that he'll end up in the Cardinals' bullpen, where he could reemerge as a late-inning weapon or provide versatility as a reliever who can pitch multiple innings.
Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.