JUPITER, Fla. • As he sought to use the club’s recent autumn success to set a tone for its spring preparation, general manager John Mozeliak suggested one improvement the Cardinals could make was when they started playing the quality of game that has served them so well in October.
“Earlier,” he said.
The Cardinals pursuit of a third consecutive postseason appearance began officially Tuesday as pitchers and catchers took the field for their first workout of spring training, complete with the new fitted deep-blue batting practice caps. A mostly familiar roster returns to a club that came one victory shy of the World Series last fall and won the World Series the previous fall.
Mozeliak, in what amounted to his annual opening statements of spring, said more than just the faces and regulars are familiar this spring.
So are the expectations.
“Really this is about taking a step back and looking at the last few years and what we’ve accomplished,” Mozeliak said. “We’re really trying to reflect on ‘why.’ What’s been working? And making sure that’s the curriculum that we’re following. I think the one thing from an organizational standpoint is you don’t want to get complacent and just assume that everything is going to be fine.
“As you look back at the last few years we don’t want to fall into that trap of it’s easy.”
Those comments echoed similar ones that Mozeliak said at the start of the offseason, when he challenged himself and his staff to be creative and not be content with an established roster. Despite looking into the market for help in the middle infield, the Cardinals finished their winter shopping with complementary pieces.
Lefty Randy Choate took the mound for his first time as a Cardinal on Tuesday, one of 14 pitchers who threw a bullpen session on the first official day of workouts. Utility infielder and bench presence Ty Wigginton reported to camp three days before position players join the workouts. Backup shortstop Ronny Cedeno is expected to report late because of work visa issues. Those three were the most-significant offseason acquisitions.
The moves were made, in part, to fine-tune a club that won 88 games and claimed the National League’s second wild-card berth. But also to protect that same club from what could be its undoing — health concerns at key positions.
Mozeliak said he doesn’t see the team looking outside the roster in the immediate future for additions because of the depth in place. In past spring trainings, Mozeliak has made a move during camp for a player who made the opening day roster. In 2008, the Cardinals added reliever Ron Villone and starter Kyle Lohse, the only regular not returning from 2012. In 2009, lefty Dennys Reyes signed, and in 2010 a need for an infield led the team back to Felipe Lopez.
This year, Mozeliak said there is internal insurance should Rafael Furcal’s elbow persist as a problem or Jaime Garcia have a relapse of shoulder trouble or ...
“I think as you do this you learn that the more protections you have internally it’s just easier to keep the ball moving forward,” Mozeliak said. “If you’re always forced to go outside — whether in the trade market or the free-agent market — to get your club better, it’s a lot harder to do. Certainly, once baseball starts going one of those markets just closes down. We really felt it was important for us to come into this camp where we felt like we had protection in most areas.”
With the exception of the free agents added, much of that will come from youth.
The club intends to have one of three prospects — Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal or Shelby Miller, all 24 or younger — win a spot in the rotation. Second-year utility fielder Matt Carpenter is out to prove he can learn second base and be an option there. Otherwise, the club is relatively static from 2012, and both Mozeliak and manager Mike Matheny spoke Tuesday about a need to reinforce the fact that a consistent roster doesn’t imply a comfortable roster.
“I did make it clear that we have a culture around here of we have to earn everything every day,” Matheny said when describing his clubhouse talk before the pitchers and catchers took the field. “Some of the expectations have been set in place here for a long time.”
As part of their spring training, each player will be given a set of “challenges,” Mozeliak said. Those will be articulated through the course of spring.
They will be geared toward what a player, ideally, has to do to prepare for 2013 or win a spot on the big-league club for 2013. But the challenges also will draw on the things the front office and the coaching staff believe should be areas of improvement. Mozeliak used the bullpen as an example of a lesson learned. In each of the past two seasons, the bullpen has required a July retooling. That was true last year when Mozeliak expected it to be a strength.
“We don’t want to take anything for granted,” he said. “When you look at how our season ended in 2011, our bullpen was our strength. You would have naturally thought going into ’12 it would have been. That’s the part we (don’t) want to fall into — I used the word ‘complacency’ — or into a rut where you feel like you’ve got this figured out.”
A year ago, Matheny’s first as manager, the Cardinals stormed to a 14-8 April and then tumbled to consecutive losing months. Though one of the league’s best offensive lineups by runs scored, the club was maddeningly inconsistent. A bullpen rupture in the seventh inning cost them wins until the July trade for Edward Mujica. It was then that the Cardinals found their late-season groove and claimed the wild card, finishing nine games behind Cincinnati. A second consecutive National League championship series ended in Game 7 when San Francisco completed its rally from down three games to one. The Cardinals came one win shy of back-to-back pennants as a wild card team.
The other side of their postseason surges in the past two years is that their inconsistent play put them one loss away from not getting to October at all. A loss to Atlanta in the wild-card playoff in 2012 or loss at any time in their historic September 2011 and ... poof.
That reality should cure complacency.
“Ideally you want to play for your division (title) and then you go forward,” Mozeliak said. “Rather than focus on what’s happening in our neighborhood let’s just worry about ourselves right now. And that’s what this six or seven weeks are about.”