Trek toward postseason starts as spring arrives

Cardinals look for improvement from returning players, influence from newcomers

Trek toward postseason starts as spring arrives

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: Spring Training is here.

JUPITER, Fla. -- On the heels of the longest offseason they've had in seven years, the Cardinals are eager to open camp this week, and they will do so with sights set on a different finish than the one that disappointed them last year.

It'll be the first time since 2013 that the Cardinals will enter Spring Training without the distinction of being reigning National League Central champs. Instead, the Cards will take the field as division underdogs seeking to chase down a Cubs team that not only captured a World Series crown last fall, but also one that finished 17 1/2 games ahead of St. Louis.

"I think it will be a very competitive club we've got," said Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. "[General manager John Mozeliak] did an excellent job in the offseason to accomplish the goals he had. It's always great to kick off the season where you think you've got a really good chance to win, and that's the position we're in."

In order to get back to that familiar position of playing in October, the Cardinals need a variety of things to go right. There will be a re-calibrating of fundamentals following a year in which the Cards were among the league's worst in the field and on the bases. Look for this to be an emphasis throughout Spring Training.

The Cardinals are also optimistic that they'll see improvement from several returning players. Randal Grichuk and Kolten Wong have been assured the consistent playing time they didn't get last year. Aledmys Diaz now has big league experience to fall back on. Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake expect deeper and more dominant performances from themselves.

And then there are the newcomers, most notably outfielder Dexter Fowler and reliever Brett Cecil. The Cardinals anticipate immediate impact from both.

Fowler fills key Cardinals needs

St. Louis saw last year how Spring Training sets the tone for the season ahead. The same deficiencies and disjointedness that hurt them in the regular season were observed all the way back in March. This year, the Cardinals will seek a more unified and fundamentally sound start.

"I think there's an urgency every year when you're part of an organization that demands from ourselves what our fan base demands," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's for us to show up with a great-looking product that is consistent with what the expectations are."

What follows is a glance at the Spring Training picture for the Cardinals as camp opens.

Pitchers and catchers report: Monday

Position players report: Thursday

First Grapefruit League game: Road vs. Marlins on Feb. 25 at 12:05 p.m. CT

New faces
As far as offseason additions are concerned, the organization features few new faces on its 40-man roster. But the team's two free-agent signings were prominent ones: Cecil (four years, $30.5 million) signed in November, followed by Fowler (five years, $82.5 million) a few weeks later. Fowler will slot in as the team's new leadoff hitter and starting center fielder. Cecil will serve as a setup man in the bullpen. The other addition was John Gant, one of three pitchers the Cardinals acquired by sending Jaime Garcia to Atlanta. Gant made 20 appearances for the Braves last season.

Cecil on being flexible in 'pen

Interesting non-roster invitees
The non-roster invitee most likely to crack the Cardinals' Opening Day roster is catcher Eric Fryer, who opens camp as the favorite to be Yadier Molina's backup. The Cardinals have taken some of the intrigue out of that backup catcher competition by noting that they'd prefer Carson Kelly -- the club's No. 11 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline -- return to Triple-A, where he'll find regular playing time. Jordan Schafer will be another non-roster player to watch. Schafer broke into the Majors as an outfielder in 2009, but he transitioned to the mound last season. The Cardinals expect to give him opportunities at both spots this spring. Organizational top 10 prospects Harrison Bader, Jack Flaherty and Sandy Alcantara have also been granted an invite to big league camp.

Prospects to watch
No. 1 prospect Alex Reyes will have season-ending Tommy John surgery. Kelly will have an opportunity to keep improving behind the plate, and Luke Weaver will try to find a fit after being a part of the Cards' second-half rotation. There are also a handful of prospects who will be participating in their first Major League Spring Training, including Bader, Flaherty, Alcantara and Magneuris Sierra.

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.