<
>

Can Cardinals keep rolling, or is their time finally up?

For a team that won 100 games last season and thinks it has replaced its missing parts with returning ones, the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t getting much love from any quarter these days. The computer projections think they’ll trail off dramatically, the human experts are in love with the Chicago Cubs and Las Vegas bookmakers aren’t buying the Cardinal Way this year, either. In the latest odds to win the World Series, 12 teams have shorter prices than St. Louis, including the Cleveland Indians, who won 19 fewer games last year.

But the Cardinals don’t feel all that different than they have entering each of the past five seasons, all of which ended with playoff berths and one of which ended with a World Series party. The 2016 season is all about whether the Cardinals’ success marches unabated or staggers under an aging core and iffy young talent.

Let’s start with the bright side, a few reasons for Cardinals fans to be optimistic about 2016.

Adam Wainwright is back and the rotation is somewhere between solid and spectacular. It usually trends toward the latter.

“I’m an optimist, so I always feel like we can do it again,” Wainwright said. “The personnel hasn’t changed that dramatically. We lose Lance [Lynn], obviously, but we get Mike [Leake]. We lose [John] Lackey, but we get me. There are a lot of similar things going on. I feel like we can go out there and do some great things.”

Wainwright may be 34 and may not throw as hard as he once did, but he makes up for that by sinking and cutting his fastball so effectively that hitters are just as flummoxed. Don’t forget, when he’s healthy, he is as good as anybody east of Clayton Kershaw. In his past five healthy seasons, Wainwright has finished in the top three in Cy Young balloting four times. His arm was spared all but 33 1/3 innings of work last season, including the playoffs, the bright side of having surgery on a torn Achilles tendon in April.

Carlos Martinez looked electric all spring. Michael Wacha didn’t, but he’s good enough that the team named him its No. 2 starter with solid veterans Leake and Jaime Garcia to choose from. The Cardinals’ starting pitching shouldn’t miss a beat and that’s a great foundation to build everything else upon.

Trevor Rosenthal is getting better and many people, including Wainwright, feel this could be the team’s best bullpen in years.

Once every two months or so, Rosenthal gives up a home run. It is an event because it is so rare. He is as difficult as any pitcher in baseball to lift and drive the ball against, judging by his career mark of 0.4 home runs allowed per nine innings. He’s also not as easy to walk against, having cut down on those from 42 in 2014 to 25 last year.

The fact that Jordan Walden is again feeling some discomfort in his shoulder isn’t ideal, but he looked good before that and the Cardinals have viable options if he isn’t healthy. Kevin Siegrist carried a heavy workload last season, appearing in half of the Cardinals’ games, but the lefty said he feels fine this spring and has pitched well. Korean reliever Seung Hwan Oh, who led the Japan Central League in saves in each of the past two seasons, showed elite command all spring and is a viable setup option.

Jonathan Broxton is back, as is Seth Maness. They’ll have a long man in Tyler Lyons and, though he’ll start the season at Triple-A, Sam Tuivailala has a big arm and looks like he’ll be a contributor in 2016. Bullpens are inherently unpredictable, but the Cardinals have reason to think theirs will be better than most.

Yadier Molina and Matt Holliday are in the decline phases of outstanding careers and might not have the stock they once did, but there are so many young players -- Kolten Wong, Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Matt Carpenter, among them -- in the vicinity of their primes that the offense has a chance to be better than it was last season, when it dragged down historically good pitching.

Carpenter might be the most underrated hitter in the league with his knack for getting on base and burgeoning power.

Now, let’s get into a few reasons to be pessimistic about the ’16 Cardinals:

The injury drumbeat continues to drone on. Just when they thought they were finally getting healthy, ultra-reliable shortstop Jhonny Peralta tore a ligament in his left thumb while fielding an apparently routine ground ball. That sapped some of the good-news-about-thumb-ligaments momentum that was building in camp regarding Molina’s left hand, which got healthy faster than doctors thought it would.

That Walden has been feeling a knot around his right shoulder is not great, since he missed so much of 2015 with a vaguely diagnosed shoulder issue.

The young hitters the Cardinals are relying on haven’t proven they can produce through the grind of a major league season and the pressure of a major league career. Grichuk, Piscotty and Tommy Pham played impressively for stretches of last season, but none got as many as 350 at-bats. That leads to the team’s next area of concern. ...

Where will the power come from? Through Sunday, the Cardinals had hit 15 home runs in spring training. By itself, that information is practically meaningless. They play in a stadium near the sea, the wind can gust in at times and, compared to many other spring stadiums -- particularly those in bone-dry Arizona -- hitting home runs isn’t easy at Roger Dean Stadium.

Still, the spring hasn’t presented any convincing evidence that last season’s power drought is over just because Holliday, Matt Adams, Grichuk and Brandon Moss are healthy. Jedd Gyorko might help some, but let’s not forget he had a .654 OPS his last two seasons in San Diego.

The Cardinals have a chance to be a lot like another team with iffy hitting and dominant pitching: last year’s team. It’s a wonder so many people seem to be doubting that formula.