The Cardinals will open 2014 as the team to beat in the NL Central, a division they won after a season-long battle with the Pirates and Reds in 2013. A pitching staff stacked with young power arms and an overabundance of starting pitching returns. The bullpen is deep, too.
On the offensive side, the look has changed. Gone is Carlos Beltran, his production expected to be replaced by newcomer Jhonny Peralta and Matt Adams, who is poised to play regularly. Matt Carpenter, on the heels of his breakout season, is moving back to an old position, while Kolten Wong will join the infield mix. The club should show more bursts of speed and is undoubtedly improved on defense.
It all seemingly sets up well for Mike Matheny, already the first manager in franchise history to take the Cardinals to the postseason in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Guiding his club back into October remains the clear objective and stated expectation.
"How could you not be [ready], with what we did at the end and opening a lot of people's eyes with some new faces and names," Matheny said. "[We have the] potential to possibly take this a step further. We've got a lot of work to do. I'm not talking about 162 games' worth. I'm talking about building a club and everybody getting on the same page -- getting through our spring healthy, which is always obviously a key. But [also, I mean] everybody buying into the concept of us coming together as a group and not a bunch of individuals. It sounds like it should be easy, but it's not. That's going to be our No. 1 job as we get to spring."
Pitchers and catchers report
Full squad reports
First Spring Training game
Home vs. Marlins, Feb. 28 at 12:05 p.m. CT
Away vs. Reds, March 31 at 3:10 p.m. CT
Triple play: Three questions that need answers
1. How will the rotation battle be settled?
It is a luxury to have an excess of starting pitching, but it will also create some tough decisions for the Cards this spring. The emergence of so many young arms last season gives the team all sorts of rotation options. Adam Wainwright is clearly at the top, while Michael Wacha, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly all return as incumbents. Jaime Garcia is healthy again, too, and Carlos Martinez would like to make his own push. Matheny will have to narrow the group to five by the end of camp.
2. Can Wong take the reins at second base?
Despite an uninspiring showing in his first chance at the Major League level, Wong reports to Spring Training aware of the Cardinals' intentions to give him every opportunity to win the starting job at second base. With Carpenter sliding over to third base, the opening is there for Wong, recently ranked the No. 1 prospect at second by MLB.com. Mark Ellis is available as insurance, but the club is hopeful that Wong's Minor League success indicates his readiness for an everyday role.
3. Will there be a time share in center field?
The November addition of Peter Bourjos leaves the Cardinals covered better defensively in center field, but also without a defined role for Jon Jay. Jay, the starter in '13, has a chance to win back playing time. But how much is up for grabs remains unsaid. With a strong spring, Jay could push the Cards to implement a platoon scenario, but that onus is on him. He will enter camp behind Bourjos on the depth chart.
97-65, National League champions
Projected batting order
1. 3B Matt Carpenter:
.318 BA, .392 OBP, .481 SLG, 11 HR, 78 RBI in 2013
2. SS Jhonny Peralta:
.303 BA, .358 OBP, .457 SLG, 11 HR, 55 RBI in 2013
3. LF Matt Holliday:
.300 BA, .389 OBP, .490 SLG, 22 HR, 94 RBI in 2013
4. RF Allen Craig:
.315 BA, .373 OBP, .457 SLG, 13 HR, 97 RBI in 2013
5. 1B Matt Adams:
.284 BA, .335 OBP, .503 SLG, 17 HR, 51 RBI in 2013
6. C Yadier Molina:
.319 BA, .359 OBP, .477 SLG, 12 HR, 80 RBI in 2013
7. 2B Kolten Wong:
.153 BA, .194 OBP, .169 SLG in 2013
8. CF Peter Bourjos:
.274 BA, .333 OBP, .377 SLG, 3 HR, 12 RBI in 2013
1. RHP Adam Wainwright, 19-9, 2.94 ERA in 2013
2. RHP Shelby Miller, 15-9, 3.06 ERA in 2013
3. LHP Jaime Garcia, 5-2, 3.58 ERA in 2013
4. RHP Michael Wacha, 4-1, 2.78 ERA in 2013
5. RHP Lance Lynn, 15-10, 3.97 ERA in 2013
Closer: Trevor Rosenthal, three saves, 2.63 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Carlos Martinez, 5.08 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Kevin Siegrist, 0.45 ERA in 2013
The new guys
2B Ellis: Signed as insurance behind Wong at second base, Ellis gives the Cardinals a veteran option in the infield. At age 36, he is still considered above-average defensively and is more than capable of still being an everyday player. If Wong does get the bulk of playing time, Ellis will still be valuable as a right-handed bat off the bench.
