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Wainwright, Molina, Holliday

Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, Matt Holliday

A conversation the Cardinals have had internally grew publicly this winter, complete with an undercurrent of criticism, when one of the reasons Jason Heyward gave for signing with a rival team was the Cardinals’ aging core.

Unable to unwind time, the Cardinals can only challenge that perception.

Or, as one did Sunday, accept it.

“Nobody likes being called old, right?” said ace Adam Wainwright, one of the three core players for the team who is in his mid-30s. “But I think they’re right, for the most part. We are aging. We’re just becoming more wise. Somebody has to get old. If we’re still playing and older it means we still have some ability. The more people talk about it, the more we laugh because we just know Matt Holliday is still going to hit well. We know that Yadier (Molina) is still going to catch well. And hopefully we know I’m going to pitch well.”

Wainwright (34), Holliday (36), and Molina (33) remain the nucleus of the club, the keepers and the keys to its championship expectations. The Cardinals are banking on their three pillars to support a roster that is laced with uncertainty, though the veterans bring some of that of their own.

All three are returning from significant injuries that put them on the disabled list a combined four times and cost them a total of 230 man games in 2015. The core trio that has been behind one of the most successful runs in franchise history is now nearing the end of their contracts; Holliday’s ends after 2016.

Heyward’s comments as he signed with Chicago attempted to draw a contrast between the Cardinals he left and the youth movement he joined.

The New Cubs on the Block are all the rage.

“There is a little misconception about the fact that the Cubs are so young and we’re not as young,” Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said Sunday. “We’ve got some pretty talented young players.”

Expected to lead those young players — and DeWitt mentioned Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez and infielder Kolten Wong — is the group that has led the team for at least the past six seasons. Holliday suggested that this year’s Cardinals “have a little bit more unknown about the team than in the past,” and that’s partially because of the youth. That definitely puts more weight on the known quantities, like the core.

Holliday and Wainwright signed autographs to a soldout line of fans Sunday at the 20th annual Winter Warm-Up, just as Molina did Saturday. Holliday (torn quadriceps) and Wainwright (ruptured Achilles tendon) returned in time to contribute to the Cardinals this past postseason and also had normal offseasons. Holliday has been training at the team’s facility in Jupiter, Fla., and started hitting several times a week earlier than usual. Wainwright began his throwing program for spring and told his wife earlier this “is the most excited I’ve been about spring training since I can remember.”

His arm has life, as do Holliday’s legs.

Molina, who had a second operation on his injured left thumb this winter, will remain in a cast until mid-February, at which time the team will have a better feel for his recovery. It’s injuries that the trio has to overcome, not age, Holliday said.

“All three of us had some kind of significant injury that cost us time, but it’s not because we’re old,” Holliday said. “It wasn’t because he was old that someone slid into Yadi’s thumb at home plate and tore it. It wasn’t because he was old that Adam tore his Achilles. It wasn’t because I’m old that I came back too soon from a quad tear and did it again. I don’t care what people suggest or what their perception is. Every team is counting on health, right? If we can generally stay healthy for 162 games we have a great chance of doing what we set out to do.”

Starting with Sunday night’s St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Dinner, this season will be adorned with celebrations of the 2006 World Series championship.

It’s more than an anniversary, it’s a reminder.

Wainwright mentioned that as a rookie closer on that 2006 team, he saw how an aging core from 2004-06 gave way to a younger group. He mentioned how Matt Morris, Reggie Sanders, Scott Rolen and David Eckstein moved on as another group that included him and Molina moved in. They “passed the baton on to the younger core,” Wainwright described.

Left out of the example, however, was the Cardinals’ attempt to keep that core in place just one more year and the transition years that invited. DeWitt said former general manager Walt Jocketty later said “he didn’t change the club enough” when he brought back 2006 names for the 2007 season. The Cardinals plunged into their only losing season since 2000, and it cost Jocketty his job.

Starting in 2007, the Cardinals missed the playoffs three out of four years.

It took time for a new core to grow.

“I think it’s fair to point out that the core is getting older,” Wainwright said. “I (also) think it’s fair to say that the talent that we’re replacing the core with now is probably much greater than it was when those guys left. I look back at this year and what Carlos Martinez was able to do as he made the All-Star team and what we know Michael Wacha can do. There are two very young starting pitchers right there. I think the difference is the talent that is coming along is as good or better than I’ve ever seen in this organization. Period. We still have a very young nucleus aside from us three old guys.”

The Cubs can make a similar claim. Although the most significant signing of the winter for position players, the 26-year-old Heyward is a complementary player at Wrigley Field. He’ll join a lineup that features bona fide MVP-caliber hitters in Kris Bryant (24) and Anthony Rizzo (26). The Cubs have one of the richest harvest of young players in baseball. Their projected lineup has an average age of 26.78.

With Brandon Moss (32) at first base, the Cardinals’ is 30.22.

Sprinkled into that number are two outfielders, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, both younger than Heyward, who will get a chance to blossom. The opportunity of youth and the inconsistencies that come with it are balanced against the track record of age and the risks coming back from injury. The Cardinals are comfortable acknowledging the advancing age of the core because they feel it remains good enough to lead them to the playoffs.

That’s old hat.

“You don’t want to tell Matt, ‘Hey, you’re aging and our core here is falling apart, between you and Adam and Yadi,’” third baseman Matt Carpenter said. “We have a group of guys who have played in a substantial number of postseason games and postseason runs and on World Series winners. And that is extremely valuable. You can’t say that about some of the other teams in baseball.

“I’m pretty glad to be a part of this aging core.”

AGE GAP BETWEEN CARDS, CUBS

A comparison of the projected lineups for the Cardinals and Cubs shows whether Jason Heyward’s implication that the Cardinals have an “aging core” is correct. Ages are what the individual player will be on opening day, in April.

* Drops to 29.67 if Matt Adams (27) starts at first base. Even younger if Michael Wacha (24) or Carlos Martinez (24) starts on mound.

—Derrick Goold

Source: Baseball-Reference.com.

Lineup Cardinals Cubs
1. Carpenter, 3B • Age 30 Zobrist, 2B • Age 34
2. Piscotty, RF • Age 25 Heyward, CF • Age 26
3. Holliday, LF • Age 36 Rizzo, 1B • Age 26
4. Peralta, SS • Age 33 Bryant, 3B • Age 24
5. Moss, 1B • Age 32 Schwarber, LF • Age 23
6. Grichuk, CF • Age 24 Soler, RF • Age 24
7. Molina, C • Age 33 Montero, C • Age 32
8. Wong, 2B • Age 25 Russell, SS • Age 22
9. Wainwright, P • Age 34 Arrieta, P • Age 30
Avg. age • 30.22* Avg. age • 26.78

Derrick Goold is the lead Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.