JUPITER, Fla. -- Just in case there was any doubt, Cardinals players wasted no time in letting new manager Oliver Marmol know exactly what their expectations are for this season just minutes after the MLB lockout ended March 10.
Now, after nearly a month of Spring Training drills and games and recently adding future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols back into the fold with the Cardinals, the goal remains the same for the Redbirds heading into the 2022 season, Marmol said.
"When your top guys are telling you that anything but a World Series will be a disappointment, and that the group is all on the same page, that's exciting," said Marmol, the youngest manager in MLB at 35.
A veteran-laden Cardinals squad went out and proved that this spring with star corner infielders Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado looking to be in midseason form early on, Paul DeJong showing signs of a power resurgence and Adam Wainwright again being ready to take the ball every fifth day. Yadier Molina is behind the plate for a 19th and final season, while Pujols -- one of the greatest Cardinals in the franchise's rich history -- wants to show his adoring fans in St. Louis that he can still will the franchise to a World Series title.
"I'm happy he's here," Molina said of the 42-year-old Pujols, "but we've got only one thing in mind -- winning another championship together."
With the goals for the season clearly defined, here's a look at a few of the things that the Cardinals need to do to win the franchise's 12th World Series:
What needs to go right?
Jack Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Dakota Hudson spent most of last season either fighting through injuries or working their way back from them. Flaherty was limited to just 15 starts, but more on him later. Mikolas, an 18-game winner in 2018, slumped to 9-14 in '19 and he made just nine starts last year after missing all of '20. Hudson made it back from Tommy John surgery late last season and the Cardinals are expecting big things out of him and his sinkerball this season. That trio, combined with Steven Matz, Jake Woodford and Drew VerHagen, must give Wainwright more starting support.
When teams and players couldn't talk throughout the 99-day lockout that dragged into March, Flaherty couldn't inform the Cardinals that the shoulder soreness that bothered him late last season was still an issue. He wasn't able to throw off a mound during the offseason and his injury required further examination early in Spring Training.
Flaherty, who started 8-1 last season prior to suffering an oblique strain, was deemed to have "a small tear," in his shoulder, according to team president John Mozeliak. Flaherty says he has pitched with that injury for years, and he is hopeful that the platelet-rich plasma injection he got in his shoulder will allow him to return by early May. The Cardinals certainly need him behind Wainwright, with Mikolas and Hudson coming off arm injuries and newcomers Matz and VerHagen looking shaky at times.
Team MVP will be ...
Nolan Arenado. Few players in all of baseball could hit 34 home runs, drive in 105 runs, and win a ninth straight Gold Glove Award and consider the season a disappointment. Such was the case for Arenado, who wasn't happy about his .255 batting average and his hitless effort in the NL Wild Card Game. Arenado worked throughout the offseason to retool his swing in hopes of getting his hands quicker to the ball. Those changes seemed to make a big difference for Arenado when he pounded the ball throughout the spring.
Arenado quickly fell in love with the "Cardinal Way" last season, and now he desperately wants to be a part of a championship team in St. Louis.
Team Cy Young will be ...
Wainwright. When the Cardinals opened Spring Training, Wainwright was the first pitcher to throw live batting practice and the first to start a game because of his advanced conditioning. That was accomplished by Wainwright working at Glynn Academy (Ga.), alongside of teenaged teammates. Even at 40, Wainwright is still highly competitive, and he loves pitching's cat-and-mouse game.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander had a renaissance season in 2021 when he won 17 games. Expecting him to do that again is asking a lot, but it might be a must considering Flaherty's shoulder.
Bold prediction ...
Pujols will prove he's got plenty of pop left in his bat. No, Pujols won't be anywhere close to being the hitter he was from 2001-11 when he won three MVPs and led the Cardinals to two World Series titles.
The Cardinals are realistic about what Pujols can give them, and they will put him in positions to be successful. They will use Pujols as a DH and pinch-hitter against left-handers. Last season with the Dodgers, Pujols hit .294 and had a .939 OPS with 13 home runs and 34 RBIs against lefties. As a pinch-hitter, Pujols hit .378 with two home runs and 10 RBIs.
What statistics can't measure is the amount of pride and hunger to be great Pujols still has. Every at-bat at Busch Stadium will likely result in a standing ovation, and no one would be surprised if No. 5 delivers more magical moments.