ST. LOUIS — It was one thing for many people to predict before last season that St. Louis would finish behind the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. It’s another matter entirely for the Cardinals to know they are indeed the team doing the chasing of the defending World Series champions.
The Cardinals head to spring training in Jupiter, Florida, knowing they again are considered only a contender — not a favorite — behind their archrival.
“(Our motivation) is at an all-time high from a team standpoint after not making the playoffs last year,” longtime St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright said. “It hurt.”
Beset by injuries to both the pitching staff and lineup, St. Louis battled its way to an 86-76 record last season — one game back in the wild-card standings and outside the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
St. Louis was second to Chicago in the Central, finishing 17 games back. To help close that gap, the Cardinals signed former Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler to a five-year, $82.5 million contract in the offseason.
St. Louis’ starting rotation is expected to receive a boost from the return of Lance Lynn. The right-hander missed all of last season following elbow surgery, and the Cardinals are counting on his return to help a pitching staff that saw its team ERA rise from an NL-best 2.94 in 2015 to 4.08 a year ago .
Regardless of who has come and gone, though, St. Louis knows it’s an underdog this season in its own division. And the Cardinals are thriving on that position.
“I think everyone’s coming in with a chip on our shoulders,” second baseman Kolten Wong said. “We’re ready to go. We know what the Cubs are bringing, you know what the Pirates are bringing, and we know we got a pretty tough division again, so let’s get after it.”
Some other things to watch as the Cardinals start on a path they hope leads to a postseason return:
NEW LOOK: Fowler gives St. Louis certainties in both center field and at the top of the lineup, areas where manager Mike Matheny pieced things together last season. The Cardinals are also hoping Fowler’s athleticism has a ripple effect on the rest of the lineup , which was last in the National League in stolen bases last season.
ROOKIES TO WATCH: After missing the first 50 games last season for a second positive drug test, hard-throwing right hander Alex Reyes made up for lost time — working his way back through Triple-A before a dazzling late-season audition (1.57 ERA in 46 innings) in the majors. While it’s uncertain if Reyes will start the season in the rotation or bullpen, he’s a rookie to watch in the National League. So is 2014 first-round draft pick Luke Weaver, who dominated Double-A last season before joining St. Louis in mid-August.
THEY’RE SET: Three-time All-Star Matt Carpenter saw action at first, second and third base last season, but the plan is for him to enter this season as St. Louis’ primary first baseman. The Cardinals also seem committed to giving Wong a chance as an everyday second baseman and partnering with incumbent shortstop Aledmys Diaz up the middle.
THEY’RE NOT: A breakout spring by left-handed slugger Matt Adams could shuffle St. Louis’ infield plans, particularly at the corners. After hitting a career-high 30 home runs last season, Jedd Gyorko enters this season in a competition with Jhonny Peralta — who was limited to 82 games because of injury last season — at third base. Of course, both also have the up-the-middle experience as well, so Matheny might have a chance to employ the position versatility he’s so fond of.
ON DECK: While Lynn has already been touted as fully recovered and ready to go after missing last season, the health of right-handed starter Michael Wacha will be watched closely this spring. The 25-year-old battled shoulder problems for much of last season, finishing a disappointing 7-7 with a 5.09 ERA, but he spent the offseason working to strengthen his upper body with hopes of return to the form that produced a 17-7 record and 3.38 ERA in 2014.