ST. LOUIS -- Despite the work the Cardinals have done to change their offensive and defensive identity for 2017, the club, aside from dealing away Jaime Garcia, has refrained from tinkering with the starting-pitching staff.
On the surface that may be surprising, given that the rotation underperformed in 2017. Yet, the chance for bounce-back and breakthrough seasons from several starters has the organization confident it has the right pieces. The big unknown is whether potential will translate into production.
If all comes together as the organization hopes, the Cardinals may see shades of 2015, when their rotation finished with a 2.99 ERA.
Wainwright asserted as much on Monday: "I think the potential for us to be great is astronomical."
Wainwright, 35, has heard the skeptics who believe his career decline has started. It's a claim he's not buying. He's two years removed from an Achilles injury and has regained the strength that was lacking last season. A weakened lower body led to fits with his mechanics, and it left Wainwright shouldering a career-worst 4.62 ERA and 1.40 WHIP at season's end.
"To know [that] if I win two more games, we go to the postseason, that's hard for me to swallow knowing that I pitched the way I pitched," Wainwright said. "Traditionally, I'm so much better than that. I'm going to be so much better than that."
He and the rest of the Cardinals' staff will benefit from an improved defense, which the club believes it has. Last year's rotation featured three pitchers (Garcia, Martinez and Leake) with a ground-ball percentage ranking in the National League's top five. Wacha ranked 18th.
The defensive lapses not only put more stress on the starting staff, but it also led some to change their approach. Leake, long a ground-ball pitcher, was one of those. He finished with the second-highest ratio of strikeouts per nine innings in his career.
"I was definitely cognizant at times of trying to get guys out when they had two strikes on them," he said on Monday.
While Leake and Wainwright seek improvement, Lynn hopes to pick up where he left off before undergoing Tommy John surgery in November 2015. The timing of the procedure provided Lynn with extra time to recover and allowed him to engage in a normal offseason throwing program.
Lynn, 29, will be escaping the St. Louis winter next week and will arrive in Florida ready to throw off the mound. Though there's always the unknown when a pitcher returns from surgery, Lynn offers the potential for immediate impact. In the two seasons prior to injury, Lynn posted a 2.84 ERA, averaged six innings a start and struck out 348 over 379 innings.
"You look at my numbers from '14 and '15, I'll take either one of those," he said. "I'm not exactly worried about numbers and all that, I'm going to go out there and help the team win. Everything else will take care of itself."
Health is an even greater question mark with Wacha, who missed parts of '14 and '16 with a stress reaction in his right shoulder. He's spent his offseason strengthening the area around the shoulder under the supervision of the same athletic trainer who helped Brandon McCarthy work his way back from the same injury.
A spot in the rotation isn't a given, but Wacha, 25, is optimistic about his chances of not only staying healthy, but also of being able to handle a starter's workload.
"I can tell a huge difference with the strength in my arm and the mobility and the flexibility that I've been getting," said Wacha, who went 7-7 with a 4.62 ERA in 24 starts last year. "I've been looking forward to the start of the season all offseason. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about it. I'm very confident with the way the arm has been feeling and the way my body has been feeling."
Then there are Martinez and Reyes, two young pitchers often touted as among the game's most talented. Martinez spoke this weekend about wanting to win a Cy Young Award in 2017, a goal that catcher Yadier Molina believes is by no means far-fetched, saying on Monday that Martinez "can do whatever he wants to do in this game. He's got electric stuff."
"We probably have the deepest rotation you can have," Leake said. "We have six possibilities out there. Maybe seven. And they are all top one or two arms. For the next few years, we could be a potential top of the league in terms of rotation."
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.