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Confident Cards don't need outside motivation

NL champs enter new season with a club that's arguably more complete than last year

JUPITER, Fla. -- The Cardinals enter the 2014 season carrying the load of expectations that comes with anticipated excellence. It is weight that, on the first day of Spring Training, manager Mike Matheny asked everyone to drop at the entrance to the clubhouse door.

He's not moved by outsiders' insistence that this is a team set up for another deep October run or that the Cardinals are considered overwhelming National League Central favorites. There's an appreciation for the organization's run of four World Series appearances in the last decade, yes, but an understanding that with that comes no assurances of another.

Matheny preaches the process, believing that the Cardinals can best achieve greatness by tuning out the noise and focusing on the daily task at hand. The buy-in has come over the course of the last six weeks.

"I think it's just the way that guys carry themselves here," All-Star infielder Matt Carpenter said. "We just hold ourselves to such high standards, everybody individually and everybody as a group. We expect to play in the postseason. We expect to win. We expect to come out every day and play to the best of our ability. Those are things that everybody collectively feels, and we're pulling on the same side. That's what makes this organization, this team so special."

Added Adam Wainwright: "That's what we have to do, block [the expectations] out. Just worry about what we can control. We go out and perform. That's what we do. We're going to do that and not worry about what everybody says."

Whether the Cardinals want to acknowledge it or not, they will begin the year as the hunted in the NL. The pennant is theirs to defend, and they return all the core pieces of a team that won 97 games a year ago. While the Reds face questions of health, and the Pirates defend their quiet offseason, the Cardinals boast a club that is arguably more complete than the one that held off those two division rivals in 2013.

Defensively, they are unquestionably improved with Peter Bourjos in center and an infield that features Carpenter at third and Kolten Wong at second. Wong and Bourjos have introduced an element of speed, too, that was absent last year.

Bourjos has set a personal goal of stealing 40 bases this season. The Cardinals swiped 45 as a team in 2013.

"Finally," noted Hall of Famer Lou Brock, while serving as a guest instructor in camp, "we'll be able to run some more."

The Cardinals hope there are going to be more balls leaving the park, too, which is something that can help an offense that cannot be expected to hit .330 with runners in scoring position again. A year after five Cardinals players alone combined to hit 123 home runs, the club hit 125 in 2013. It was the franchise's lowest season total in a non-strike-shortened year since 1993.

The potential is there for an uptick in power, even if unintentional in the pursuit of it. Four of the eight projected starting position players (Matt Holliday, Allen Craig, Jhonny Peralta and Yadier Molina) have had at least one 20-homer season, and that doesn't include Matt Adams, who hit 17 last year as a part-time player.

"Some guys are just hitters," Mark Ellis said of the first baseman, "and he's one of them."

The backbone of this club, though, remains the pitching staff. The Cardinals will begin the season with one of the deepest rotations in baseball despite it also being one of the youngest.

Ace Wainwright, 32, bumps up the average age of the group, which otherwise includes no one older than 26. Among them are 22-year-old Michael Wacha and 23-year-old Shelby Miller. Wacha has an NL Championship Series MVP trophy on his home shelf, and Miller won more games (15) as a rookie than any Cardinals pitcher in 46 years.

A depth of Major League experience is not a prerequisite in the bullpen either, where the Cardinals will feature a closer (Trevor Rosenthal) and setup man (Carlos Martinez) who were both born in the 1990s. They are two of the four relievers coming off rookie seasons. A fifth (whoever wins the final bullpen spot) will be a rookie this year.

"We complement each other so well in every area," said Randy Choate, the bullpen veteran. "You could be whatever team and go buy all the players you want, but if they don't fit right … this team just fits right and everybody understands their roles and goes about it in that way."

However, with a young pitching staff does come questions. How will they adjust as other teams do, and how will they react to adversity? Wacha won't always be as he was in October, and at some point, the wins won't come with the same frequency for Lance Lynn. Miller has to show better efficiency, and Joe Kelly, sustainability.

"A lot of these guys are heading into their sophomore year, guys have more information on them and it's a great challenge," Matheny said. "We have enough of those guys that I don't think people realize the challenge we have ahead of us with that many young players. But with that, the added note is all of our guys including our ace have added to their repertoire. We're trying to stay ahead of it."

If they can, the Cardinals should stay ahead of the division competition, too.

The Cardinals have the pieces for a championship and players eager to again sip champagne. They don't need everybody else's expectations, because they already have some lofty ones of their own.

"Collectively, we're all on the same page and realize what we have here, what opportunity we have," Carpenter said. "We're all looking forward to meeting those expectations -- and that's playing in the postseason and doing all the things we did last year. The thing we all will do as a group is not get ahead of ourselves either. Take it one day at a time, and just go out and play our game. We know if we do that, then at the end of the year, we'll live up to those expectations."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB.
Read More: St. Louis Cardinals, Shelby Miller, Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Trevor Rosenthal