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Cardinals continue to strive to be better

Matheny's squad focused on its own improvement, not Cubs, Pirates
MLB.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- With the St. Louis Cardinals, it is never about the other guys. It is about the Cardinals playing to their own lofty standards; then trying to reach beyond even that level.

You saw that last season. Despite almost daily obstacles being placed in their path, the 2015 Cards had baseball's best record with 100 victories.

JUPITER, Fla. -- With the St. Louis Cardinals, it is never about the other guys. It is about the Cardinals playing to their own lofty standards; then trying to reach beyond even that level.

You saw that last season. Despite almost daily obstacles being placed in their path, the 2015 Cards had baseball's best record with 100 victories.

Now the question is: Can they become even better this year? This would not necessarily translate into more than 100 victories, but it would offer some protection against what was the toughest division in baseball last year.

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The National League Central had the teams with the three best records in the big leagues. The Pirates won 98 games. The Cubs won 97. And the Cubs made significant strides in the offseason, some of them at the Cardinals' expense. Multitalented outfielder Jason Heyward was lost to the Cubs in free agency. Starting pitcher John Lackey, coming off a fine season, also went from the Cards to the Cubs.

Even if portions of the baseball world have pre-determined that the Cubs are going to win not only the division, but the World Series, this is not about that. The Cardinals don't look at it that way, nor should they.

Video: Langosch on the Cardinals heading into 2016

Saturday, as the Cards took the field for their workout, manager Mike Matheny was asked in what ways his club could improve in 2016.

"Every way possible," Matheny said.

He then explained that this had been a focus in remarks he made to the team on Friday.

"We talked with the group about defining what success looks like for us -- for any group in general, what it means to be successful," Matheny said. "Individually, how do you define success?

"The idea is, we're shooting for perfection -- shooting for it while also knowing that it is not attainable. But the pursuit of it is. The idea really makes limitless expectations for ourselves, because we're always pushing.

"And I think as each individual takes that perspective, we get into the place where we as a group always have a higher ceiling.

"So we don't put a number as far as wins out there. I don't think that's a great place to go. It's, 'How can we be better, each of us in what we do, and what we bring to the table?' And then, with that being the case, keep pushing the needle forward."

When this concept is brought to the level of individual baseball players, Matheny said, it becomes not simply a notion, but a workable way to get better.

"I can go through [the clubhouse]," the manager said, "and with almost every guy, I can say: 'You do this really well. Do you think you can be better?' And the answer is: 'Yes.' 'OK, let's work on that.'

"And then, as we do that individually and we have the idea that this is about us, that culture, that team thing that gets overused and I think underappreciated with guys truly looking out for the people around them, and pushing people individually. I think we're set up for limitless improvements over what we did last year."

Video: Wainwright, Grichuk, Matheny look ahead to 2016

Beyond committing completely to that mentality, the Cardinals could hope for improvement through something resembling normal health. They didn't have that in 2015. Injuries repeatedly curtailed the seasons of key performers.

First baseman Matt Adams played in just 60 games. Left fielder Matt Holliday was limited to 73. Fellow outfielder Jon Jay played in 79. Promising slugger Randal Grichuk missed stretches with back and elbow issues.

On the pitching side, setup man Jordan Walden appeared in only 12 games. Jaime Garcia made 20 starts. Carlos Martinez missed the postseason.

Adam Wainwright, the ace of the staff, made only seven appearances and four starts due to a torn Achilles tendon. Wainwright threw a live batting-practice session Saturday, looking sharp against Major League hitters.

The Cards have lost starter Lance Lynn for the season after his Tommy John surgery. And there is some question about whether catcher Yadier Molina, the glue that holds this team together, will be available by Opening Day following two surgeries on his left thumb.

But there is no doubt about the approach the Cardinals take. They are grinders, strivers, perpetual seekers of the next higher levels of achievement and performance. They'll need to continue this approach -- and a season of improved health -- to win a fourth straight division title.

What about the Cubs?

Matheny's stock response to a question in that area is: "I can't wait to play them." In keeping with the rest of his Cardinals-first philosophy, that is the correct answer.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com.

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