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Cardinals may surprise some folks

It’s the second-most wonderful day of the year!

Today pitchers and catchers report to the St. Louis Cardinals spring training camp in Jupiter, Fla. Finally, after one of the most frustrating winters in the history of the storied franchise -- at least in recent memory -- we can stop speculating about the impact of the arrival and departure of free agents, the health of old warhorses and the development of young players.

Starting today, we can focus on what happens between the white lines instead of in the front office.

The only day that’s better is opening day of the regular season when the games start to count.

I readily admit that I am disappointed the Cardinals didn’t do more over the off-season. If I could change one thing it would be that the team wouldn’t bail on its efforts to sign David Price when it was so close to landing the player I believe was easily the best talent available this off-season.

Sure, the money was ridiculous. It’s always going to be ridiculous. But the Redbirds could afford it. And the team’s leadership obviously was convinced Price was their man. Rumors were rampant that the team tried to trade for Price TWICE before he reached free agency -- there was too much smoke for their not to be any fire -- and then the club made the largest offer it ever extended for a pitcher.

Price would have given the team a pair of imposing co-aces along with Adam Wainwright. Something that worked so well for the team a few years ago when Wainwright emerged as a co-ace to Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter.

It just seems to me that giving Price $20-$25 million more makes more sense than giving Mike Leake, a guy who projects to be the Cardinals’ fourth or fifth starter, $80 million.

But that’s all water under the bridge now.

While it seemed like the resources were there to make an improvement or two, the Cardinals don’t appear to be much different on paper than the club that won 100 games in 2015.

Without Price, the Cardinals will trot out a rotation of Wainwright, 17-game winner Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Leake and seemingly recovered lefty Jaime Garcia.

While it lacks the star power of Price, some national publications have ranked St. Louis’ starting five the best rotation in baseball despite the loss of former St. Louis hurler John Lackey to the rival Cubs and workhorse Lance Lynn to surgery which will wipe out his 2016 campaign.

Lackey had a sparkling 2.77 ERA last year for St. Louis. But it translated to only 13 wins on a formidable team. That ranked Lackey third among Cardinals starters in victories behind Wacha’s 17 and Martinez 14.

The Redbirds will try to compensate not only with the addition of Leake who won 11 last year and averages 12 victories a season. But also with Wainwright, who has averaged 16 victories per season, after a 2015 campaign lost almost entirely to a leg injury.

Verdict: If Wainwright, Wacha and Martinez are healthy, the Cardinals rotation should be even better than the one the one that led National League staffs with a 2.94 ERA last year.

I’m not going to promise that the team ERA will be lower. But I will say that if Wainwright is back in form -- and he seemed to be in October when he returned as a reliever -- and Wacha and Martinez continue to develop from prospects into their prime, the Cardinals pitching staff will give the team a good chance to win every single day.

As far as the offense goes, the Cardinals lost right fielder Jason Hayward -- also to the Cubs. On paper it seems like a lot of talent is shifting in one direction.

But part of the equation that isn’t discussed much on ESPN is what the Redbirds have in place to fill the hole.

Enter Stephen Piscotty.

If you look at Heyward’s numbers throughout his early career, it’s not at all far-fetched that Piscotty could fill the veteran player’s shoes.

Heyward is a career .268 batter who averages 16 home runs and 59 RBIs a year. Piscotty not only showed more upside in the batting average department in 2015 with a .305 average, he showed that he has as much potential or more as a power hitter. And, while Heyward gets a lot of ink for his fielding, don’t sell Piscotty’s glove short. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield and plays smart. He’ll certainly be one of the better fielders among NL flychasers.

Factor in a recovered Matt Holliday and Matt Adams, a full season of Brandon Moss and the replacement with the inefficient centerfield tandem of Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos with power hitter Randal Grichuk and the offense figures to be much better next year.

The Cardinals also made improvements to the bench and bullpen that will give the team more flexibility, balance and depth.

So, finally, we’ll get to see if general manager John Mozeliak knew what he was doing when he took a pass on adding a big bat and/or an imposing starting pitcher during what is officially now LAST off-season.

I think the Cardinals are going to be a lot tougher than some folks think they’ll be -- including a certain outfielder in Chicago.

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