SS Peralta: The Cardinals' top offseason priority was to upgrade at shortstop, a position that featured minimal production from Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso in 2013. The organization found a fit with Peralta, a right-handed-hitting infielder who was available as a free agent. The team was willing to look past Peralta's recent connection to Biogenesis and ahead to what he can offer to the offense.
CF Bourjos: Bourjos came to St. Louis in a four-player deal with the Angels in November. With his arrival, the Cardinals boosted their outfield defense and also initiated some shuffling in the infield. Bourjos could be the speediest outfielder in the game, and that speed should also translate into aggressiveness on the basepaths. The Cardinals intend to give Bourjos a chance to earn regular playing time. He simply must stay healthy.
Prospects to watch
OF Oscar Taveras: Who else would top this list? Of course, it's Taveras -- ranked recently by MLB.com as the No. 3 prospect in the game. Taveras is coming off August ankle surgery, so there could be some rustiness to shake off early in spring. He's a long shot to make the Opening Day roster, but it is not entirely out of the question. It is just a matter of time before the outfielder is playing in Busch Stadium.
OF Stephen Piscotty: Piscotty, a non-roster invitee, will be a first-time participant in big league camp. Last spring, he changed positions and has since become a capable right fielder. He had a stellar 2013 season, capped by his participation in the Arizona Fall League. The Cardinals are deep with outfielders, but nevertheless high on Piscotty. The No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, Piscotty looks poised to be in St. Louis before the end of the year.
LHP Marco Gonzales: Gonzales would love to follow in Michael Wacha's footsteps -- a No. 19 overall pick, shining in his first Spring Training, setting the stage for a callup midseason. Of course, Wacha's path isn't the norm, but Gonzales will arrive in Jupiter ready to jumpstart his first full professional season. He is also a non-roster invitee and was projected as a fast-rising talent, after being drafted out of Gonzaga University last summer. This will be the first opportunity for the Major League coaching staff to get a look at the lefty.
OF Randal Grichuk: Grichuk was the second outfielder the Cardinals received in the trade with the Angels, and general manager John Mozeliak was quick to note that the organization did not view him merely as a throw-in. Grichuk comes with a power swing and strong defensive credentials. His on-base percentage could use a boost, though he does do well to minimize the strikeouts. He'll be competing for a spot in the Triple-A outfield and will be out to make a strong first impression on his new organization.
On the rebound
RHP Jason Motte: Motte will be on a modified pitching plan when Spring Training opens, but he remains on schedule in his recovery from Tommy John surgery. The hope is that Motte won't be sidelined deep into the season. Once he is back, he'll likely slide into a set-up role. Though the Cardinals do not intend to put Motte back into the closer's role, he will be an asset in the back end of the 'pen.
LHP Garcia: After dealing with shoulder problems in 2012 and eventually addressing them with surgery in 2013, Garcia expects to enjoy his first full season since 2011. He will be competing for a rotation spot, though the Cardinals likely won't leave him out if he is healthy. They would like to get a lefty back into their mix, and Garcia has proven that he can be one of the league's best southpaws when healthy.
CF Jay: After establishing himself as the Cardinals' starting center fielder upon Colby Rasmus' departure in 2011, Jay had his first rough season in 2013. He was exposed on defense and struggled to find his timing at the plate. The consistency that had been his hallmark was no longer there. Now, Jay has to earn playing time back from Bourjos.
OF Beltran: Beltran will be wearing pinstripes this season, leaving the Cardinals without a player who contributed 56 homers and drove in 181 runs during his two seasons in St. Louis. That production will not be easily replaced. He'll leave a void in the clubhouse, too, where he was an unassuming leader -- always eager to provide advice to anyone who asked.
3B David Freese: St. Louis' favorite baseball son was sent to the Angels in the deal for Bourjos, ending a tenure with the Cardinals that was highlighted by Freese's 2011 postseason. The fresh start could be good for Freese, who endured a power dip and plenty of adversity in 2013. For the Cards, his departure allows for Carpenter to move back to third, a more familiar position.
RHP Chris Carpenter: While Carpenter did not contribute on the field last season, his exit from the clubhouse will be noticed. He has long been the vocal leader of the pitching staff, and his retirement has passed that mantle to Wainwright. The good news for the young pitchers is that Carpenter won't be too far away, as he has accepted a front-office role with the organization.
RHP Jake Westbrook: The veteran right-hander remains unsigned, after having his option declined by the Cardinals after the season. Westbrook made valuable contributions during his four years in St. Louis, but the influx of young pitching talent left him without a place in the rotation going forward.
RHP Edward Mujica: Mujica bailed the club out when it needed a closer last year, as he went on to save 37 games for the Cardinals. Though he faltered near the end of the season, his overall success earned him a two-year, $9.5 million contract with the Red Sox this offseason. The Cardinals did not pursue re-signing the right-hander.