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Cards confident in postseason return in '18

Retooled lineup could be among Majors' elite
MLB.com @JoeTrezz

JUPITER, Fla. -- At no point since the turn of the century have three straight postseasons been played without trips to St. Louis. The Cardinals have sat out the past two, after last year's playoff hopes were dashed -- by the rival Cubs -- with three games to go in the 2017 season.

The Cards' third-place finish in the National League Central prompted an array of offseason moves, all made with an eye toward winning again -- and winning soon. The NL Central may prove the most competitive division in baseball this year, with the Cubs and the Brewers both improved. In this sense, the Cardinals believe they're no different.

JUPITER, Fla. -- At no point since the turn of the century have three straight postseasons been played without trips to St. Louis. The Cardinals have sat out the past two, after last year's playoff hopes were dashed -- by the rival Cubs -- with three games to go in the 2017 season.

The Cards' third-place finish in the National League Central prompted an array of offseason moves, all made with an eye toward winning again -- and winning soon. The NL Central may prove the most competitive division in baseball this year, with the Cubs and the Brewers both improved. In this sense, the Cardinals believe they're no different.

Club officials spent the offseason turning over nearly a quarter of the 40-man roster, revamping a coaching staff with voices both new and familiar and adding an impact slugger in his prime via trade. The result is a team less in transition than it is one eager to prove it can reverse a downward trajectory.

"It's boring and disappointing" catcher Yadier Molina said about not playing in October. "There are eight teams playing, and you're sitting on your couch. It's a bad feeling."

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What's the goal?
As the longest-tenured Cardinals player, Molina can speak for the team as well as anyone. The veteran has been behind the plate for the final out of two World Series wins, and he has played in 89 postseason games. He's the defensive and emotional center of teams that excelled in fundamental play and late-inning relief.

"We're ready to win games. That's the reason we're here," Molina says. "We are confident in ourselves to show that we're a better team than we've been the last few years. We want to show the people we can get back to that level."

Doing so will require improvement after the Cards struggled in 2017 on the bases and in one-run games, specifically. It'll also mean playing better against the Brewers and the Cubs, whom St. Louis combined to go 13-25 against last season.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Mozeliak on Cardinals' roster

What's the plan?
Luke Gregerson, Dominic Leone and Bud Norris were imported to fortify the bullpen. The club also believes Jose Oquendo's return as third-base coach after a two-year absence will help the Cardinals make smarter decisions on the basepaths. As Cards teams have proved in the past, a few little things can go a long way toward returning to October.

But the overarching strength of this team should be its offense. The addition of Marcell Ozuna jolts a lineup that was average at scoring runs last season. It also gives St. Louis one of the premier outfield units in the game.

Dexter Fowler slides over to right field, and he returns speed and on-base skills to the leadoff spot. Tommy Pham will play center and hit second, ahead of Matt Carpenter and Ozuna, who is coming off a breakout year.

If shortstop Paul DeJong avoids a sophomore slump and second baseman Kolten Wong continues to improve, St. Louis' offense could rank abmong baseball's most dynamic.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Fowler on moving to right field

What could go wrong?
Nowhere on this roster does a wider set of possible outcomes exist than in the rotation. Questions surround the group behind Carlos Martinez, who returns as the ace.

Michael Wacha could take another step forward, or he could regress amid the club's plan to limit him the third time through the order. Miles Mikolas could surprise after three years in Japan, or big league hitters could prove too difficult an adjustment. Adam Wainwright looks spry and determined, but he's still 36, coming off elbow surgery and will start the season on the DL with a left hamstring injury sustained in conditioning drills. Luke Weaver impressed as a rookie, but his resume still sports just 18 big league starts.

In the bullpen, a bonafide closer might not emerge from the mass of arms aimed at reducing the late-innings issues. DeJong and Pham could take steps backward. Ozuna's bat could prove more streaky than consistent, like it was in his younger years.

Video: 30 Clubs in 30 Days: Martinez on improving in 2018

Who might surprise?
Alex Reyes and Jack Flaherty, the club's top two prospects according to MLB Pipeline, both project as top-of-the-rotation arms. Flaherty will fill in for Wainwright in the rotation to start the season while the veteran is on the disabled list. Coming off Tommy John surgery, Reyes might be the Cardinals' biggest wild card. The club hopes he can return by May 1, in something of a bullpen hybrid role.

"It's definitely that next generation that's coming," president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said. "Its our responsibility to think about usage and the type of demands we put on them."

Joe Trezza is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @joetrezz.

St. Louis Cardinals