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Health of the rotation and hitting in the clutch key to 2015 St. Louis Cardinals

Health is always an important factor in the fortunes of a Major League Baseball team. But, as St. Louis Cardinals pitchers and catchers report to spring training today, it would seem keeping players on the field is the single most important factor for the Redbirds in 2015.

While the team still has almost all of the major players who led St. Louis to the National League Championship four years in a row on the roster, gone is much of the depth that kept the team in contention as top players like Michael Wacha, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina spent time on the shelf in 2014

.Considering that the club has slipped into the playoffs by the thinnest of margins recently, clinching a spot last year on the last day of the season, the lack of depth could have a huge impact.

The Cardinals lost former first round draft choice Shelby Miller in trade to the Atlanta Braves and sent fellow young starter Joe Kelly to the Boston Red Sox in a trade for veteran starter John Lackey. In the last year of his contract, Lackey is no stranger to the disabled list. Meanwhile, Kelly was one of the first pitchers the Birds looked to in recent years when one of the regular starters went down.

Another super sub who contributed valuable innings both in the rotation and in the bullpen the last two years, young hurler Carlos Martinez, will be counted on to fill the fifth spot in the rotation on a permanent basis.

Martinez had trouble making it to the fifth inning of his few starts last year. But the Redbirds believe in him so strongly that they have rejected several trade proposals that included the hard throwing righty. Martinez was apparently at the top of the wish list of the Philadelphia Phillies in a prospective deal for ace Cole Hamels and the Atlanta Braves supposedly wanted Martinez over Miller and St. Louis said no.

The Cardinals still have at least one pretty good fill-in candidate in Marco Gonzales, a talented young lefty who has only a handful of major league appearances on his resume. But St. Louis will be in big trouble if more than one of its hurlers sputters. And that's a distinct possibility.

Adam Wainwright couldn't pitch like himself at the end of the season and in the playoffs because of elbow problems. He had a cleanup procedure over the winter and claims he's good to go. But he's thrown 468 2/3 regular season innings over the past two years as well as well as 51 post season innings. At age 33, it may be a lot to ask to expect him to keep that up.

Wacha claims he is also sound after a stress reaction in his shoulder blade shelved him for much of 2014. But that's an injury that has a tendency to become a chronic problem. And, as I already mentioned, Lackey has a history of arm problems. He's also 36.

The offense suffered a team-wide slump for much of 2014. Instead of an overhaul, general manager John Mozeliak opted to hope that players with a history of production will revert to their previous form.

Hopefully, Matt Carpenter and Kolten Wong will continue their hot hitting of the post season and Matt Adams will bat more like he did in the first half of last season than he did in the second half. The Cardinals also need rebound seasons from Yadier Molina, who struggled through injuries and posted pedestrian statistics compared to the remarkable hitting numbers he'd put up the previous three years, and Matt Holliday who suffered from a first half power outage.

Holiday rallied with 15 home runs and 51 RBIs after July 1. But the Cardinals need him to be more consistent throughout the year as the number three hitter anchoring the St. Louis batting order.

On the bright side, the Birds added Jason Heyward who, although he came at the steep cost of Shelby Miller and he's a pending free agent, is an excellent replacement on the roster for Oscar Taveras who lost his life in a tragic off-season car crash. Heyward will play better defense than Taveras could have by a wide margin. And he's a more polished player than Taveras would have been at the plate in 2015.

I look for Heyward to try to bring more power to his approach at the plate and help the Cardinals turn around a trend that saw them drop to the bottom of the rankings of MLB teams in power hitting.

St. Louis might not have one player who is likely to hit 40 home runs. But I wouldn't be surprised if they had seven who hit 15 homers and they could easily have four or five who hit 20 or more. Isn't that better than having one big gun that the opposition can pitch around?

The Birds have been good at getting on base. If they keep that up, all they need to do to make the offense produce like it did in a very prolific 2013 season is hit better in the clutch.

If they can do that -- and stay healthy -- it's going to be a very good year.