MANAGER TONY LARUSSA 12th season with Cardinals
This is an article from the March 26, 2007 issue
STAYING TRUE totheir state's motto, the Cardinals showed us in October, when they stormedthrough the playoffs and won the World Series despite their worst regularseason in seven years. But this wasn't your average 83-win team. This was--andstill is--a club with a superb nucleus, starting with the best player inbaseball, first baseman Albert Pujols; arguably the best starting pitcher inthe National League, righthander Chris Carpenter; plus the brilliantcombination of manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. What'smore, it appears to be an especially dedicated group. "We're starting fromzero," says Pujols of the Cards' putting their stunning postseason behindthem. "The last thing we want to do is to come in with anattitude."
Truth is, afterCarpenter, the rotation is virtually starting from zero. Not since the Marlinsconducted a fire sale after winning the 1997 World Series has a defendingchampion entered the season with so much turnover. St. Louis lost threestarters--NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis--who took morelucrative free-agent deals elsewhere. St. Louis did re-sign lefthander MarkMulder, but he isn't expected back from rotator cuff surgery until the secondhalf of the season.
La Russa andDuncan, though, have a long, distinguished history with mound reclamationprojects (look no further than Carpenter and '06 World Series hero AdamWainwright), and that is just one reason to believe that the Cardinals will wintheir fourth straight Central crown. In fact, the trio of Wainwright, who hasbeen overpowering this spring; Anthony Reyes, the surprise hero of Game 1 ofthe World Series; and bargain free-agent pickup Kip Wells is a younger, moreoverpowering group than the soft-tossing trio it replaces. And the scarcity ofcandidates for the fifth spot--most likely to be filled by Braden Looper, whohadn't started a game since he was in Class A in 1997--is, for now, anoverrated concern (box, opposite).
Though he'shunting for trade possibilities (starting pitchers Jon Lieber, Brad Penny andMissouri native Mark Buehrle are names worth keeping an eye on), St. Louisgeneral manager Walt Jocketty says he doesn't feel pressured to pull off amajor deal. "We feel confident that Dave Duncan and the rest of the staffwill end up with a very strong rotation," says Jocketty, who quietly hasput together the National League's model franchise without breaking thebank--or coming close. "We just decided we weren't going to go crazy withthe market because we thought we had alternatives."
Jocketty'srestraint this winter--his most notable free-agent signing was second basemanAdam Kennedy, 31, who brings steady hands but a declining bat--gives him someflexibility to fill any holes later in the season. Barring injury, the infield,one of the National League's best defensively, is set. The outfield, however,is more of an adventure, especially with eight-time Gold Glove centerfielderJim Edmonds still recovering from off-season shoulder and toe surgeries. LaRussa will have to employ a mix-and-match system involving erratic JuanEncarnacion, power hitting Chris Duncan, strikeout glutton Preston Wilson andSo Taguchi and Scott Spiezio, both of whom had their big moments in the '06postseason but are utilitymen. The summer, though, could be interesting if RickAnkiel, the former pitching phenom trying to make it back to the majors on thestrength of his hitting, works his way into the outfield mix. Ankiel, who hit21 homers in 85 games in the minors in '05, will start the season at Triple A,but he's a story worth following.
La Russa andDuncan might be facing their toughest assignment in years, but they still havePujols, more power arms in the rotation than they did a year ago and a defensethat spares the pitching staff excess wear and tear. Looks like anotherOctober's in the Cards. --J.H.
a modest proposal ...
The Cardinals areauditioning retreads such as Braden Looper (left) and Josh Hancock for thefifth starter's role. They might consider a simpler solution: going to afour-man rotation for the first two months of the season rather than the firsttwo weeks. St. Louis starters are well-equipped to make the transition becausepitching coach Dave Duncan teaches his cadets to pitch to contact and takeadvantage of the team's outstanding defense. Cardinals pitchers required just3.69 pitches per plate appearance last season, the second fewest in the majorsbehind the Rockies. That efficiency, coupled with a favorable early-seasonschedule--St. Louis won't go more than 10 games without an off day until afterMemorial Day--should be enough to hold down the fort for the first third of theseason.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
* New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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THE NUMBERS DON'TLIE
Unearned runs allowed last season by the Cardinals' pitching staff, the lowesttotal in the majors. St. Louis's regular lineup features three players who havewon a total of 16 Gold Gloves: Jim Edmonds (eight), Scott Rolen (seven) andAlbert Pujols (one). And the addition of second baseman Adam Kennedy is anupgrade over Ronnie Belliard at the team's one weak defensive position in'06.