St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Michael Wacha, right, shakes hands after throwing a bullpen session to Alberto Rosario during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Jupiter, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Jeff Roberson
February 20, 2016

JUPITER, Fla. (AP) Michael Wacha and the St. Louis Cardinals led the majors with 100 wins last season and won their third straight NL Central crown.

So the star right-hander finds it a bit perplexing that many some observers don't think the Cards can repeat.

''I don't understand why people keep doubting us,'' Wacha said Saturday. ''We'll accept that chip on our shoulder and use it to our advantage and play that underdog role, I guess.''

The St. Louis staff led the NL with a 2.94 ERA and posted 106 quality starts.

Those accomplishments came, for the most part, without contributions from ace Adam Wainwright, who missed most of the year after tearing his Achilles tendon in his fourth start of the season.

Wainwright returned as a reliever toward the end of the season. This spring, he has resumed his role as the Cardinals' unquestioned leader among pitchers while consistently stating that last season's down time has his arm feeling refreshed.

''I do believe we have the potential to be the very best rotation in baseball,'' Wainwright said. ''Now we just have to go out and play and make that happen.''

Much of the negativity concerning the Cardinals' rotation stems from what happened - and what didn't happen - during the offseason.

The Cardinals knew that elbow ligament replacement surgery would force Lance Lynn to miss the 2016 season. John Lackey bolted via free agency to sign with the division rival Cubs. St. Louis also lost a bidding war with Boston for the services of David Price.

The Cardinals eventually signed Mike Leake, whom they were quite familiar with from his days with Cincinnati. Though spring camp has only been open for a few days, Cardinals' manager Mike Matheny is already seeing the kind of competitiveness from Leake that he'd come to expect when the right-hander was an opposing pitcher.

Leake may not have the same top-end credentials as Price, but moving from the notoriously hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark (with a brief stop in San Francisco) to the more pitcher-friendly confines of Busch Stadium should help Leake improve on his career 3.88 ERA.

''Busch could play real well for him,'' Matheny said. ''The way that our defense plays behind him, I like his chances of having a great season this year.''

Unlike recent camps where there's been at least one spot up for grabs in the rotation, barring injuries this year's starting five seems pretty much set, with Jaime Garcia and Carlos Martinez joining Wainwright, Wacha and Leake. This season the biggest concerns revolve around the question of stamina.

Shoulder issues plagued Garcia in recent years, but he started 20 games last season for the first time since 2012, winning 10 games while posting a 2.43 ERA.

The 24-year-old Martinez enjoyed a breakout year in 2015 before a shoulder injury kept the Cardinals from using him in the postseason. Wacha, also 24, similarly appeared to wear down at the end of the season, finishing at 17-7.

Both pitchers set career highs last season in innings thrown, Wacha with 181 1/3 and Martinez with 179 2/3.

''He's a young pitcher,'' Matheny said of Martinez. ''Young pitchers, they get to a point where they've thrown more than they've ever thrown before. It's just the nature of the beast.

''Michael is the same way. We pushed last year, pushed to the limit that we could and then we backed off. It's not the same situation as it was a year ago. They grow.''

The Cardinals intend to monitor every pitchers' workload this spring with an eye toward keeping them fresh for the long haul. Still, the top priority is getting them ready to start the season.

''It's a fine line, yeah'' pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said. ''You want them rested but you also want them ready. I would hate to have a well-rested, noncompetitive pitcher.''

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