Cardinals look to retake division crown

Cardinals look to retake division crown

With Spring Training fast approaching, MLB.com will take a look at a different aspect of this year's Cardinals squad each day this week. Today's topic: The perfect season.

ST. LOUIS -- Opinions about what would define a perfect season for the Cardinals would certainly vary depending upon those surveyed. However, there is likely one place where universal agreement could be reached.

That perfect season would entail grabbing the National League Central title back from the Cubs.

Across the Majors, goals set for 2017

The Cardinals understand their position as division underdogs, for it's the same spot they found themselves in a year ago on the heels of Chicago's big offseason. Now, the Cubs are the defending World Series champs and built to return to the postseason.

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The Cubs ran away with the NL Central last season, finishing the year 17 1/2 games ahead of the Cardinals. It represented the largest gap between a division winner and runner-up since 2008, when the Angels took the American League West by 21 games.

Chicago's ascension ended a run of three consecutive division titles for St. Louis, which also had its five-year streak of postseason appearances snapped. It was a reality check for the Cardinals, who had long been the club setting the division standard. Now, they're left playing catch up.

Cards could take over NL Central

Still, the Cardinals tried to separate last year's division standings from their offseason work, insisting that moves were made to improve upon an 86-win season, not single-handedly erase a 17 1/2-game difference.

"I always feel like it's sort of dangerous to simply chase your neighbors," general manager John Mozeliak explained. "That phrase 'keeping up the with the Joneses' can be dangerous, right? I think the best strategy is try to build a club that you think has a chance to win your division, get to the postseason."

Some of the Cardinals' optimism about the season ahead was generated through their own offseason work. The signings of Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil addressed areas of need, and the continued growth of several young players is expected.

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But the club is also looking to recent history as a harbinger of what could come for the Cubs. Since 2004, only one team has followed up a 100-win season with another in the subsequent year. That, incidentally, was the Cardinals, who had 105 wins in '04 and 100 in '05.

The other six such teams won an average of 12 fewer games the next year. Only two repeated as division champs, and two others were altogether left out of the postseason picture. In other words, regression is likely.

The Cubs-Cardinals rivalry has been elevated these last two years by their first postseason meeting and a flip in division superiority. They won't have to wait long to size each other up in 2017 either, as the clubs open the Major League Baseball season with a nationally televised game from Busch Stadium on April 2.

"Lots of things went well up North last year and certainly that would have to be expected again this year [for the Cubs] to necessarily repeat," Mozeliak said. "I'll tell you this -- nobody in our clubhouse is conceding anything. No one is waving a white flag and saying we're just playing for second."

Jenifer Langosch has covered the Cardinals for MLB.com since 2012, and previously covered the Pirates from 2007-11. Read her blog, follow her on Twitter, like her Facebook page and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.