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MLB Opening Day 2016: St. Louis Cardinals preview

The Cardinals were baseball's best team in 2015, but will they compete in a top-heavy NL Central this season?

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Last year, the St. Louis Cardinals were the league's best team during the regular season, winning 100 games and capturing the NL Central crown. Their season was cut short in the NLDS, however, as they ran into Jake Arrieta and the resurgent Chicago Cubs and were eliminated after losing the best-of-five series 3-1.

The Cardinals set their sights high heading into the offseason and set out to re-sign their star outfielder Jason Heyward as well as pursuing the top free agent starter on the market in David Price. Unfortunately their efforts fell a bit short. Price ended up signing a massive deal with Boston that the Cardinals couldn't quite match. Despite offering a higher total guarantee to Heyward (albeit with some deferrals), he wound up joining fellow 2015 Cardinal and qualifying offer recipient John Lackey in moving north up I-55 to sign with the rival Cubs.

After losing out on those big free agent prizes, the Cardinals changed course and focused more heavily on fortifying an already talented roster. They re-signed former Brewer Johnathan Broxton, who actually acquitted himself nicely following a mid-season trade to STL with a 2.66 ERA and 3.56 FIP in 23.2 innings while wearing red and white. He received a two-year deal worth $7.5 mil. They also signed "The Final Boss" Seung-Hwan Oh, who has spent the last decade dominating hitters as a closer in the KBO and NBP. Those two figure to play key roles for a bullpen that is lead by outstanding closer Trevor Rosenthal and setup man Kevin Siegrist. The Cardinals should also receive a boost from a healthy Jordan Walden.

Despite the loss of Lackey and the failed pursuit of Price, the Cardinals starting rotation is stacked with talent. Adam Wainwright has long been as legitimate an "ace" as you'll find around the league, and he'll enter the season healthy after making just seven regular season appearances last year. He'll turn 35 this year though, so concern may be starting to creep in about how much longer he can remain among the game's best arms.

Behind him, the Cardinals will be returning the gifted trio of Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Jaime Garcia. All three posted an ERA+ of better than 115 last season, though only Wacha reached the 30 start threshold among them and all come with a history of injuries. With veteran presence Lance Lynn set to miss the 2016 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, adding more depth beyond the talented but unproven Marco Gonzales became a key priority for St. Louis.

GM John Mozeliak found his solution on December 22nd, when the Cardinals inked righty Mike Leake to a five-year, $80 mil contract, by far their biggest expenditure of the winter. The veteran debuted with the Reds in 2010 and spent the entirety of his career in Cincinnati before a mid-season trade to the Giants last season and has a solid reputation of durability, having made 30+ starts and pitched 175+ innings in each of the last four seasons. He's been more of a steadying presence than an impact one though, and carries a career 3.88 ERA and 4.21 FIP with a 50.2% ground ball rate in 1083.2 career innings. The hope is that he'll continue to provide stability in the middle of the rotation.

In the starting lineup, the Cardinals goal was to "improve from within." After missing on their pursuit of Heyward, the club was content in counting on Stephen Piscotty (129 OPS+ in 63 games) and Randal Grichuk (133 OPS+ in 103 games) to build off their strong rookie performances across a full season. The always steady Matt Holliday returns in left field, where he has posted an OPS+ of 120 or better in each of his 12 seasons in the big leagues. Injuries limited the 36 year old to just 73 games last season, however, and his power output was way down over previous seasons. Fourth outfielder Tommy Pham, who came out of nowhere to hit .268/.347/.477 in 52 games as a rookie last year, could be an important piece if injuries occur or if Piscotty and/or Grichuk can't repeat their success from last year.

The Cardinals extended second baseman Kolten Wong for five years and $25.5 mil, so they are obviously expecting the 25 year old to continue improving and hold down the keystone for the forseeable future. Matt Adams and Brandon Moss figure to form a platoon at first base, and St. Louis will be hoping for improved performance from the pair, especially in the case of Moss. Matt Carpenter isn't an outstanding defender at third, but he's established himself as one of the game's better offensive threats and was impressive last season with his 28 home run, 44 double output and 134 OPS+. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta will miss the first couple months of the season after undergoing thumb surgery, and in his stead the Cards brought in former Met Ruben Tejada this spring as a placeholder.

Behind the dish, Yadier Molina's status is still uncertain for Opening Day as he recovers from offseason surgery. His offense was way down last season as he managed just a .270/.310/.350 batting line but he remains one of the game's best defensive catchers and won his eighth straight Gold Glove in 2015. St. Louis signed veteran Brayan Pena to a two-year deal over the winter to serve as his backup, and he could see increased time to begin the year if Molina isn't ready to go.

The Cardinals overachieved to win 100 games in 2015, as PECOTA had them pegged for just 89 victories. Things will have to break St. Louis' way again this season if they hope to repeat as NL Central champions, as PECOTA sees them as just an 81-81 team and Fangraphs projects them to finish 85-77. Some regression is predicted for the young players St. Louis will be leaning on heavily this year. With the myriad of players that have injury question marks they could have probably done a little bit better to increase their depth around the diamond and in the rotation.

It's tough to count out the Cardinals because they seem to be good just about every single season, and they have had only one season with a losing record since 2000. But in a top heavy division where they'll be competing with the talented Cubs and Pirates, a third place finish wouldn't exactly be out of the question for St. Louis.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference