100-win Cardinals are ready to defend their NL Central title

The Cardinals' manager expects Matt Holliday to have 'a ridiculous year.'

Jasen Vinlove/Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

ST. LOUIS — There was no way the St. Louis Cardinals could match the headline-grabbing activity of their biggest NL Central rival in Chicago, the team that saw to it they were one and done last fall.

The position still seems mighty strong for the team that led the majors with 100 victories, no matter what moves the Cubs made.

"I don’t really get wrapped up in whether we are considered favorites or underdogs," said general manager John Mozeliak, under whose guidance the Cardinals have made it to the postseason five consecutive seasons, with a World Series title in 2011. "As I’ve said all along and really believe, this team is going to be exciting to watch and it’s going to be extremely competitive."

Mike Leake is perhaps a younger version of John Lackey, the de facto ace last season now pitching for the Cubs. And though Jason Heyward also landed with the Cubs, the Cardinals found a most acceptable replacement last year in rookie Stephen Piscotty.

They ponied up for a premium setup man, Seung Hwan Oh, nicknamed Final Boss and Stone Buddha in Japan, who can also serve as a backup closer to ensure Trevor Rosenthal stays fresh.

They’ll try to tap the potential of power-hitting infielder Jedd Gyorko, the former Padres player who will serve as a semi-regular at three spots. It cost the Cardinals only Jon Jay, destined for backup outfield duty if he stayed in St. Louis behind Randal Grichuk and rookie Tommy Pham.

They got a backup catcher, Brayan Pena, good enough for full-time duty until All-Star Yadier Molina is back from thumb surgery.

Ace Adam Wainwright is fully recovered from a torn Achilles, heading a rotation that Leake called a collection of "ones and twos."

There are no apparent holes for a team sensitive to getting bumped off in Chicago and ready to defend.

"I don’t care how many games we won last season," manager Mike Matheny said. "Looking around that room and seeing the guys’ disappointment, that’s a motivator."

Things to watch for as the St. Louis Cardinals prepare to open spring training in Jupiter, Florida:

HOLLIDAY WATCH: Matt Holliday is entering the final year of his contract after playing less than half of last year due to injuries, so he’ll be motivated. Holliday, who has spent his entire career in left field, has been practicing at first base this winter, perhaps to build value elsewhere in case he moves on. There’s really no need for him to play first this season, with Brandon Moss, Matt Adams and Piscotty all capable hands.

"I think you’re going to see a ridiculous year from Matt Holliday," Matheny said. "I’m not putting any pressure on him that he doesn’t put on himself every single year."

MANAGING ARMS: Carlos Martinez has spent much of the offseason at the team’s spring training base in Florida, building strength for the long haul. The young right-hander was shut down in September due to shoulder weakness that did not require surgery. Another dynamic kid, Michael Wacha, faded in the second half of the season. The team needs to figure out how to get both right-handers to the finish line strong.

POWER BOOST: Moss is more than a year removed from hip surgery, and expects an accompanying surge in home runs. The Cardinals are counting on it, too, offering him arbitration and then signing him to a $8.25 million deal. Moss totaled 19 homers last year but averaged 27 1/2 the previous two seasons.

LINEUP SHUFFLE: The daily question will be how Matheny can maximize his deep roster. Like Moss, Adams’ primary position is first base. Pham figures in the outfield mix after an impressive rookie debut. Quality arms abound in the bullpen, challenging prominent roles carried by Kevin Siegrist and Seth Maness. Mozeliak figures over the long haul there will be plenty for everybody.

"Things happen, injuries happen," the GM said. "If that’s your most complicated question, that’s a good problem to have."