ST. LOUIS -- Manager Mike Matheny stood in the Cardinals' Spring Training clubhouse on the morning of the team's first full-squad workout in February and deliberately chose not to gloss over his ultimate expectation by laying out a stair-step of goals.
There was no talk of division titles or league pennants. Sights were set on a World Series championship.
Months later, the Cards are closing in on a division title that would put the organization three series wins away from meeting Matheny's challenge.
One win in their upcoming three-game series against the Cubs -- or a single loss by the Pirates -- will secure the Cardinals' seventh National League Central crown since 2000. At no other point in the franchise's storied history have the Cards won that many division titles in such a condensed time frame.
It is within such context that this period of success is evolving into something particularly special.
St. Louis has been to three World Series, winning two of them, and has as many division titles as any other NL team in this century. Not only has success been sustained -- evidenced by the fact that the Cardinals have missed the playoffs in consecutive years just once since 2000 -- but the renewed focus in building this organization largely from within positions the Cards to be postseason contenders for the long term.
"I think we could make this one of the golden eras of Cardinal baseball if we go out there and execute the way we can, play the way we should," said Adam Wainwright, one of three remaining players from the 2006 and '11 World Series championship clubs. "If we make good on all the talent that is in that clubhouse, there is no question in my mind that we could be a playoff, deep-into-October team for a long, long time. We just have to go out there and do our part."
The Cardinals have built their roster around budding young talent. Twenty rookies contributed in 2013, from three former first-round picks to another six taken after the 20th round. The organization has also prioritized locking down its core, with Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Allen Craig all having signed multiyear deals over the last two seasons.
The formula of building from the inside out has worked because St. Louis also hit on some critical free-agent pursuits (Carlos Beltran ) while being wise enough not to overpay in others (Albert Pujols ). The byproduct of the latter is ongoing financial flexibility, something that has been critical in helping the Cards plug other holes.
"When you have Yadi for five years, you have Waino leading the staff and you have all these unbelievable arms with more to come, they'll be solid for a while," said veteran Jake Westbrook. "That's part of what they do here. Even the fringe Minor League guys, they change into guys who can be great. They've just got a good game plan, and it shows by the record and the things we have done the last couple of years."
Though the Giants have won two of the last three World Series, those are San Francisco's only two postseason appearances since 2003. Conversely, what the Cardinals have built is a claim to being the NL's team of the 2000s.
St. Louis leads the league with 10 postseason appearances since 2000. Closest to the Cardinals are the Braves, a team that will be in the playoffs for the ninth time in these 14 years, but one that has captured just one playoff series during that stretch. The Cards, on the other hand, have taken 13. Only the Yankees have more playoff wins than St. Louis' 51.
The Cardinals are the lone NL team to boast a winning record for the last six seasons, and their string of three consecutive postseason appearances will tie the Tigers for the longest active streak in the Majors, assuming the Rangers don't sneak in.
"It's an honor to be a part of this organization, to be a part of this team and its history," Chris Carpenter said. "It's an honor, not just because of what this organization has done in the last 10 to 12 years, but over its whole time. They've done a great job of setting themselves up with some great, young, talented players who know what they're doing, know how to play the game and play the game the right way. Hopefully, you can continue with these players, add a couple of veterans here or there and then you can continue on with a nice long-term plan."
It is no coincidence that the Cards are headed to their 11th playoff appearance in the 18 years under the ownership of Bill DeWitt Jr. It was largely his vision of turning attention to building a strong, sustainable development system last decade that positioned St. Louis to handle the departures of other core players.
Twenty-seven of the players to appear on the Cardinals' roster at some point in 2013 were drafted by the organization. Another three were signed as international free agents and two others were acquired in trades as Minor Leaguers. As it sets up now, the Cards' playoff roster is likely going to include, at most, only five players -- Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Edward Mujica, Randy Choate and John Axford -- who did not play in St. Louis' Minor League system.
"Back when we had really good teams in the '04, '05, '06 time frame, I could see that underneath, when those players aged or left or retired, that we would be struggling," DeWitt said. "We put a big effort in the farm system and in player procurement -- both domestically and internationally -- and I think that strategy has paid off. Now you're seeing those young guys who we drafted and developed back then coming in and helping us challenge for the division championship."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less