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Consistent Cardinals have few worries

GM Mozeliak puts St. Louis in position to again contend for World Series title

JUPITER, Fla. -- Once more, they have very few question marks. As usual, they have high expectations. In that way, the St. Louis Cardinals never seem to change much.

"I think that's what we take the most pride in," Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak said.

Worries? He has a few.

There will be a couple of kids in the lineup and possibly two in the rotation, as well. And there's that offense. After leading the National League in runs in 2013, the Cardinals dropped to ninth last year. They don't expect to be ninth again.

Video: Matheny talks individual growth at the plate

All in all, though, it's the same old, same old. The Cardinals are favored to do what they've been doing better than almost anyone. They're a consensus pick to win a third straight NL Central championship and to make their 12th postseason appearance in 16 seasons.

Here's the best number of all, perhaps the one they're most proud of. In the last 15 seasons, the Cardinals have played -- and won -- more postseason games than any other team in baseball.

Wait, there's more.

In the last four years, they've played 19 more postseason games than any other and won more of them, too -- 31 in all.

Onward …

"It's been great, obviously," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said.

It's about doing everything right, or at least taking pride in it. It's about player development and efficient spending. It's about feeding off the environment of a city where baseball season runs 365 days a year.

"The organization does such a great job of bringing in quality people," Holliday said. "They make the clubhouse fun. We've done a great job of developing young players that have come up and respect the game and fit right in. The organization has allowed us to create a great winning environment."

One part of their story that sometimes gets overlooked is that the Cardinals completely changed their baseball model after the 2007 season when Mozeliak took over as general manager.

Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. wanted to shift direction toward a player development-oriented system, one in which success could be sustained with a constant supply of young, affordable talent and a reasonable payroll.

In seven seasons under Mozeliak, the Cardinals have 628 regular-season victories, second only to 648 by the Yankees. In that time, they've averaged 11th in payroll and been in the top 10 only once. They do this with a straight forward belief in embracing analytics and the First-Year Player Draft, and especially in being willing to give their young players an opportunity.

"That's one of my themes when I address our Minor League system," Mozeliak said. "You do your job. You play well. You will play in the big leagues for us."

As Cardinals first baseman Matt Adams said, "It's pretty cool to see the faith they have in young players, even the guys in the Minor Leagues. The Cardinals believe in homegrown players. That gives you a lot of faith, knowing they want you to be part of their club."

Video: Matheny on power hitters bunting against shift

Sometimes, that means making tough decisions and cutting the cord with popular players. Judge us by the bottom line, they say.

"We have been able to navigate that landscape that changed so dramatically for us and still maintain that very high level of success," Mozeliak said.

In the wake of getting all the way to the NL Championship Series -- and losing to the Giants -- last season, the Cardinals begin this spring with one prominent new face: right fielder Jason Heyward, acquired from the Braves.

Cardinals right fielders were last in the NL in OPS in 2015, and in the wake of the death of young Oscar Taveras, Mozeliak felt he had to go outside the organization for answers.

In Heyward, he's getting arguably the best defensive outfielder in the game, as well as a left-handed bat and a career .781 OPS. After five seasons with the Braves, Heyward is just beginning the St. Louis experience.

"It says a lot about the organization that they wanted me," he said. "I don't feel like they needed a whole lot. For me, you don't come to an organization like this by chance. It's by design. Not to toot my own horn, but it says something about the way I like to play the game. I hope they know I respect the game and love to play it the right way."

Video: Matheny discusses Heyward's role in the lineup

Perhaps the real key to more offense are the veterans like catcher Yadier Molina staying healthy and the two young guys, Adams and second baseman Kolten Wong, continuing to get better.

Adams hit .190 against left-handed pitching in 2014, and Mozeliak brought in veteran Mark Reynolds as insurance. But Adams hit left-handed pitching in the Minors, and the Cardinals believe last season's struggle was part of the adjustment process.

"He did a great job in the postseason against some of the toughest left-handers in the league," Mozeliak said. "We're not scared of Matt facing lefties, but Matt has some work to do. He knows that. Just like the rest of our guys do to continue to be in that lineup."

About the only other question is at the back of the rotation, where Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha have just 36 career starts between them, and Wacha is coming off a season in which injuries limited him to 19 starts.

So far, though, he has passed every test, and because they are the Cardinals, they have young pitching depth stacked nicely behind the projected starting five.

"I think it's an honor and a cool feeling to be part of a club like this," Adams said. "As soon as we step foot into Spring Training, we're expecting to go to the World Series. It's cool to be part of."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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