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Spring expectation: October will be red

It’s almost a rite of spring for the St. Louis Cardinals to be picked to win the National League Central.

And why not? The Cardinals have won the division title eight times in the last 15 years. On four other occasions, they have finished second, including 2011 when they won their 11th World Championship.

Prognosticators are all in on the Cardinals (90-72 last year) as the season opens April 5 with a nationally televised game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field.

The Cardinals are poised for another run as they lean heavily on an Adam Wainwright-led rotation that, if healthy, will be their foundation. The offense, which lacked power and speed last season, could again struggle in those departments, although having newcomer Jason Heyward in right field should help, as should a full season from second baseman Kolten Wong.

Throw in a couple of All-Stars in catcher Yadier Molina and third baseman Matt Carpenter, left fielder Matt Holliday, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, center fielder Jon Jay, first baseman Matt Adams and closer Trevor Rosenthal, and fourth-year manager Mike Matheny is ready for the long ride.

“That’s the fortunate thing about being in this organization,” Matheny said. “I know our ownership and front office make the sacrifices to get us a team that should compete. Then it comes down to the application, which is tough. But we believe in what we have and we’re excited to watch it run. I have concerns about exactly how it plays out with our roster, but overall, I feel real good about where everybody is.”

Wainwright, coming off a 20-9 season in which he started for the NL in the All-Star Game, said he has the same feel about this team that he’s had for others that made a long run into October.

“I would say most of the teams I’ve been a part of here have all felt relatively similar,” said Wainwright, who will oppose Jon Lester in the season opener. “There’s been the same kind of vibe in the clubhouse, a positive vibe, and expectations to go with it.”

Expectations the Cardinals embrace.

“I think it looks like a very dangerous team, actually,” Wainwright said.” I think we have some players that have unrealized talent that can be even more special than they’ve already been.”

Holliday, the oldest everyday player at 35, seldom beats around the bush on any topic. Like Wainwright, he’s been around long enough to recognize a good thing when he sees it.

“We’ve got a chance to have a really good team,” he said. “So far, everybody’s healthy. That’s really the goal of spring training: get sharp and have everybody be healthy. Looking at it right now, we’ve got a great chance. We’ve got a lot of winning players. We’ve got a lot of talent and a lot of guys that know how to play the game.

“I’m looking to achieve another championship. I’d like to have another ring. We continue to have the talent and the ability to do that. We come to spring training every year expecting to win and win big. That’s the goal.”

The Cardinals ranked last in home runs with 105 and were tied for ninth in runs scored (619) last season. A power explosion in the playoffs lead many to believe they will hit many more homers.

Right fielder Heyward, who smashed a career-high 27 in 2012, is just 25 and has more to offer. Carpenter (eight), Wong (12), Adams (15) and Molina (seven) are all capable of boosting their totals, and Peralta (21) and Holliday (20) should meet or exceed their 2014 output. Peralta’s total was a franchise record for shortstops.

Carpenter, who has practiced patience at the top of the order, hit four home runs in the postseason last fall, three against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL Division Series. Carpenter , 29, vows to be more aggressive in certain situations.

“Certainly, I’m always going to be a guy that’s patient at the plate,” said Carpenter, who batted .272 with a team-high .375 on-base percentage last year. “But that was a good learning experience for me, being aggressive. Of the four home runs I hit, I think three were on the first pitch, and that’s something typically I don’t do a lot of. It was a good learning experience. I took more of an aggressive approach in the postseason.”

Heyward batted leadoff 94 times last season for the Atlanta Braves. He will hit between Carpenter and Holliday, and Matheny said he will have be unleashed in all instances.

Matheny said: “I’ve told him, ‘I don’t know if there’s going to be a time this whole year when I’m going to ask you to give yourself up to get the runner over. I want you driving the ball. I want you with that mindset. You’re going to get the runner over at times when you mishit a ball, but I don’t want that being your thought, to give up an out. I want you smokin’ it, no matter where they’re pitching it to you.’

“That mentality it going to help free him up.”

Holliday, like Carpenter, batted .272 on the strength of another big second half. Adams was among the league leaders in average for much of the season before finishing at .288. Adams’ struggles against left-handed pitching (.190, three home runs in 121 at-bats) led the Cardinals to sign slugger Mark Reynolds as a platoon option at first base.

“I’m going to come in on a daily basis and if my name’s in the lineup, I’m going to be ready to play,” Adams said. “If Mark’s in the lineup, that’s good, too. He’s a great ballplayer. It’s whatever (Matheny) and the staff feels is best for that day. We’ll just play it by ear.”

