Great expectations nothing new for Cardinals
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- About the only thing that never changes with the St. Louis Cardinals are the expectations.
"I like how our fans demand winning," third baseman David Freese said. "That's cool to be part of. They expect it out of you. They're used to it. There's nothing better than winning."
That's why this Spring Training is no different from any other for the Cardinals. Just win, baby.
"I've been in other organizations, and they talk about competing," manager Mike Matheny said. "That's a different message. We honestly say our expectation is to win. That's it. That's why we're here. That's what this organization is about. Does that put a target on you? Probably."
The Cardinals are a reminder that great organizations endure even as players -- and managers -- come and go. That was true last season in the wake of manager Tony La Russa's retirement and first baseman Albert Pujols departing via free agency.
Ace Chris Carpenter and first baseman Lance Berkman were injured for most of the season, but the Cardinals rolled on anyway, making the playoffs for the ninth time in 13 years and getting to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series.
"The way the St. Louis Cardinals have always worked is they do what's in the best interests of putting together a winning team," Freese said. "They did it last year in bringing in Carlos [Beltran] and keeping the train running. You win the World Series, and then get to Game 7 of the NLCS. That's a special two-year run."
And this is where the 2013 season begins. The Cardinals came to Spring Training with very few questions and have enjoyed a relatively headline-free camp.
Shortstop Rafael Furcal will be gone for the season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, but 24-year-old Pete Kozma has had an outstanding camp.
Even when Carpenter put his career on hold with neck and shoulder issues, the Cardinals had enough pitching depth that one of their top prospects -- Shelby Miller or Joe Kelly -- may not make the team.
The Nationals are a more popular choice to win the NL pennant, and the Giants, Reds, Dodgers and others are solid.
But there can't be a conversation about the pennant race without including the Cardinals, a team good enough to play deep into October again as they've transitioned from the Pujols era to a group that now includes Allen Craig and Jon Jay and Lance Lynn and Matt Carpenter, among others.
"I'm more excited about this team than I have been the last couple of years," Freese said. "I like hitting, but it's our young arms. You want to have a six-inning ballgame and be confident in the guys you're bringing in for the seventh, eighth and ninth. However our bullpen shakes out, I think we're going to have that."
There's competition from within, too, with center fielder Oscar Taveras, one of baseball's best prospects, possibly figuring into the mix sometime this summer.
Same as it ever was.
"When you reflect back on 2012, there were many that were anxious about our team," general manager John Mozeliak said in an email. "But our goals remained the same, and that is to win."
Freese grew up in St. Louis and dreamed of wearing the uniform. When he walks into the Spring Training clubhouse and sees Bob Gibson and Bruce Sutter and Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock and other greats in uniform, he understands what this franchise is all about.
One franchise sets the bar for another.
"That's a culture, and that's something this organization has promoted," Matheny said. "They want to be here. When they're here, they're not just over signing autographs. They're going group to group making themselves available. The next thing you see some of our young relievers sitting down next to Bruce or see some of our young starters asking Gibby questions."
Also, the late Stan Musial had been a spring regular until recent years.
"When you have that level of expectation for how things are done and this is how you carry yourself and this is what it looks like to be a Cardinal, it eventually trickles down to the way these guys go about their business," Matheny said.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.