Spring postcard: Amid myriad distractions, Cardinals stay focused
JUPITER, Fla. -- Three observations after spending a couple days in Cardinals camp:
Before camp even started, the Cardinals shut down talk of a contract extension for first baseman Albert Pujols, at his request, and so the proposition of the game's greatest active player hitting the free-agent market looms at season's end. Less than a week later co-ace Adam Wainwright was diagnosed with a severe elbow injury and underwent elbow surgery on Monday. In Tuesday's spring training game co-ace Chris Carpenter and reliever Mitchell Boggs both ended their outings prematurely due to injuries. Carpenter, who will make $15 million this year and has an option for the same amount next year, also indicated earlier this spring that he'd be willing to waive his no-trade clause.
"There are always distractions, if you allow them," manager Tony La Russa said, "and part of being good enough is not to be distracted, so this was a spectacular test."
The injuries to Carpenter and Boggs proved to be relatively minor -- muscle strains to the hamstring and lower back, respectively -- and while they'll miss time in spring, it seems unlikely that either will be hindered enough to miss Opening Day. Few think that Pujols' performance this season will in any way be affected by his uncertain future with the Cardinals. Carpenter clarified that he simply meant he wouldn't stand in the way of a trade if St. Louis falls out of contention and wants to go in a different direction. And none of his includes last year's feud between La Russa and center fielder Colby Rasmus, which seems to have been resolved.
So while there may be panic among fans in St. Louis, there's no such sentiment in Jupiter.
At the end of the day, losing Wainwright is undeniably a major blow -- his 39 wins and 2.53 ERA are the National League's best over the past two seasons and his 425 strikeouts rank second only to Tim Lincecum -- but it's not insurmountable. Each team in the NL Central seemed to improve itself in the offseason, but none is a prohibitive favorite.
"We understand that's part of this business, that there's always risk of injuries," general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's disappointing, but it was certainly within the realm of possibility."
The remaining starters -- Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, Kyle Lohse and a to-be-determined fifth -- will share the burden of contending with the Brewers, Cubs and Reds atop the division, with the young Astros most likely lurking as spoilers.
"We've got four quality guys still," Carpenter said. "We're all going to have to pitch well and we'll miss Adam -- he's a 20-game winner -- but there's nothing we can do about it but move on."
This was the first spring in three years that Cardinals pitcher Kyle McClellan didn't report to camp looking to compete for a spot in the rotation, yet it's looking like the first spring he'll win a spot as a starter.
After Wainwright's injury, the Cardinals quickly noted that they would look to fill the hole from within -- rather than pursuing veteran free agents like Kevin Millwood or Jeremy Bonderman -- and La Russa mentioned that there were "six or seven" candidates. But the favorite is pretty clearly McClellan.
"Certainly, given McClellan's history of success in the big leagues and his real desire to want to start, he's going to get the first shot at this," Mozeliak said.
Working out of the Redbirds' bullpen the last three years, McClellan pitched an average of 73 innings with an ERA that has decreased from 4.04 in 2008 to 3.38 in '09 and 2.27 in '10 with a strikeout rate of 7.0 per nine innings. He has a professional history of starting but it has been several years since he has. McClellan began the transition to reliever in 2005 while pitching Class A but had started 36 minor league games the two previous seasons in rookie and A ball.
Another competitor for the fifth spot is Triple-A starter Lance Lynn, who threw three scoreless innings against the Mets in his debut on Wednesday. Brandon Dickson, who will start a Grapefruit League game on Saturday, is another option.
In the 11 seasons since Y2K, the Cardinals have reached the playoffs seven times, claimed six Central crowns, took home the 2006 World Series, suffered only one losing season and won 999 regular-season games. That's the most wins of any NL team during that span -- 16 more than the Braves (who also have made seven playoff appearances but have won no championships) and 52 ahead of the Phillies.
The Cardinals have been the class of the NL in the 2000s under La Russa, who has won a franchise-record 1,318 games and now sits just 125 behind John McGraw for second place on the all-time major league managerial wins list.
It is no surprise, therefore, that with such vast experience La Russa is immune to the ebbs and flows of a single season or a single camp. Asked if there was any urgency to 2011 given the uncertainty surrounding Pujols, La Russa denied that was the case, saying, "We have urgency every year." He added that, if anyone answered that question differently, they didn't belong on his team.
"We just lost a top-of-the-rotation starter, and knowing that, going into a division where arguably every club is improved, it does change how you look at 2011," Mozeliak said. "But I think our players, our staff and our front office are looking at it as, 'We still see this as a great opportunity for us to win baseball games.'"
The longtime Astros star, who made a post-trade deadline cameo with the Yankees last year, is not only in a new city (St. Louis) but also in a new position (right field).
The former division rival with the Astros -- a "Cardinal killer," Mozeliak was quick to note -- has more games in the outfield (871) in his nine-season career than first base (717) but has played the latter exclusively since 2007, when he started 27 games in right. His defensive range will be questioned, as he posted a negative Ultimate Zone Rating every year he played right (at a -10.9-per-150-games rate), but his bat should be a boon protecting Pujols and Matt Holliday in the No. 5 spot.
"The last two years," La Russa said, "our front office has done a good job recognizing that when you've got a weapon like Albert, the best way to maximize him is to get guys on base ahead of him and have guys behind him to keep the bat in his hands."
Even last year, when the switch-hitting Berkman struggled from the right batter's box, he still had a season on-base percentage of .368. That was the lowest OBP for a full season in his career -- his lifetime rate is .409 -- but it still would have ranked third on the 2010 Cardinals behind only Pujols and Holliday.
"Berkman was attractive to us not only because he is a really good hitter but his on-base is off the charts," Mozeliak said. "When you couple that with the club that we have, that's such a positive. The other part of our offseason strategy was to try and change a little bit of our clubhouse -- that's where guys like Berkman, [Ryan] Theriot and re-signing Westbrook were so important."
Hitting coach Mark McGwire raved about Berkman's "great knowledge of the strike zone" and his upbeat attitude in camp, saying how the veteran was quick to cut loose with his new teammates, even on the first day.
"During stretching, he's holding court," McGwire said. "As a former player, I love that."
Rasmus said the same, calling Berkman a "funny dude" and "a little bit of a class clown," assuming that role from shortstop Brendan Ryan, who was traded in the offseason.
The Cardinals' best young arms are in the farm system's lower levels, but many were in Jupiter this week for a minicamp. Among them were 2010 draft picks Seth Blair, Tyrell Jenkins and Jordan Swagerty -- all selected in the supplemental first round or in the second -- and international bonus baby Carlos Martinez, a 19-year-old right-hander with a mitt-popping fastball who reportedly received $1.5 million. Martinez's bullpen session drew a crowd of reporters, club brass, coaches and even Carpenter. ... It's not unusual for legends to return to spring training and ride around camp in a golf cart, but what's unique about 88-year-old Cardinals Hall of Fame second baseman Red Schoendienst is that he is the cart's driver. ... Fellow Cardinal Hall of Famer Lou Brock was also in Jupiter this week.