The underappreciated Jay is expected to provide a .300 average and solid defense in center, while the soft-spoken Peralta, who batted .263 with 75 RBIs, believes he’s capable of providing better clutch hitting after a .239 average with runners in scoring position last season.

“Every guy that comes to a new team is usually pressing a little bit, especially under extinuating circumstances that he felt he needed to navigate through,” Matheny said, referring to Peralta’s 50-game suspension for PED use in 2013. “He was the same guy, every single day, all season long. That’s part of what’s so great about him.”

Wong batted .249 in the regular season, but hammered three postseason homers.

“I definitely know I’ve got power in my swing,” Wong said. “It’s not a fluke. I hit 12 home runs in the regular season. I know I can hit home runs, but that’s definitely not something I’m going to try to do. Hopefully, I can build on a better average and the home runs will come. I know I’m going to have a few here and there.”

Molina, 32, has dropped 20 pounds, which should ease the pressure on his knees. What is not known is how it will affect his offensive output. He had just 28 extra-base hits in 2014, although he was limited to 110 games because of a thumb injury.

“He’s in great shape,” Matheny said. “It always baffles me when I hear people giving guys grief for being in good shape. He’s working extremely hard to be in the kind of condition he feels he needs to be in to play as many games as he can play. That’s part of his goal. That’s part of what he believes he brings to this team: durability. He feels he needs to be in a different kind of shape, and he’s working hard to maintain that.”

There are physical concerns about the rotation.

Wainwright, whose 2.38 ERA last year was the lowest of his career, had an elbow cleanup after last season, then had an abdominal strain in spring training. But he has worked through both injuries and was ready to go by the final week of camp.

Lance Lynn (15-10, 2.74) recovered quickly from a strained left hip flexor, and Michael Wacha (5-6, 3.20 ERA) had a normal spring after missing much of last season with a stress reaction in the back of his right shoulder.

Veteran John Lackey, 36, took things slow and easy to stay fresh for the long haul, something he has done at other times in his career.

Jaime Garcia (3-1, 4.12 ERA), who battled Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez for the fifth spot in the rotation, showed remarkable resiliency after being shut down in June last season and eventually undergoing thoracic outlet syndrome surgery. Whether Garcia can stay healthy in what likely is his final season in St. Louis merits constant attention.

The bullpen, led by Rosenthal, should be fine. Rosenthal was 45-for-51 in save opportunities in his first season as the Cardinals’ closer, but his occasional bouts of wildness elicit groans from fans and put them on the edge of their seats. Rosenthal hopes to calm their nerves this season by showing better command of the strike zone.

“For me, it’s continuing to learn and making adjustments,” he said.

Randy Choate, who limited left-handed batters to a .093 average last season, will team with Kevin Siegrist to give the Cardinals two lefties in the bullpen. Siegrist was injured much of last season and will look to recapture the form that made him so dominant in 2013.

The Cardinals have a new look on the right side of their pen, as Carlos Villanueva, Matt Belisle and Jordan Walden are on board. Villanueva and Belisle signed free-agent deals, while Walden arrived in St. Louis with Heyward in the trade with the Braves that sent pitchers Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to Atlanta. They will join Rosenthal, perhaps Martinez and Seth Maness, who has induced 28 double plays in the last two years.

St. Louis committed just 88 errors last season. Only Atlanta (85), Philadelphia (83) and Cincinnati (72) had fewer, yet all three of those teams failed to make the playoffs. In defensive efficiency, or the percentage of balls in play that were converted into outs, the Cardinals ranked third in the NL at .701, behind only Cincinnati (.712) and San Francisco (.703).

The Cardinals have plus defenders with Heyward in right, Jay and backup Peter Bourjos in center and Molina behind the plate. Third baseman Carpenter and second baseman Wong are considered above average; first baseman Adams and shortstop Peralta, to the surprise of many, didn’t hurt the team in the field last season. Reserve outfielder Randal Grichuk also merits recognition for his defensive skills.

Holliday remains a below-average defender in left, although he made several running grabs in left-center last season.

The Cardinals realize, of course, that they will be targeted. Other organization have grown envious of the success the Cardinals have enjoyed under The Arch.

“We don’t care about the opinions of others,” Holliday said. “We’re here to win and we know how to do it and what it takes. What it takes is grinding through a long season and being willing to pay the price for the success that we’ve been able to have. We’re not really worried about what other people are doing. We just worry about ourselves and going out and playing the game the right way.”

