First, the St. Louis Cardinals went one-and-done in the National League playoffs after becoming the majors' first 100-win team in four years. Then they watched the team that eliminated them take their top free agents.
Instead of breaking its bank for a veteran power bat like Justin Upton or Yoenis Cespedes, the Cardinals are willing to take their chances that young outfielders Stephen Piscotty, Randal Grichuk and Tommy Pham will become breakout stars in 2016.
At stake: St. Louis' streak of five consecutive postseason trips and three straight NL Central titles, a heck of a wager to make against the stack of young talent and proven pitching amassed by their rivals five hours to the north.
"I don't really get wrapped up in whether we are considered favorites or underdogs," general manager John Mozeliak said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "This team is going to be exciting to watch and it is going to be extremely competitive."
Piscotty, Grichuk and Pham each starred over varying stretches in 2015. A late July call-up from Triple-A Memphis, Piscotty became a key to the offense over the last two months, hitting .305 in 63 games and cracking three NLDS homers.
Grichuk might have challenged Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant for NL Rookie of the Year except for a disabled list stint in August and early September that rendered him strictly a bat down the stretch, unable to throw with any authority. Grichuk has upper-deck power and can steal bases.
Pham delivered critical sparks in July and again in September, and he said that a change to new hybrid contact lenses in the offseason should help him become a better hitter.
The Cardinals will need all three to contribute in order to add much-needed juice to an offense that has struggled for large chunks of the past two seasons. Much will also depend on a resurgence from left fielder Matt Holliday, whose 2015 was hampered by two quad injuries.
The other major question surrounding this club is starting pitching. Nearly every member of the projected rotation has injury concerns, even free agent signee Mike Leake, a mostly durable sort who spent time on the disabled list after he was acquired by the San Francisco Giants last July.
Expected No. 1 Adam Wainwright (Achilles) missed almost all of last year. Oft-injured lefty Jaime Garcia authored a bounce-back season but still mixed in two DL stints, while hard-throwing right-hander Carlos Martinez (shoulder) was shut down a week before the season ended. Workhorse righty Lance Lynn (Tommy John surgery) is already done for 2016.
If the rotation can hold up, the bullpen should be nails. St. Louis added Korean closer Seung Hwan Oh to help lefty Kevin Siegrist set up closer Trevor Rosenthal, whose 48 saves last year set a club record. Trail this team after six innings and you can probably chalk up an "L."
While fans groaned about the Cardinals' inability to keep their free agents or win bidding wars for the likes of David Price and multiple sluggers, St. Louis still could threaten 100 wins and make an October run.
However, the all-in bet on Plan B carries with it more risk than the club admits, a gamble that could come up bust as easily as it could prove a winner.
POSITION BATTLE TO WATCH: It is go time for 1B Matt Adams, whose Cardinals career could arrive at a crossroads if he can't beat out veteran Brandon Moss for the starting job. Adams emerged from a slump late last May before he tore a quad muscle legging out a double. He missed three months, finishing the season hitting just .240 in 175 at-bats over 60 games. Moss batted only .226 between Cleveland and St. Louis last season but showed flashes of the 30-homer power he has displayed during his career. The Cardinals believe Moss will be at 100 percent this year after rushing a return from hip surgery to be ready for 2015. While St. Louis GM John Mozeliak said last year the team didn't want to block Adams, it also has to be prepared in case he can't get the job done.
ROOKIE WATCH: RHP Seung Hwan Oh, 33, is no fresh-faced youngster, but the Cardinals are counting on him to get leads to closer Trevor Rosenthal. Nicknamed Stone Buddha and The Final Boss, Oh notched 80 saves in two seasons with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, showcasing a fastball clocked as high as 97 mph to go along with a wicked slider. After bagging 277 saves during nine seasons in his native South Korea, Oh pitched to a 2.25 ERA in two Japanese seasons, helping Hanshin win the 2014 Japan Series. Should Rosenthal struggle or get injured, Oh could earn some save chances.
COMEBACK TRAIL: RHP Adam Wainwright missed five months last year after tearing an Achilles tendon while coming out of the batter's box after popping up in a late-April game in Milwaukee. Wainwright returned for the regular season's last week and the NL Division Series as a reliever, but he will resume his normal role as No. 1 starter this spring, with the expectation of starting on Opening Day, April 3 in Pittsburgh. Lost in the wake of the series loss to the Cubs was that Wainwright fanned the side in the eighth inning of Game 2, less than six months after an injury that normally knocks one out for almost a calendar year.
--INF Jedd Gyorko became the team's big offseason acquisition among everyday players, although he probably won't be in the lineup on Opening Day. The team sees him as an irregular regular of sorts, picking up playing time at every infield position but first and enabling guys like SS Jhonny Peralta and 2B Kolten Wong to get more rest than they had last year. Gyorko batted .247 with 16 homers and 57 RBI last year in San Diego, and he was particularly effective against left-handers. That could make him an attractive option for a team that struggled against lefties the last three years.
--C Brayan Pena gives St. Louis what appears to be a better backup option for durable but aging All-Star Yadier Molina. Pena batted .273 with no homers and 18 RBIs in 333 at-bats with Cincinnati last year while also filling in at first base. Pena walks almost as much as he fans and is regarded as a competent defender, having thrown out 28 percent of basestealers in 434 major league games behind the plate. The temptation for manager Mike Matheny to run Molina into the ground should be removed with Pena's presence.
--RHP Mike Leake reminds manager Mike Matheny of Woody Williams, a former Cardinals pitcher who was a solid No. 3 starter when Matheny caught for the team just over a decade ago. Leake spent his entire major league career in Cincinnati until the Reds traded him to San Francisco just before last year's trading deadline. A sinker-slider pitcher who also serves as one of the majors' top-hitting pitchers, Leake has bedeviled the Cardinals the last two seasons, which probably played a role in them lavishing an $80 million deal over five years. Leake is also durable, aside from a rare DL stint with the Giants last August.
--RHP Lance Lynn (Tommy John surgery in November 2015) will miss the entire 2016 season. Lynn fell off down the stretch last year, although his numbers -- 12-11, 3.03 ERA -- were more than acceptable.
--C Yadier Molina (left thumb surgeries in offseason) had two procedures on a thumb that was originally injured Sept. 20. Molina had his cast removed in February and is hopes to be ready for Opening Day.
--RHP Carlos Martinez (strained right shoulder) threw 15 pitches Feb. 17 and pronounced himself pain-free. Martinez was shut down on Sept. 26 and missed the season's final week plus the NL Division Series.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "People want to go and give it to the Cubs, and by all means, they're a great team. We're a pretty dang good team, too." -- 1B Brandon Moss, talking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about the NL Central race.