JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals came within one victory of reaching the 2012 World Series. If they need to improve, they don't require great leaps and bounds of improvement.
They could do with upward movement from their 88-victory regular season, which left them nine games behind the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central. But that St. Louis team went through a debilitating series of injuries. Given the circumstances, just qualifying for the postseason, not to mention advancing, was a substantial achievement.
Can the Cardinals be better in 2013? They can obviously be healthier, but that's easily said. Mike Matheny, who quieted many doubters with an exceptional job in his rookie managerial season, has no doubts on this score. He starts with improvement by the bullpen.
"The obvious area would be our bullpen in general," Matheny said Thursday. "[Last year] there were a lot more questions going in. We had a guy in [Jason] Motte who'd never even really been labeled as the closer. We didn't have a setup guy and we didn't know how to get to the last two innings.
"Now, I think those guys have really shown themselves what they can do in those situations. Bringing in [Edward] Mujica was something that really helped us take off, as far as our pitching goes."
St. Louis eventually found strength in what had been an uncertainty, with Mujica and Mitchell Boggs setting up for Motte. The bullpen could be further fortified this season if it is joined by one of the hard-throwing young pitchers who is left out in the selection of the Cards' fifth starter.
This is another obvious strongpoint. The Cardinals have turned out a steady supply of Major League-ready talent. In this case, there are three hard-throwing pitchers making major impressions; Shelby Miller, at the top of the pitching prospect list, Trevor Rosenthal, whose velocity hits triple digits, and who already was a major contributor in 2012, and Michael Wacha, a first-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, who has quickly made his presence felt.
But much broader improvement is on Matheny's mind.
"I think we can be better all the way across," the manager said. "That's kind of been our motto. Are we complacent with some of the things that we've done? Or do we think there's more in here?
"And these guys are very quick to believe that we've got a very strong group and it just depends on how well we come together. There's opportunities for people to take advantage of, obviously in the rotation and second base, and depending what happens at shortstop. We've got opportunities and some question marks, but those are just opportunities for guys to come in and compete and show what they can do."
One of the traits that has characterized the successful Cards teams is their resilience, which is a function of character.
The Cardinals don't have any problems coming back from the doorstep of defeat. This showed last season in their ability to withstand injuries, and it also played a role in classic victories. Game 6 of the 2011 World Series, when they were twice down to their last strike, was a brilliant example that made a championship possible. Game 5 of the 2012 NL Division Series against Washington, St. Louis not only rallied from a 6-0 deficit, but staged a four-run ninth-inning rally to come from behind at the last instant again.
So there's been no shortage of intangible strength on this club. But some of the players who could have fairly been termed as leaders on this team have departed. Chris Carpenter, perhaps the most vocal leader on this club, was supposed to return, but his right shoulder wouldn't cooperate. Carpenter has refused to consider himself retired, but the Cards obviously can't count on his return.
Other players with recognized leadership qualities who have left are Lance Berkman, Kyle Lohse and Skip Schumaker. When Matheny is asked how his club will compensate for this loss of leadership, he doesn't duck the issue.
"That's been our focus," he said. "A lot of concentration, a lot of talk around here has been about that, about being intentional about trying to do that. Without that, we're setting ourselves up for failure.
"It will be the guys who were leading before who will continue to do what they did. Skip Schumaker, tremendous leader in the clubhouse; Lance Berkman, tremendous leader in the clubhouse; the guy who pitched the first game of the season for us last year, and the first game of the postseason, Kyle Lohse, isn't here.
"So there's a lot of slack. We've been very conscious about that, and we've all been in conversation about it. And I've been very impressed to see some of these guys step up already and have taken more of that role.
"We keep using that term 'leadership' a lot, because it just has to happen. It has to happen out on the field and it has to happen in the clubhouse."
The Cardinals are rarely caught short in any area. They won't be a rudderless ship this summer, either. Their issues are solvable. Their talent is imposing. This is a good situation with a very real possibility of even better days ahead.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.