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Cardinals not ready to surrender role as team to beat

The St. Louis Cardinals pitching staff was the team’s rock all season, keeping the team in first place despite an unbelievable string of injuries.

But the hurlers seemed to run out of gas the last few weeks of the season and couldn’t get their mojo back in time for a serious playoff run.

It was a disappointing way to end a fantastic season. This club seemed too deep and talented not to be a serious threat to bring home St. Louis’ 12th World Series crown. But there is still a lot for it to look forward to in the future.

First, ace Adam Wainwright, who was lost as a starter for the season in late April due to an Achilles injury, made an amazing recovery from his injury and pitched successfully six months sooner than expected.

Wainwright managed to pitch 5 1/3 innings in the post season with a 1.69 ERA, three hits allowed and six strikeouts with no walks. That’s got to be encouraging to Cardinals fans who wonder what might have been if Wainwright was able to pitch a full season, keeping innings off the arms of Carlos Martinez who was injured late in the season and Michael Wacha who was ineffective late.

Wainwright is 33. But his arm ought to be about two years fresher than that with an entire season lost to Tommy John surgery in 2011 and almost all of this season spent in mothballs.

I’m really looking forward to having one of the best pitchers in the majors back in the fold next season.

While Wacha and Martinez flamed out, their performaces will give St. Louis fans a lot to be excited about over the winter.

First, a lot of folks were ready to kick dirt on Wacha’s career after he missed much of 2014 with a shoulder blade injury. Last winter I got more emails telling me Wacha’s career was ruined than any other single topic concerning the Redbirds.

But Wacha pitched healthy all year, logged 181 1/3 innings and won 17 of 24 decisions with a 3.38 ERA, 184 strikeouts and 63 walks.

It’s not surprising to see a guy who only threw 107 innings last year because of health concerns hit the wall as he blew past his previous season’s total. But the bright side is Wacha is better conditioned for 2016. And we ought to be able to breathe easier when he pitches because he’s proved he can again be an elite pitcher while remaining durable.

Martinez was the Cardinals’ biggest question in my book coming into the 2015 season. He was, obviously, extremely talented but seemed to be a bit of a knucklehead who couldn’t focus his abilities. I was afraid, following the loss of his best friend, Oscar Taveras, to a tragic crash, that Martinez would go completely off the rails.

But for much of 2015 he was the Redbirds nastiest pitcher.

Like Wacha, Martinez was limited in his innings worked last year, logging 89 1/3. He should be better set to pitch a full, healthy season in 2016.

It was painful to see Martinez sidelined at the end of the year. I believe if Wainwright, Wacha and Martinez were in the St. Louis rotation alongside John Lackey, the NLDS would have been entirely different. But there is no doubt the Cardinals made the right move to be ultra careful with their talented, young hurler.

On the other side of the ball, Cardinals fans ought to be excited about the fact that Stephen Piscotty finally arrived in the major leagues and was BETTER than advertised.

We knew he was an excellent defensive outfielder but the knock was that he couldn’t hit for enough power to be a starter. But Piscotty slugged .494 with seven homers, 15 doubles and four triples in 233 at-bats during the regular season and was St. Louis’ best hitter in the playoffs with a .375 average and three homers in four games.

A full season of Piscotty, even if he can’t keep up his amazing display of extra base hitting, is going to make the Redbirds deeper and better in 2016.

That being said, I hope the Cardinals can work something out to keep Jason Heyward in the fold for next year.

While Piscotty seems to be ready for full-time duty now, Heyward is a special, five-tool player who could be a centerpiece player for the team for the next six or seven seasons.

Heyward ought to start in right in 2016 with Piscotty getting significant playing time at first base, in left field a couple of days in place of 36-year-old Matt Holliday and get some time in centerfield, too.

After the 2016 season, the Cardinals could decline Holliday’s option if he continues to suffer injury problems and become less productive. In short, if there is an issue with having too many outfielders (which I don’t believe), it’s only a temporary one and the issue will solve itself in short order. That’s no reason to let a special player walk.

Most importantly, despite the gushing on the part of the TBS broadcasting crew about the Chicago Cubs young roster, we shouldn’t be convinced that the Cardinals are ready to be put out to pasture.

Cardinals players who are under 28:

Kolten Wong, Randal Grichuk, Heyward, Piscotty, Wacha, Martinez, Matt Adams, Tommy Pham, Greg Garcia, Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, Tim Cooney, Marco Gonzales and let’s not forget fireballer Alex Reyes who is expected to make his major league debut in 2016.

That’s more than half of the potential 2016 roster just entering its prime.

Throw in a winter of rest for Yadier Molina and Holliday and there is no reason to believe St. Louis can’t win 100 games again next year -- and be a World Series favorite.

Quoth Wainwright: “We’re not going anywhere.”

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