Jack Flaherty found it much more difficult to walk around the St. Louis Cardinals' annual fan festival without getting noticed this year, a byproduct of a breakout season in which he established himself as one of the game's best pitchers.
When he was asked whether he can top it, Flaherty gave an answer that might well apply to the entire organization, which won the National League Central and advanced to the NL Championship Series before losing to the Washington Nationals.
“I don't think it's about trying to go even higher than what went on,” Flaherty said. “It's about trying to stay consistent and about kind of how it was in the second half, trying to take the same approach day-in, day-out, and not try to do too much the next time out. It continues off of that and not trying to do anything more.”
The Cardinals have every reason to believe the same approach as last season will carry them deep this season.
After all, they have most of the same players back in the fold.
“The last couple years we have made trades where we’ve given up young players and gotten what we think is a player that fills a need. So we’re not averse to doing trades,” Cardinals owner Bill Dewitt Jr. said. “But given where we are, we have a good team and we want to maintain that and not sacrifice our future for a short-term fix.”
The Cardinals head to spring training in Florida beginning Feb. 12.
The biggest addition this offseason was left-hander Kwang-Hyun Kim, who signed a two-year deal in December in a major coup for the franchise. The Korean pitcher will be at the front of the line for the last spot in the rotation, but the Cardinals could also use him in their stacked bullpen should another arm produce in spring training.
ROOKIES TO WATCH
Dylan Carlson is the top prospect in the organization and he could force the Cardinals' hand with a big spring. Harrison Bader and Dexter Fowler are likely locks in the outfield, but that still leaves Carlson competing with Tyler O'Neill and a handful of others for the final spot in left field.
“Dylan obviously did a great job starting in the big league camp last year," Cardinals manager Mike Shildt said. “He had a wonderful big league camp. In the clubhouse, on the field clearly. He went through the season and did his part. He had a nice year in the Texas League and got to Triple-A and had the opportunity to compete there and he did very well.”
Flaherty headlines a starting rotation that should keep the Cardinals in every game. Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas and the ageless Adam Wainwright are next in line with Kim likely competing with Carlos Martinez for the final spot.
“I respond well when people have their doubts,” the 38-year-old Wainwright said. “Sometimes I intentionally take something personally that wasn't meant to be personal to drive me. I'll do the same thing this year and apologize later.”
Backup spots across the lineup are up for grabs, and potentially a spot in the bullpen. But when a team trades away the likes of Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena for prospects — like the Cardinals did with the Marlins a few weeks ago — it's pretty good evidence St. Louis feels good about its roster.
“I think for most of these guys, hitting the ground running offensively at spring training is going to be a big factor in what their spring looks like. And sort of how the season begins for each of them,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said.
The Cardinals rightfully feel good about their chances this season, but they also reside in arguably the toughest and most balanced division in baseball. The Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers all have won the NL Central over the past three season, and the Reds are positioned to be one of the breakout stories of the upcoming season.
“To have another ring, that's the goal for me,” veteran catcher Yadier Molina said. “All of my teammates and for the city.”