JUPITER, Fla. -- The St. Louis Cardinals were the best team in the National League last year. There is absolutely no reason to expect any slippage in 2014.
The Cardinals won 97 games. Then they won two postseason series, capturing the NL pennant. And in the offseason, they became, by any reasonable measurement, even better.
They needed an offensive upgrade a shortstop. That was Jhonny Peralta. They needed a defensive upgrade in center. That was Peter Bourjos, whose defensive prowess cannot be overstated. They needed a veteran for infield depth. That was Mark Ellis a solid player, a solid citizen.
General manager John Mozeliak achieved all this improvement without parting with any of the team's magnificent young pitching. The remarkable supply of young, hard-throwing pitchers, who also came to the Majors as mature competitors, sets the Redbirds apart from most of the baseball world. So the St. Louis club didn't lose in the offseason, either.
The next step is getting ready for a pennant defense and taking this entire operation as far as it can possibly go. To that end, Cards manager Mike Matheny has stressed to his club that outside expectations, while they may be lofty, and are essentially compliments, just get in the way of the job at hand.
That job consists of the Cardinals pushing as hard as humanly possible toward the goal of producing the best baseball that they can, individually and collectively. What anybody else thinks, expects, asks or demands, is incidental to the process.
"We just have a different mindset," Matheny said Monday. "It's something that we're very conscious about. If we set that out as a staff, the leaders, as far as the players go, they hold each other accountable as far as how they go about their business. It's just a high level every single day of bringing everything you've got, and don't expect or accept anything less from yourself, or from the guy next to you.
"That's a lot of live up to. And really, what else can you do? And the answer is nothing. We do that, but always realizing that getting to that level is not the ultimate, it's pushing for better with what we could possibly be down the road. It creates a very realistic attention to what we need to do and what we can control. It's none of this stuff on the outside about other peoples' expectations or what other teams are doing. It's doing what we can control. We can control ourselves and how good we can be today."
By winning more games than anybody in the league in 2013, and then advancing to the World Series, the Cardinals put themselves in a position where measurable improvement this season becomes a difficult concept. How far above those achievements can one team rise?
But, Matheny says, that sort of outlook also doesn't get the Cards where they want to go.
"I think that's once again a distraction to us," the manager said. "I don't think we can put limitations on ourselves. And I don't think we can necessarily define success that way. Because, once again, I don't think we can control what other people do.
"If we know that we're putting absolutely everything we've got out there and we put a hard-fought game together with everybody leaving it all on the line, and things don't work out, we've got the responsibility to be honest evaluators of ourselves, too, and say, 'We brought it today, but they got us.'
"We can be better, and that's kind of the idea. It minimizes the focus. The focus is what we can control every single day and figuring out ways to get beyond that. I think the guys realize that if we do that day in and day out, we'll be where we want to be in the end."
The message is clear, both to the Cardinals and to the baseball public. You can have high expectations for the Cards, because their performance and their personnel indicate that their performance will meet those expectations.
But in a very real way, nobody's outside expectations for this team will be as high as the expectations the Cardinals have for themselves.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.