Cardinals intent on improving, not chasing champion Cubs

ST. LOUIS (AP) A month before spring training, the St. Louis Cardinals already have plenty of motivation - they're focused on returning to the playoffs, rather than trying to overtake the rival Chicago Cubs.

In fact, Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak really wants to avoid any notion that the Cubs winning the World Series is the driving force behind the St. Louis push to improve after missing the postseason for the first time since 2010.

''I always feel like it's sort of dangerous to simply chase your neighbors,'' Mozeliak said. ''That phrase, `Keeping up with the Joneses' can be dangerous ... I think the best strategy is try to build a club that you think has a chance to win your division, get to the postseason.''

While St. Louis might not say it's directly chasing the Cubs, it certainly added a key component from its rival in the offseason with the signing of outfielder Dexter Fowler.

The 30-year-old, who had a career-best .393 on-base percentage last season and scored 84 runs in 125 games, brings with him an element of athleticism desperately needed by a Cardinals team that was last in the National League with 35 stolen bases.

He's also brought with a renewed sense of optimism in St. Louis, where finishing 17 + games behind anyone - much less the Cubs - is never acceptable.

''When I look at where we're at today, like I stated, I'm very optimistic about this club, I'm excited about where it's headed,'' Mozeliak said. ''But I would also say lots of things went well up north last year, and certainly that would have to be expected again this year to necessarily repeat.''

Along with Fowler's arrival, the Cardinals' hopes for 2017 have been bolstered by the return of a healthy Lance Lynn. The right-hander missed last season after elbow surgery, a key reason why St. Louis' NL-best 2.94 ERA in 2015 ballooned to 4.08 last season.

Lynn won 60 games for the Cardinals from 2012-15, and his return coincides with what's expected to be a full season in the starting rotation from talented righty Alex Reyes. The 22-year-old struck out 52 batters in 46 innings last season while compiling a 1.57 ERA.

All in all, Mozeliak is confident St. Louis can improve on last season's 86 wins - regardless of what the Cubs do.

''I'll tell you this, nobody in our clubhouse is conceding anything,'' Mozeliak said. ''No one is waving a white flag and saying, `We're just playing for second.' I think that type of thought process would just be crazy and, candidly, that's why I think all of us are just excited to get this thing started.''

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