NL preview: Young arms keep Cardinals strong

With a surplus of young, gifted pitchers, the NL champs are poised to stay on top for years to come.

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Matt Carpenter was rewarded for his big 2013 with a six-year extension.

Photo: DAVID GOLDMAN • Associated Press,

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The St. Louis Cardinals are the corporation everyone wants to work for.

They are ambitious; promote from within; are keen to reward ability as much as loyalty; are forward-thinking; and are frugal when they can be but able to bring in talent from outside when necessary.

And they expect awesomeness in all areas. After reaching the World Series last season, the Cardinals eye a return trip in 2014.

“It’s pretty simple,” righthander Lance Lynn said. “Our expectations are always going to be higher for ourselves than they are from anywhere else.”

St. Louis has finished either first or second in the NL Central in 11 of the past 14 seasons, reaching the playoffs 10 times and the World Series in two of the past three seasons. Last season didn’t end well, however, as they lost in six games to a red-hot David Ortiz and the Boston Red Sox.

Of the players on the 2013 World Series team, only six were holdovers from the 2011 team that won it all, meaning the Caridinals have shown an amazing ability to reload.

They hit only 125 home runs last season — 13th in the National League — but were first in runs scored thanks to an astounding .330 batting average with runners in scoring position. No power, no problem.

Their farm system is the envy of the league. The Cardinals’ World Series roster included 11 players younger than 27 who came up through the farm system — all the way down to pitchers Michael Wacha, 21, and Carlos Martinez, 22.

Second baseman Matt Carpenter — who is moving back to third base this season — led the league in hits (199), doubles (55) and runs (126) last year. He’s not a household name but just signed a six-year, $52 million contract extension.

So teams across the league want to know how the Cardinals do it. How can they get their hands on some of that St. Louis awesomeness.

“Gosh, we need to start selling books about this,” righthander Adam Wainwright said with a smile. “If you want to find out, buy the book.

“Cliff Notes version is, this is a way of thinking that we have in St. Louis and in our clubhouse and throughout our organization — an expectation of winning, an expectation of professionalism that comes with that winning, and doing things the right way. And that’s been taught and bred over the years from guys like Red Schoendienst, like Stan Musial, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith.”

Wainwright is the savant of a St. Louis rotation that includes Wacha, a righthander who became a postseason sensation, dropping jaws with his strike-throwing ability; Shelby Miller, a 22-year-old righthander who was 15-9 as a rookie last year yet couldn’t crack the playoff rotation; Jaime Garcia, a 27-year-old lefthander who should be back in April as he recovers from shoulder surgery; and Lynn, a 26-year-old who was 15-10 last season and 18-7 as an All-Star in 2012, yet entered camp not a lock for the rotation. The future is coming in the form of Martinez, a flamethrower who debuted last season. Martinez has pitched well this spring, but Lynn struck out 10 batters during a four-inning outing in mid-March.

Carlos Beltran and David Freese are gone from the productive offense. But Carpenter’s move to third opens up second base for Kolten Wong, a player the Twins drafted out of high school in 2008 but were unable to sign. If he fails, veteran Mark Ellis is around. The Cardinals signed shortstop Jhonny Peralta — who last year with the Tigers was an All-Star but also served a 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs — to shore up a key position while providing some offense as a position held by Peter Kozma in 2013.

They expect to absorb the losses of Beltran and Freese. They expect Wacha and the other young pitchers grow from last years’ experience. Recent history suggests the Cardinals threaten to reach the World Series for a third time in the past four seasons.

Because that’s what they are: an organization that talks about winning and backs it up.

“We have the responsibility and the requirement to make the most of what we’ve got,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “Constantly pushing ourselves. What’s the very best I can be? That’s not the pinnacle. There’s better beyond that. That’s not the max, there’s more. We’ve got to keep pushing and figure out how to get better and demand that from ourselves.”

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