ST. LOUIS -- With just over six weeks left before the Cardinals hold their first official workout of 2018, it seems a fitting time to put last season's shortcomings in the rearview mirror and begin looking toward what lies ahead.
With that in mind, let's open the New Year by examining some questions that will be answered in the coming months:
Is the rotation really improved?
The Cardinals added a starter in Miles Mikolas, but Lance Lynn entered free agency and Mike Leake was traded to the Mariners in August. Both were integral parts of the rotation last season, so how do the Cards make up those innings?
Adam Wainwright looms as the wild card in the debate about whether St. Louis has enough coverage. He'll be returning from a second consecutive subpar season, and he is recovering from yet another cleanup procedure to his right elbow. The Cardinals are hoping that Wainwright can once more turn back time, though his 4.81 ERA since the start of 2016 gives reason for pause.
The Cards do believe that Carlos Martinez can reach another level as the staff ace, and they hope another healthy season is ahead for Michael Wacha. There are several young pitchers ready to contribute, including Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver and Jack Flaherty. But none has near a full season of Major League experience, which makes growing pains likely.
Who hits leadoff?
It's been just over a year since the Cards signed William Fowler to be their center fielder and leadoff hitter. But he's no longer earmarked for center, and his fit atop the order has already been challenged.
With two hitters -- Fowler and Matt Carpenter -- who prefer to hit from the top spot, the Cardinals plan to have discussions with both about who fits best where. Fowler opened 2017 as the leadoff hitter and appeared there 51 times during the season. Carpenter replaced him midseason in a move manager Mike Matheny made to try to jumpstart the offense. And it worked. Carpenter and Fowler both saw an uptick in production.
Both rank among the National League leaders in on-base percentage since 2012, so the Cards believe they have two strong candidates for the role. Who gets first dibs at sticking there will likely be determined during Spring Training.
How do the Cardinals close out games?
Trevor Rosenthal was released and Seunghwan Oh is a free agent. Those two pitchers accounted for 79 percent of the team's saves since 2014. So to whom does the organization turn next?
St. Louis signed Luke Gregerson, who saved 31 games for the Astros in 2015, but he is coming off a down year in which his home run rate spiked. That's why the Cards continue to seek an experienced closer.
Spring Training should also help the club piece together coverage leading up to the ninth. Matt Bowman, Brett Cecil, Sam Tuivailala, Tyler Lyons and Reyes are among those who could help bridge the gap for a new-look bullpen.
How does Marcell Ozuna impact the offense?
The Cardinals dealt away three of their top 13 prospects to land Ozuna, whose breakout season in 2017 propelled him to be among the NL's elite. At 27 years old, he should be in the thick of his career prime.
Ozuna will most likely slot into the cleanup spot, batting behind Tommy Pham. For a team that ranked low in production from that fourth spot in the order, the jolt could be a significant one. Ozuna's 37 home runs and 124 RBIs last year would have ranked first for the Cards, who finished in the middle of the NL pack in runs scored and OPS.
Is it enough to end the postseason drought?
For two straight years, the Cardinals have been left as spectators during October. Now, they're trying to avoid being on the outside for three consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-99.
With the Reds still rebuilding and the Pirates seemingly trying to decide whether they'd like to do the same, the Cards' most likely competition in the NL Central are the two teams -- the Brewers and the Cubs -- that finished ahead of them last season. The Cardinals ended up nine games back of the Cubs, but they had been as close as two games behind as late as Sept. 12.
One key will be improving the head-to-head results. The Cubs finished 14-5 against the Cards last season, while the Brewers won 11 of their 19 matchups.