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Mozeliak answers fans' call in assembling Cards

MLB.com @MikeLupica

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- John Mozeliak is the president of baseball operations for the Cardinals, so he understands better than almost anybody that he is the caretaker of a public trust as big and as important as there is in baseball.

Mozeliak's Cardinals have played two World Series in the last five years and won one of them, and no team has made more World Series appearances in that time than they have. But now the Cardinals are two years out of the postseason. And sometimes you get the idea, listening to Cardinals fans blow off steam that could blow away the Gateway Arch, that they've waited as long to win again as Indians fans have.

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- John Mozeliak is the president of baseball operations for the Cardinals, so he understands better than almost anybody that he is the caretaker of a public trust as big and as important as there is in baseball.

Mozeliak's Cardinals have played two World Series in the last five years and won one of them, and no team has made more World Series appearances in that time than they have. But now the Cardinals are two years out of the postseason. And sometimes you get the idea, listening to Cardinals fans blow off steam that could blow away the Gateway Arch, that they've waited as long to win again as Indians fans have.

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"Even though we are a small-market team by population," Mozeliak said as he watched Adam Wainwright pitch against Justin Verlander on Wednesday, "we have large-market demands. And that means to win."

So Mozeliak was asked then if the team he has assembled is good enough to win.

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"Put it this way," he said. "We are excited about what we have."

Mozeliak's team is in the same division as the Cubs, who are looking to get back to the World Series after their 2016 championship, and in the same league as the Los Angeles Dodgers, who came within a game of winning the World Series last season. Right in front of Mozeliak at The Ballpark of the Palm Beaches were Verlander, Jose Altuve and the rest of a gifted young Astros team that wants to win the World Series again. You know there are sky-high expectations with those teams, and with the Yankees, who ended up with Giancarlo Stanton, even though Mozeliak sure tried, and with the Red Sox. Then there are the Indians, whose fans really have waited 70 years to win another World Series.

But the expectations are always high in St. Louis. They are high in St. Louis and everywhere else in the Midwest where people consider the Cardinals to be their team, with a fan base once defined, in another America, by the reach of an iconic radio station known as KMOX. There is no better baseball city -- not New York or Boston or Chicago -- than St. Louis. There is no more passionate fan base in American sports. But now their team is two years out of the postseason and it feels like a couple of lifetimes, and Cardinals fans want that to change. Like now.

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"All I can tell you," Mozeliak said, "is that [team owner William DeWitt, Jr.] and I take our responsibility to our fans very seriously. And we never take our fan base for granted. We understand the why of their demands. It is always our job to figure out how to satisfy them."

All around him in the stands, barely more than a half-hour from the Cardinals' Spring Training home up in Jupiter, you see how well the team travels, even in the baseball spring. You see "Molina" jerseys and red Cardinals T-shirts and Cardinals caps. You see the force of the Cardinals and hear it, even in the middle of March. A long way from St. Louis and just down I-95 from Roger Dean Stadium, it is clear why the Cardinals are one of the capitals of their sport, and all of our professional sports. We hear a lot about Yankee Universe and Red Sox Nation. The world of St. Louis Cardinals fans remains a fine, storied, romantic place -- if an impatient one these days. And a demanding one, you bet.

Mozeliak was asked, two weeks before the start of the regular season, if he knows what he has for 2018.

"I can pretty much imagine what our 25 [man roster] is going to look like on Opening Day," he said.

Then, of course, he was talking about starting pitching, because almost everybody does in the middle of March in Florida and Arizona -- even teams like the Astros, who looked to be loaded behind Verlander again. Mozeliak talked about all the legitimate questions about how much of an ace Carlos Martinez can be; how much Wainwright, who is 36, has left; if Michael Wacha can stay healthy. Mozeliak said he understood why people have questions about Miles Mikolas, a Jupiter, Fla. kid training in his hometown after three years pitching for the Yomiuri Giants. Mozeliak then pointed out that if any of them falter, "Jack Flaherty and Alex Reyes are just a phone call away."

"I understand the public angst about the rotation," Mozeliak said. "But internally we're confident that we have a strong five."

So, too, do the Cubs, the Cardinals' great traditional rival. The Cubs lost Jake Arrieta to free agency, replaced him with Yu Darvish. Mozeliak shrugged when asked about Darvish, and the reaction to his signing from Cardinals fans.

"We knew they'd add a starter eventually," Mozeliak said. "It was just a question of who it would be and how much it would cost them."

Mozeliak smiled then and said, "You don't go into the offseason thinking you're going to win it. You just want to survive it."

Mozeliak, one of the smartest people in the game, tried to put big points on the board with Stanton. Instead he ended up with Stanton's teammate, Marcell Ozuna, who hit 37 home runs for the Marlins last season and knocked in 124 and hit .312, even though that largely felt like some kind of state secret outside of downtown Miami. They will love watching him play baseball in St. Louis.

Video: Outlook: Ozuna looks to continue success with Cards

"It was actually kind of interesting," Mozeliak said, "even when we were talking about Stanton how often Ozuna's name kept coming up."

So now Stanton is in New York, where Yankee fans always expect to win, even though we are moving up on nine years since the Yankees' last trip to the World Series. Mozeliak ends up with Ozuna, hardly as a consolation prize. Mozeliak likes him, likes his team, likes his chances in the NL Central. On the field in front of him, Matt Carpenter took Verlander over the right-field wall. You heard the Cardinals fans then -- heard the force of the Cardinals, a long way from Busch Stadium, and in somebody else's Spring Training park. The best season in the National League is one in which they're in play again. The Cardinals matter.

Mike Lupica is a columnist for MLB.com and the New York Daily News, and is a best-selling author.

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