Last season, the St. Louis Cardinals won a respectable 86 games and finished second to only the world-champion Cubs in the NL Central. However, the Cardinals also missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2010. That uncharacteristic failing informed much of their offseason, as they paid the going rates for premium center fielder Dexter Fowler and added Brett Cecil to the bullpen, among other moves. But will all that yield better results in 2017? Let’s have a closer look ... 

The vitals

Third base is a fluid situation

The Cardinals this season are poised to shift Matt Carpenter across the diamond to first base, in part to ease the strain on one of their best hitters and in part in an effort to improve the team defense (more on that in a moment). That move, of course, left an opening at third base. Right now, Jhonny Peralta seems poised to be the primary third baseman, at least to start the season. However, nothing’s etched in stone. Jedd Gyorko last season cracked 30 homers in 128 games, and right now he seems ticketed for utility infielder detail. However, if Peralta’s fully healed thumb doesn’t yield better results at the plate in this, his age-35 season, then Gyorko could dislodge him at the hot corner. 

And what if Gyorko regresses? It’s possible that the Cardinals would consider moving Carpenter back to his old position, especially if a trimmed-down Matt Adams produces at such a level that demands regular playing time. Or they might look to the trade market later in the season (Todd Frazier’s name has occasionally been bandied about). Giving Patrick Wisdom a look would also be a consideration, although he’s not on the 40-man roster yet. Mostly, though, look for third base to remain somewhat unsettled until one of the internal solutions locks down the job -- or until GM John Mozeliak is forced to look outside the organization. 

Improved defense?

In 2016, the Cardinals ranked an unimpressive 11th in the NL in defensive efficiency, which is the percentage of balls in play that a team defense converts into outs (sort of the whole point, when you think about it). Those weren’t customary results for an organization that famously emphasizes fundamentals. To the end of improving that figure in 2017, the Cardinals have taken and likely will take a number of steps. 

First and foremost, there’s the addition of Fowler. Fowler last season enjoyed a fielding rebound with the Cubs, in part because of deeper positioning. Even if he regresses/loses a step in 2017, then he’ll provide the Cardinals with a defensive upgrade at that up-the-middle position. As well, former center fielder Randal Grichuk, who was miscast position, now profiles as an asset at a corner slot. 

As noted above, the shift of Carpenter to first base likely means improvement at the hot corner regardless of whether it’s Peralta, Gyorko, or someone else pinning down the job. As well, Carpenter, thanks to his substantial experience at more demanding infield positions, will probably be a plus at first base. The Cardinals also seem committed to installing Kolten Wong as the second baseman and leaving him alone (unlike last year). Wong’s the best defensive infielder on the active roster, and his steady presence should help a staff that last season was MLB’s most groundball-inclined. Elsewhere on the infield, shortstop Aledmys Diaz will likely never be a plus defender at the position, but he adapted very well to the speed of the major-league game as the 2016 season went along. By late in the year, he was much more aggressive in charging balls, and better results followed. 

In all, don’t expect the Cardinals to finish near the bottom of the NL in defensive efficiency once again, barring injuries of course. 

Rotation depth

Likely contenders don’t typically trade away starting pitching, but that’s what the Cardinals did when they sent lefty Jaime Garcia to the Braves in early December. Then Alex Reyes, the top pitching prospect in all of baseball and a potential member of the St. Louis rotation in 2017, underwent Tommy John surgery. Even with those losses, the Cardinals entered camp with a competition for the fifth starter’s job. Lat problems for Trevor Rosenthal in tandem with Michael Wacha’s strong spring have likely decided that, but there’s still the matter of depth. 

Last season, the Cardinals used eight different starting pitchers -- and 14 starts beyond their primary five members of the rotation. They were fairly fortunate in that regard, as in 2015, when they won 100 games and prevailed in a brutal NL Central race, they used nine different starters and gave 19 starts to pitchers outside the “first five.” Of course, things can get worse on this front, even for teams of consequence. In 2016, for instance, the NL West champion Dodgers out of necessity gave starts to 15 different pitchers. The 95-win Rangers churned through 11 different starters (Kyle Lohse among them). 

To be sure, the Cardinals aren’t barren in this department. Rosenthal could get stretched out in an expanded relief role. Marco Gonzales is coming back from Tommy John surgery. Tyler Lyons is still in the organization (and recovering nicely from knee surgery), and Luke Weaver is in the wings. Maybe Sandy Alcantara forces himself into the discussion if he has a strong first half in the minors. That said, you’ve got some uncertainty in the rotation behind young ace Carlos Martinez. Lance Lynn is coming off Tommy John. Adam Wainwright is 35 and coming off perhaps the worst season of his career. Wacha has a recent history of shoulder woes. If the Cardinals are forced to dip too deeply into their starting pitching reserves, then they could suffer. 

It all flows from Fowler

Last season with the Cubs, Fowler ranked sixth in the NL with an OBP of .393, and for his career he boasts a mark of .366. Last season, he also saw an impressive 4.40 pitches per plate appearance. And while Fowler isn’t a high-volume base-stealer these days, he has some speed and is adept at running the bases. For instance, over the course of his career he’s taken the extra base a highly impressive 61 percent of the time, and he’s hit into double plays in just six percent of available opportunities (i.e., about half as often as the league-average hitter). 

Fowler’s excellent excellent leadoff skills allow Carpenter to bat lower in the order -- third, probably -- where his power will be better utilized. For instance, last season Carpenter logged more than 90 percent of his plate appearances from the one hole, and as a partial consequence 14 of his 21 home runs were solo shots. Thanks to Fowler’s presence in the top spot (and his on-base chops), Carpenter, who’s hit 49 homers over the last two seasons, will find himself in more RBI spots. 

A strong bench

Time was when the Cardinals contended despite a weak bench. Lately, though, things have changed. Right now, they’re set to head north with a bench of Gyorko, Eric Fryer, Matt Adams, Greg Garcia, and -- most likely -- Tommy Pham. That’s a nice mix of positional flexibility, handedness, and offensive skill sets. There’s also Jose Martinez should the Cardinals need reinforcements. Ideally, the Cardinals will stick with a seven-man bullpen more often than not so there’s room on the active roster for this nicely balanced collection of reserves. 

Probable lineup

  1. Dexter Fowler, CF
  2. Aledmys Diaz, SS
  3. Matt Carpenter, 1B
  4. Stephen Piscotty, RF
  5. Yadier Molina, C
  6. Jhonny Peralta, 3B
  7. Randal Grichuk, LF
  8. Kolten Wong, 2B
  9. Pitcher

Probable rotation

  1. Carlos Martinez (R)
  2. Adam Wainwright (R
  3. Lance Lynn (R)
  4. Mike Leake (R)
  5. Michael Wacha (R)

Probable bullpen

The Cardinals have hinted at a broader and heavier role for Rosenthal -- something like Andrew Miller’s in the playoffs, albeit scaled to the sprawl of the regular season. Provided Rosenthal is healthy, it’ll be interesting to see how often Rosenthal works in high-leverage spots earlier in the game and logs multi-inning outings. 

SportsLine projection: 89-73 (second place in NL Central)

This passes the sniff test. The Cardinals will likely improve from their 2016 baseline, but on paper they remain solidly behind the champion Cubs. Expect the Cards this season to be one of the leading contenders for one of those two NL wild-card berths.