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October all but a given for Cardinals

Expectations for Cardinals once again lofty after World Series appearance @philgrogers

JUPITER, Fla. -- Do you think it's been quiet in the Cardinals' camp?

Peter Bourjos couldn't agree more, and most days he's been out in center field, which is theoretically in the middle of the action. But on this team, not so much.

JUPITER, Fla. -- Do you think it's been quiet in the Cardinals' camp?

Peter Bourjos couldn't agree more, and most days he's been out in center field, which is theoretically in the middle of the action. But on this team, not so much.

"It's been boring out there,'' Bourjos said on Tuesday. "I haven't gotten too many balls. I'm not complaining but I think I've only had four or five fly balls all spring.''

Bourjos was in center field on March 13, when Lance Lynn struck out 10 Braves, including the last eight hitters he faced. He was there last Saturday, when Michael Wacha struck out eight in seven innings. That followed a game in which Adam Wainwright needed only 81 pitches to work eight innings, striking out seven and matching Wacha by not walking anyone.

Welcome to life behind baseball's best pitching staff.

"Yesterday we saw a ball hit to right-center pretty hard and he made it look easy,'' Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said about Bourjos. "But overall we haven't really gotten to see his range. That's a good thing. You'd rather not see someone's back running to the fence all the time. We know what we've got there.''

Just like everyone knows what a powerhouse Matheny inherited from Tony La Russa.

It's hard to remember that far back, but La Russa was not as fortunate when he took over the Cardinals from Joe Torre. They had been just another up-the-track team in the two strike-shortened season in 1994-95, going a combined 115-142.

La Russa worked magic the following season, willing them all the way to Game 7 of the NLCS with Andy Benes as the ace and Dennis Eckersley as the closer. But that wasn't success that could be sustained, and they were pretty ordinary the next three seasons.

But things changed in 2000, and it's impossible to see the Cardinals returning to ordinary any time in the next few years, if not the next few decades. Matheny's team went to the World Series last season; the 10th time in 14 years that the Cards went to the playoffs.

During the 14-season run, St. Louis has gone 1274-993. That's a .561 winning percentage, and during this time no other NL Central team has managed even a .500 record.

The Cardinals have been, on an annual basis: almost 12 games better than the Reds, almost 14 games better than the Cubs, exactly 14 1/2 games better than the Brewers and about 20 1/2 games better than the Pirates. That's dominance. Yet none of those teams were built to dominate to the degree of this 2014 team, certainly not the high-stress Championship teams of 2006 and '11.

Those teams won 83 and 90 games, respectively, during the regular season. Ninety wins seems ridiculously low given all the talent that is itching to get on the plane toward Cincinnati for Opening Day.

"I don't want to put any jinxes on it yet, but everyone's body is still working,'' said right-hander Joe Kelly, who won the fifth starter's job over Carlos Martinez -- who would be getting ready to start with just about any other team.

With the exception of left-hander Jaime Garcia requiring a month's more rest and rehab because of pain in his shoulder, the Cardinals have escaped the plague of arm injuries around Major League Baseball. They're not celebrating, because such good news is always subject to change on a moment's notice -- see the ongoing challenges being faced by the Braves, A's and Rangers, among others -- but they're on the verge of leaving Florida with a running start toward a 100-win season.

Among the reasons they could be better than the team that won 97 games last season:

• Shortstop Jhonny Peralta, showing no ill effects of the PED suspension that caused him to be persona non grata in Detroit, lengthens the lineup, as they say around the batting cage. He hit .303 for the Tigers last season, and while there may be some defensive falloff, he could play at an All-Star level this season.

• After a slow start, rookie second baseman Kolten Wong has shown why General Manager John Mozeliak traded David Freese to open a spot for him in the lineup. He'll open the season hitting low in the order, but down the road could allow Matheny to move Matt Carpenter into a run-producing spot, where he could pile up RBIs.

• First baseman Matt Adams, the pride of Slippery Rock, seems poised for a breakout season. He's getting a chance to play every day and in Spring Training has hit .400 with a 1.067 OPS in 15 lefty-lefty at-bats. He could also be under All-Star consideration a few months from now.

Jason Motte, who had Tommy John surgery last May, is in the final stages of what has been a textbook recovery. The bullpen that is already loaded with Trevor Rosenthal, Martinez and Kevin Siegrist at the end, will own the last three innings if Motte pitches like he did in 2010-12.

• Wacha wasn't doing it with mirrors when he hung up a 2.65 ERA as a rookie. He's likely to pitch an extra 100 innings in his first full season, jumping up to 185 (if not more), and those won't be fun for opponents.

• There are more players where these guys came from. Outfielder Oscar Taveras, considered one of the best prospects in baseball, has continued to be gimpy after ankle surgery last year, but there's no reason to rush him. Especially not with Stephen Piscotty and Randal Grichuk in the wings if the Cardinals need outfield help.

"It is nice to know if we need help, and some guys aren't healthy, we have a couple different options to come up and give us a hand,'' Matheny said.

The challenge remains to take nothing for granted, and there have been no signs that these guys are going to kick it into cruise control, assuming the next six months are just a prelude to October.

"The first day of spring, and 100 times since then, it's been talked about,'' Matheny said. "With expectation, all that really is, is a compliment for things that have already been done and the talent that we have. All that means is we have potential. [Expectations] can be a distraction if we do anything differently than we've done in the past, which is to work hard, [and] commit to the process. The results will be there.''

So, too, may even be the occasional warning-track fly to keep Bourjos on his toes.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

St. Louis Cardinals, Peter Bourjos, Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright