Adam Wainwright believes he can still be the best pitcher in baseball, even at 36 years old and coming off an injury-riddled season that was the worst of his illustrious career.

Whether the right-hander's assessment is anywhere near correct could determine not only his future in baseball, but that of the St. Louis Cardinals.

When St. Louis opens its season at the New York Mets on March 29, it will do so in the unfamiliar position as an underdog in the National League Central.

The Cardinals have missed the playoffs in each of the last two seasons — the first time that's happened in back-to-back years since 2007 and '08 — and many believe they enter this year chasing both the rival Chicago Cubs and up-and-coming Milwaukee Brewers.

"There are people all across this country that don't necessarily have us written in to win the National League Central," manager Mike Matheny said. "To me, that's a challenge."

To keep pace or overtake the Cubs and Brewers, St. Louis is counting on the arrival of left fielder Marcel Ozuna from Miami to help bring All-Star production to the middle of the lineup.

The Cardinals have also made it clear they believe Wainwright can solidify the pitching staff by rediscovering the form that made him one of the top starters in the NL from 2007-14. Wainwright posted a 12-5 record last season, but his 5.11 ERA was by far the worst of his career. A second-half elbow injury resulted in offseason surgery.

With his elbow now healthy and curveball back to its usual 12-to-6 self, Wainwright has been a pleasant surprise during spring training for St. Louis. He has allowed only one earned in three starts, and he's struck out 10 batters in 10 2/3 innings.

Wainwright admittedly spent too much time thinking about his future last season, and he enters this year in the last of his contract with the Cardinals. Regardless of what the future holds, his only thought these days is helping St. Louis return to the postseason.

"I'm just not ready to be mediocre again," Wainwright said. "I want to be great again. I've done it before; I know I can do it. My mind is sharp. I feel like it might happen."

Some other things to watch as the Cardinals prepare to open the season next week:

BEST CASE

With Ozuna brining his 37 home runs and 124 RBIs of a season ago to St. Louis, the Cardinals added the All-Star bat they so desperately wanted entering the offseason — even if Giancarlo Stanton as their top target. If Ozuna keeps producing like last year and St. Louis' crop of talented young pitchers can produce quickly, a return to the playoffs for the first time since 2015 could be in store.

WORST CASE

There is a feeling among some fans that the Cardinals didn't do enough in free agency. If the franchise misses the postseason for a third straight year, changes could be in store — starting with Matheny.

NEW FACES

In addition to Ozuna, reliever Luke Gregerson and starter Miles Mikolas were added to help ease the loss of Lance Lynn to Minnesota. It's the arrival of pitching coach Mike Maddux from the Washington Nationals, however, that has energized the Cardinals pitching staff and earned the most praise during the spring.

CHANGE OF SCENERY

Matt Carpenter saw action at three infield positions last season, and Matheny expects more of the same from the 32-year-old this year as the Cardinals try to find at-bats for Jose Martinez and others. Carpenter is fine with playing multiple positions, and he's eager to bounce back from his career-worst .241 average last season.

ACES UP

Carlos Martinez earned his spot as the ace of the St. Louis starting rotation with a 16-9 record and 3.04 ERA two years ago. The 26-year-old right-hander regressed somewhat a year ago, falling to a 12-11 mark and 3.64 ERA, but Matheny is confident Martinez is ready to do more.

"He shouldn't be content with being the ace of the St. Louis Cardinals," Matheny said. "He should be content with being talked about at the end of the year as the best pitcher in the league."