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Richard Justice

Cardinals in the driver's seat for 2014

Cardinals in the driver's seat for 2014

Cardinals in the driver's seat for 2014

No team is better positioned for 2014 than the St. Louis Cardinals. As consolation prizes go, that's a pretty good one.

Nothing will ease the sting of losing a World Series, but having the brightest future in baseball is a good place to start. Here's a handy dandy state-of-the-Cardinals summary:

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• Pitching depth, specifically young pitching depth. From Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller and Michael Wacha to Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and Carlos Martinez, the Cardinals are the envy of every other organization.

• Terrific core of veterans, beginning with Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright, two of the most respected and productive players in the game. Right behind them are a pair of All-Stars, second baseman Matt Carpenter and first baseman Allen Craig, both under 30, both established as cornerstone players.

• Payroll flexibility to add a big-ticket veteran. If you're thinking Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki would look good in a Cardinals uniform, you're not alone. With only around $70 million on the books for 2014 before arbitration cases, the Cardinals could do something dramatic.

• A top five Minor League system. Wacha, Martinez and Rosenthal have arrived. Second baseman Kolten Wong and outfielder Oscar Taveras are next. There's more on the way.

• Tradition. Having been to the playoffs 10 times in 14 seasons, the Cardinals have an expectation of winning, beginning at the highest levels of the organization and extending to every nook and cranny.

In short, the Cardinals are the gold standard for every other organization. Are they perfect? They are not. Do they have questions? Yes, a long list of them.

This likely will be a stressful offseason for general manager John Mozeliak as he attempts to upgrade at shortstop, re-sign Carlos Beltran and figure out third base. But he's beginning in a good place.

As Matt Holliday said after the World Series, "For years, we'll continue to have a shot at winning a World Series."

He'd be the first to point out that nothing is guaranteed. The Reds and Pirates will be good again in 2014, and the Cubs almost certainly are going to turn the corner within a year or two. And there are the Dodgers, Giants, Braves, Nationals, etc. -- all of them expect to be good in 2014, making a long postseason run more difficult than ever.

Still, just because the Cardinals were eliminated in Game 6 of the World Series doesn't mean there's something fundamentally flawed in the franchise. Among baseball's top 10 to 15 teams, there's so little difference in the talent that winning a World Series is going to come down to playing well at the right time or getting a teensy bit lucky.

The Dodgers, Reds, Pirates, Braves and Nationals would have surprised virtually no one by winning the World Series this season. That the Cardinals got within one game of the World Series in 2012 and to Game 6 of the Fall Classic in '13 should be a point of pride.

The Cardinals had the youngest 25-man roster in the National League playoffs, and among all 30 Major League teams, only the Marlins and White Sox had younger pitching staffs, according to numbers compiled by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In this era of parity, 17 of 30 franchises have participated in at least one best-of-five Division Series the last three seasons. Getting within one game of three straight NL pennants is to be among the elite.

Mozeliak's challenge is to decide whether to trade some of those prospects for a premier veteran shortstop like, say, Tulowitzki, or go for a possibly modestly priced free agent like Stephen Drew.

And he may have to replace Beltran, who likely will attract a multiyear deal on the open market. Will Matt Adams get even better? Are Wong and Taveras ready for the Major Leagues? In other words, is there enough offense even without Beltran's presence in the lineup? Would adding a Tulowitzki make up for the loss of Beltran? What if Mozeliak whiffs on both Beltran and Tulowitzki? How good would the Cardinals be then?

Regardless, they're going to be good again because of all that pitching and because they'll still have tough outs up and down Mike Matheny's lineup card. There are no guarantees, but the Cardinals will begin 2014 with the usual expectations.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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