St. Louis Cardinals

Five ways the Cardinals can overcome their critics

The Cardinals are going to have to overcome some perceived paper deficits if they’re going to repeat as National League Central Division champions.

Here’s a look at five ways the Redbirds will have to surprise their critics to repeat as division champs:

▪  It should go without saying that the Cardinals need to be healthier than they were in 2015. Matt Holliday, Matt Adams, Adam Wainwright, Randal Grichuk and Jordan Walden are all capable of being big pieces if they can stay in game shape. Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha and -- of course, Jaime Garcia, were mostly health last season but the Redbirds and their fans have reasons to be concerned about their health in the future.

▪ The Cardinals’ young players need to introduce themselves to the nation.

I don’t really care about what the so-called-experts speculate about a comparison of Grichuk and Kris Bryant or Kolten Wong and Addison Russell. But it’s safe to say that if those players -- along with Stephen Piscotty, Martinez and Alex Reyes -- can wrestle some of the attention lavished upon Cubs prospects, they’re obviously producing at a very high level and that’s going to cause St. Louis to pile up wins.

Let’s see Grichuk hit .280 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs in 575 at bats. Let’s see Wong refine his swing and take over the lead-off spot, getting on base 39 or 40 percent of the time and batting .310 with 25 stolen bases and 15 homers. Let’s see Piscotty outhit his predecessor in right field, Jason Heyward, by a healthy margin. If two of those three things happen the Birds will have no trouble scoring runs in bunches.

▪ I hear all the time that the Cardinals record-setting performance from its 2015 pitching staff is “unrepeatable.”

I don’t buy that. At least not all of it.

Sure, the Cardinals’ starting five might not put up one of the top ERAs in the last 40 years again in 2016. But it doesn’t have to.

The current edition of the Cardinals doesn’t have to compete against the rotation of the 1966 Dodgers. It has to compete against the 2016 Dodgers... as well as the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.

This team is entirely capable of having the best ERA in the National League next season. I’d say the Cardinals certainly have one of the best three rotations in the Senior Circuit - at least on paper. So they don’t have to beat expectations. St. Louis hurlers just have to live up to their potential.

If the Birds can stay among the top three teams in NL pitching stats they’ll definitely be competitive in the playoff race.

▪ Matt Carpenter had a breakout season last year in the power department. But I still think there is more in the tank. The Cardinals need to tap into it and turn him from something of a secret weapon into a Most Valuable Player Award candidate.

Carpenter, 30, has bounced around in recent seasons. He moved from first base to second base to third and in the batting order he’s moved from the bottom of the order to the top. But, as Matt Holliday ages and the Cardinals struggle to find power from other spots, Carp needs to find a way to establish himself in a middle of the order production position as well as he’s adjusted to his different infield positions.

It’s reasonable, if Carpenter is installed in a spot in the middle of the order and left alone, that he could be one of the most productive players in baseball. I’d like to see his combination of power and patience slide down to the second, third or fifth spots in the batting order.

Ideally, I’d love to see this batting order on most days: Wong (L/2B), Piscotty (R/RF), Carpenter (L/3B), Grichuk (R/CF), Holliday (R/LF), Peralta (R/SS), Moss or Adams (L/1B) and Molina (R/C).

▪ Finally, the area where the Cardinals have the most room for improvement is the bench. Sort of.

Mark Reynolds was, technically, a bench player in 2015. But thanks to Adams’ injury he was pressed into regular service. Grichuk was supposed to be an extra outfielder but spent much of the season as a regular because of Jon Jay’s health issues and Peter Bourjos’ lack of production.

This year, the Cardinals need to be able to count on the bench to produce in spot situations instead of using its players as quasi starters. In short, the Cardinals can’t afford to have a guy playing the Pete Kozma role, collecting two or three bats a week and serving, mostly, as an insurance policy.

If the club is going to keep Holliday healthy, I see him coming out for a defensive replacement late in a lot of games. I also imagine he’ll have to depart now and then for a speedier runner.

If Matt Adams can contribute consistently, he’ll earn playing time that will push Moss into the outfielder picture. But, if Adams or Moss is the starter at first base, the other needs to be a threatening pinch hitter off the bench.

Jedd Georko wants to establish himself as a regular. But to do so, he needs to be available to play all over the infield and hit not matter where he plays.

St. Louis, more than anything, needs a boost of offense. And the bench could easily help the Cardinals score 20 percent more runs with timely pinch hits, production in lefty/righty platoons and just giving manager Mike Matheny the ability to mix and match instead of being forced to rely on the same eight players to carry all the load every day.