JUPITER, Fla. -- For a team that fancies itself a perpetual contender and even a favorite for the division crown, the Cardinals concede they began spring training -- officially, formally -- on Wednesday morning with an unusual amount of prevailing questions in prominent places.
In the next six weeks they aim to identify a closer, find a cleanup hitter, choose a leadoff batter, and determine at least the fifth starter in the rotation.
So, not too much. Only a lot.
Regardless of how many questions swirl around them, when the Cardinals will sift through their options, and who they determine will fill those roles, they already know the answer for what will determine if they defend the National League Central title. It's pitching. Again.
"Stability of our starting pitching and the quality of our bullpen all year was a big reason we accomplished what we were able to accomplish, and I don't think that's going to change, quite candidly," manager Mike Shildt said. "Unless you're going to have an unbelievable offense that you can win a lot of slugfests, you're going to need to pitch and play defense to win consistently. I wouldn't limit it to be the strength of the team. But it needs to be a strong pillar of this team to get where we need to go."
The Cardinals opened spring training for their 129th season in the National League at mid-morning Wednesday at their Roger Dean Stadium complex. Even with the addition of high-speed cameras and readily available iPads to check spin rates and shapes of pitches, the first bullpen throws that greeted pitchers Wednesday morning involved a simple length of bright yellow rope. It was strung taut between pitchers and catchers, right at the front of the plate and at the height of the lowest edge of the strike zone. Pitchers were instructed to throw only "heaters in the bottom of the zone," and the twine was a target to hit. Bullpen coach Bryan Eversgerd called it "plucking strings."
Pitchers and catchers have a few days with the new toys and strings to themselves before the first full-squad workout next week. The largest roster in recent memory will swarm the six fields and two practice bullpens before exhibition games begin on Feb. 22.
After he addressed the clubhouse of collected Cardinals -- which included many position players who have reported early -- Shildt said one of his messages was how the players individually "won" their offseason. This was a phrase he used often throughout the winter. He stressed how preparation for the season could be competition, whether it was working to get healthy, working to get stronger, or, in the case of hitters like Harrison Bader and Matt Carpenter, reworking their swings. Shildt pointed to the pitchers' health and the players' physical readiness for spring as how they "collectively, as a group," won the offseason.
Even after signing lefthanded-hitting infielder Brad Miller on Wednesday to a $2-million contract, the front office, at best, played to a draw.
John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, advertised at the start of winter how his group wanted to open up avenues of playing time for younger players. He reaffirmed that approach Wednesday, adding that "we didn't want to wake up a year from now and be like, 'You know what? We should have given someone a chance.'" This spring is that chance. And Mozeliak allowed Wednesday that churning through players to create new opportunities has created a Swiss cheese of a roster, especially in key spots.