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Voice of the Cardinals sees St. Louis, led by pitchers, as team to beat in NL Central

JUPITER, Fla. -- With the start of the regular season quickly approaching, sat down alongside broadcaster Mike Shannon, who is about to begin his 43rd season in the Cardinals' radio booth. Shannon's connection to the club actually dates further back than that, as the St. Louis native began his nine-year Cardinals playing career in 1962.

Shannon, who has been watching the club throughout Spring Training, shared his thoughts on what he has seen over the past month and provided his take on what to expect in the year ahead. What has stood out to you this spring while watching this team play over the past month?

Shannon: Number one, knock on wood, we're still healthy. And I think the emergence of second baseman Kolten Wong. The first week of the [spring] season he didn't look very good. Now, he's just tearing the cover off the ball. He's always been great defensively and [had] a very fine arm. It's like he had a twin, and the other twin showed up.

He's just playing everything [well] as far as the fielding is concerned, but at the plate, he has been very aggressive. He's hitting the ball where it's been pitched. He's doing well against left-handers and right-handers. He stays in very good against left-handers. He's going to really improve our ballclub because it's going to give us two guys to play second base who can really play. And the manager, when he has a tough left-hander, he can play the very experienced second baseman [Mark Ellis] we got from the Dodgers. That improves our defense. It improves a lot of things. Does [Wong] look like a different hitter than he was last year, when we saw him for about two months? What differences do you see with him this spring?

Shannon: Like a thousand percent [different]. He was overmatched every time we saw him last season. … He played extremely well in the Minor Leagues, and all the Minor League people were telling us what a great prospect he was. But in the times that we saw him, it wasn't there. Now, it is there, and he is everything he's been cooked up to be. He's been very impressive. He knows the strike zone. He's very aggressive at the plate, and he has some pop in his bat. The ball jumps off his bat.

He faced a tough left-hander, [Washington's] Gio Gonzalez, the other day. He's a tough lefty, and he had him two strikes and threw a ball out over the plate, and [Wong] hit a line drive the other way. Those are the kinds of things you pay attention to. We know the Cardinals have a lot of young pitching, and saw it last year. What are your early thoughts about the pitching staff, and do you think it's set up to be a strength again this year?

Shannon: There's no doubt that that's a big strength of our ballclub -- not only in the starters, but in the bullpen, also. We have six legitimate starters, and whichever one [manager Mike Matheny] decides to make the fifth starter, [the other] is going to be such an asset in the bullpen. We have as good a closer as you can get with [Trevor] Rosenthal throwing 100 miles an hour, and he is getting better and better changing speeds and so forth. That's the strength of our club, no doubt. Looking at the offense this year, it seems to have a little different dynamic. It looks more balanced with a bit of speed now that Wong and Peter Bourjos are in there. Do you think this offense, one through eight, can be better than last year because of a different look?

Shannon: It has the possibility of being that way. If you talk to the opposing pitcher, he'll tell you, 'Wow, that's not an easy lineup to pitch against.' If you look at the top five or six guys, depending what the lineup is, they're all .300-plus hitters. And they all have a little pop in their bats. There are not a lot of lineups that you can go from one through five, one through six, and have guys who have hit .300 in the big leagues. It starts with our leadoff hitter [Matt Carpenter]; he was phenomenal last year. You have at least two guys who are Silver Slugger Award [winners] in there, maybe three. Last year, at the bottom, we struggled with our offense. This year, I think it will be a little better. I know we haven't had the opportunity to see the other NL Central teams, but when you size up the division, are the Cardinals the clear favorite to you? And how do you see the division playing out?

Shannon: Well, we haven't seen those other teams, as you say. But they're going to pick the Cardinals. They haven't picked the Cardinals to do anything the last three or four years. I think finally they said, 'You know what? This is a pretty good team. I think we better pick them.' Those are the so-called experts. They're going to pick us.

We haven't seen Pittsburgh. We haven't seen the Cubs. We haven't seen Cincinnati. We're going to see all of Cincinnati that we want in the first 10 days of the season. … Then the Cubs come to town, and we'll have them. So we're going to see our division, including Milwaukee, and nobody is talking much about Milwaukee. They could be the surprise. Is that because of their pitching? Is that what stands out to you with the Brewers?

Shannon: Pitching is the name of this game. It always has been; it always will be. If you stay healthy… and that's another thing that's a plus for the Cardinals -- the depth of our pitching staff. There aren't many teams that have five legitimate starters. They are always looking for that fourth or fifth guy. We have six legitimate starters and maybe more than that if you talk about some of our Minor League guys. As we go into the season, is there a question mark, a weakness that you see with this team?

Shannon: I haven't seen anybody that reminds me of the '61 Yankees in any league or anywhere. But our team is better this year for a number of reasons. First, defensively. We are a lot better defensively. If Matt [Adams] plays first base, we improve there. We improve with Allen [Craig] in right field. You have Peter Bourjos in center to go along with [Jon] Jay. I think they are pushing one another. And a veteran [player, Carpenter] at third. We're going to be a lot better defensively right off the bat. What is this time of year like for you, and how much do you look forward to another season in St. Louis calling Cardinals baseball?

Shannon: This is my 50-something year; I quit counting a long time ago. But the great thing about our business is that when you come to the ballpark, you just don't know what is going to happen. I've come out and seen no-hitters. I've seen perfect games. The first no-hitter I ever saw in my life, I played in. And less than 24 hours later, I saw a second one. I saw a guy hit four home runs in a game. I've seen this, I've seen that.

We don't know what is going to happen with this Cardinals team. I will say one thing -- we are so fortunate to have great ownership and great people in our front office and on the field, also, that we're put in a situation where we're expected to go to the postseason every year. There aren't very many teams like that. Yes, Cardinals fans are very lucky in that respect.

Shannon: I think this season, I've seen more enthusiasm than I have ever seen about a Cardinals baseball team, and that's going back into the '60s. They're going to come out and expect to see a very good baseball team, and they're going to see that. Our ticket sales are going to be three million by the time we get to April or May.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.

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