Wainwright, who has developed a close bond with Holliday over the years, holds a similar position. His focus is on the Cardinals, not about what others are saying about them.

“We just stay out of that and go about our business,” Wainwright said. “If we win, we win. We perfectly expect to go out there and do that again. One thing we do know is we have great players in here. We should win; there’s no reason we shouldn’t win. We need to go out there and execute and we should be fine.”

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Matt Holliday joined the St. Louis Cardinals.

He left Colorado at the end of the 2008 season, played 93 games for the Oakland A’s, then was shipped into St. Louis for the unfathomable ransom of pitcher Clayton Mortensen, infielder Shane Peterson for former No. 1 draft pick Brett Wallace, none of whom saw an inning of big league play in 2014.

Holliday arrived in the middle of a tight division race with the Cubs. In the regular season’s final 63 games, he hit .353 with 13 homers and 55 RBI, 12 of which were of the game-winning variety.

Fueled in large part by Holliday’s addition to the lineup, the Cardinals won 20 of 26 games and stretched a half-game lead over the Cubs on Aug. 1 to 10 games by Sept. 1.

He clearly liked St. Louis and Cardinals Nation couldn’t help but love Holliday.

Until ...

St. Louis advanced to the National League Division Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. After losing game one, Holliday put the Cardinals in position to tie the series with a two-run dinger that put his team up 2-1.

But with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the Dodgers’ James Loney poked a liner toward Holliday in left field that should have ended the game. But Holliday lost the ball in the low Dodger Stadium lights and Loney ended up on second base.

Los Angeles went on to win the game and, eventually, the series. Holliday’s three months as an instant hero went right out the door.

He became an instant goat.

Cardinal Nation has been strangely skeptical of one of baseball’s most consistent performers ever since.

Some still like to tell me how he can’t perform in the clutch.

It didn’t certainly didn’t take any heat off Holliday when, a few weeks after he misplayed Loney’s liner, the Cardinals secured his services with a seven-year, $120 million contract.

Today, this makes Holliday — gasp! — the 40th-highest paid player in baseball.

But $16 million a year (it’s $17 million now) was a pretty big deal in 2009, not just because it was the richest contract the Cardinals’ history. Albert Pujols was still on the team, fresh off his second consecutive National League MVP award, still widely considered the best player in baseball, but suddenly second fiddle on the payroll.

Not long after the ink dried on Holliday’s new contract, the Nationals gave Jayson Werth — a guy who has only once hit over .300 in a full season and has yet to top 100 RBI — $22 million per year to establish a new baseline for outfielders. It also made Holliday a relative bargain.

No matter.

Big money heaped big expectation on Holliday. With the image of that muffed Loney liner still fresh in their heads, a faction of some observers questioned the contract. And, strangely enough, still do.

All Holliday has done in the five seasons since signing that contract is pound the ball with drum-beat consistency. Extrapolated over a 162-game average, Holliday has hit .300 with 27 home runs and 105 RBI as the Cardinals’ left fielder.

And that clutch thing? His career batting average with runners in scoring position is .308 and has only improved since coming to St. Louis. Last year his average with RISP was .361 (90 points better than his season average). It was still .295 with two outs and a two-strike count.

So here we are, these many years later, and Holliday is still an anchor ... no ... the anchor of the Cardinals’ lineup.

The 11-year big league veteran has at least two more seasons in Cardinal red and a third year if the teams wants him in 2017.

Yet some fans’ view of him still seems to be that of an unproven rookie.

It’s like they’re waiting for the player who, in Colorado’s thin air, led the National League with a .340 batting average, 137 RBI and 50 doubles.

That was never going to happen in St. Louis’ stifling air and smaller outfield gaps.

But what else does he have to prove?

At 35, Holliday is beyond the age of ascending statistics, so we’ve seen his best. His power numbers have been in decline over the last five seasons. His RBI total has been down three years in a row, as have his home run totals.

But Holliday is still dangerous.

He remains a doubles machine having hit hit 37 just last year, his most since he stroked 45 in 2010.

His strikeouts-to-walks ratio was actually better than his career average and, in fact, his 74 walks in 2014 were second only to the 75 he had two seasons prior.

All said, his on-base percentage is still way ahead of the average. He’ll reach base in nearly 38 percent of his plate appearances.

The question is, as always, whether Holliday can meet the lofty expectations of a well-paid middle-of-the-lineup hitter. In St. Louis, he never has.

But he’ll do more than enough.

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