Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Look at the entire history of the Cardinals and you’ll see that they have team-building down to a science.

From the Gussie Busch years up through Bill DeWitt’s current ownership, St. Louis has followed the exact same model. They’re super-selective about who they pursue in free agency and otherwise either develop their own talent or trade for players they like. It also helps that the NL Central, save for the rival Brewers, isn’t overly competitive.

Thus, the Cardinals enter the season as the favorites to win the division again and get back to the playoffs. Fans will recall they swept the Yankees at Busch Stadium last summer, and there will be a rematch there late June/early July.

St. Louis’ two series with the Mets, however, will be more interesting and meaningful in the long term. The Cardinals will visit New York for a weekend in June and those three games aren’t that impactful. It’s a potential playoff matchup, but with little intensity.

The same can’t be said for the Mets’ four-game visit to St. Louis in mid-August. That’s the point in the season where both teams will be thinking about playoff positioning and seeding. And given how the Mets play in the harder division, the Cardinals had better be ready.

Greatest Addition: Willson Contreras. The veteran backstop was previously with the rival Cubs and signed a five-year, $87.5 million contract with the Cardinals in the offseason. Contreras hit .243 with 22 home runs and a .815 OPS en route to his third All-Star selection.

As always, there are going to be questions about Contreras’ health. He only played in 113 games last year, has never appeared in more than 138 in a season, and he’s not a great glove behind the plate either. He’ll need to change positions at some point, probably to either first base or the outfield.

But for now, the Cardinals just need Contreras to stay healthy and be that middle of the order bat who can help the team out-hit Milwaukee.

Greatest Loss: Yadier Molina, the man whose enormous shoes Contreras must fill. The future Hall of Famer spent 19 years with the Cardinals and retired at the end of the season. Along with Albert Pujols’ retirement, it marked the end of an era for St. Louis.

Ten All-Star selections. Nine Gold Gloves and four Platinums. Two World Series rings. Universal respect. There are currently 19 catchers in the Hall of Fame and in five years, Yadier Molina will make it 20.

Greatest Strength: The best player development in baseball. No matter how good or bad the Cardinals are in a given year, they’re always going to have at least one good homegrown talent. To add some context, St. Louis hasn’t lost 90 games in a season since 1990 and hasn’t lost 100 since 1908. Picking up 11 World Series titles and 19 NL Pennants along the way is proof that the system works.

This year in St. Louis will be no exception. Jordan Walker is about to break out as a power hitter and will hopefully give Nolan Arenado and reigning MVP Paul Goldschmidt some protection in the lineup. Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman should also keep developing and improving as the next generation of Cardinals stars who make some noise in 2023.

Greatest Weakness: Who’s the ace of the pitching staff? No, seriously. Who is it? St. Louis pitchers finished tenth in MLB with a 3.79 staff ERA, but with no clear leader who could anchor a staff in October. No disrespect to 41-year-old Adam Wainwright, but he hasn’t been in ace form in years. 14 total pitchers started games for the Cardinals last year, and only three made more than 20 starts.

Granted, this could all change by this season. Maybe former Yankee Jordan Montgomery continues his dominant stretch in St. Louis and becomes there ace. Perhaps Jack Flaherty will finally be healthy. Either way, the Cardinals’ pitching staff needs a pecking order because come playoff time, the lack of one could prove a problem.

Can the Cardinals keep up with the National League? Much like the Brewers, the Cardinals are very much a Midwestern team. Their system works, but at the cost of higher-spending teams surging past them in the playoffs. The National League has plenty of these teams, namely the Padres and Mets, and the road to the World Series almost certainly runs through them.

This will make the Mets’ mid-August series with St. Louis all the more intriguing. Four games between two legitimate contenders. One that’s spent its way to the top, the other almost machine-like in its baseball operations. Now, add that the Mets might be battling both the Braves and the Phillies for first place and the Cardinals fighting off the Brewers.

This series screams playoff intensity, and could become playoff reality in October.

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Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.