Needs Going into the Off-Season
Coming off their 105-win, National League pennant-winning 2004 campaign, St. Louis Cardinals' general manager Walt Jocketty knew he could not afford to stand pat. Jocketty's three stated priorities coming into December's Winter Meetings were: 1) get a front-of-the-rotation starter, 2) find a second baseman and 3) re-sign former Gold Glove and Silver Slugger award-winning shortstop Edgar Renteria. Another stated priority, but not viewed as immediate, was to re-sign Gold Glove catcher Mike Matheny.
Initally, Jocketty lost significant ground. First, Renteria was lost to the Boston Red Sox in an 11th hour bidding war (a.k.a. the battle for respect). However, in mid-December, Jocketty did pull off a major trade to secure that desired starter, adding Mark Mulder from the Oakland A's, after kicking Randy Johnson's and Pedro Martinez' tires, among others. The Cards wisely passed on a chance to match the San Francisco Giants' three-year, $10.5 million bid for Matheny. Their second base plans have been in flux, though at this point the team seems comfortable with a low-budget solution, Mark Grudzielanek.
To fill the gaping gap up the middle, the team awarded the starting catcher's job to youngster Yadier Molina and signed non-tendered David Eckstein from the Anaheim Angels to man the shortstop position. However, Jocketty seemed to be bidding against himself in the aftermath of the Renteria loss, surprisingly giving Eckstein three years. Since Tony Womack was not retained, second base will be manned by the former Cub and free agent Grudzielanek. An offer to free agent second baseman Roberto Alomar, which according to him included a guarantee of a starting job, was spurned in favor of a better deal from Tampa Bay.
Via Trade: Starter Mark Mulder (Oakland)
Via Waivers: Swingman Jason Simontacchi (unsigned), second baseman Marlon Anderson (Mets)
Via Free Agency: Second baseman Tony Womack (Yankees), shortstop Edgar Renteria (Red Sox), catcher Mike Matheny (Giants), starter Woody Williams (Padres), reliever Steve Kline (Orioles), outfielder Ray Lankford (unsigned)
What to Watch in the Spring
The Cardinals have five main concerns heading into spring training.
1) Starting pitching depth. Two starters, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan, are set. The other four contenders each have question marks by their names. Matt Morris had shoulder surgery in the off-season and is projected to not be able to start for at least the first month of the 2005 regular campaign and maybe two. Enigmatic lefty Rick Ankiel ended his up and down winter ball stint in Puerto Rico early with elbow soreness. While statements were that the move was precautionary and he has since been cleared to resume throwing, there has to be concern. Yet, Ankiel has been penciled in to start until Morris is ready in May. Mulder had a precipitous drop-off in results during the second half of 2004. As a result, lingering questions remain in some parts as to whether wily Billy Beane duped his Cards counterpart, Jocketty. Chris Carpenter led the Redbirds staff in 2004, but was shelved for the final weeks of the regular season and the post-season with a mysterious biceps ailment. Again, all the words are positive, but characteristically, as they say in Missouri, "show me" …
2) Outfield age and depth. The Cardinals cannot expect starters Reggie Sanders (age 37), Jim Edmonds (34) and Larry Walker (38) to survive an entire season without one or more missing considerable time due to injury. The bench options offer little help, consisting of weak-hitting, defensive specialist So Taguchi (35), switch-hitting Roger Cedeno (30) and John Mabry (34), who will also be asked to back up both Albert Pujols at first and Scott Rolen at third base.
3) Defense up the middle. When Renteria and Matheny departed, they packed up five Gold Gloves with them. The 22-year-old Molina is a solid prospect, but has big shoes to fill behind the plate. While Eckstein is accurate from short, he has a weak arm and limited range. Womack had his career year at second base in 2004 and while his replacement, Grudzielanek, is steady, he surely isn't known for his glove.
4) Core players' health. Not that you'd notice, but slugger Albert Pujols was hobbled during much of 2004 with plantar fasciitis in his heel. To us laymen, the malady is better known as heel spurs. Pujols' original plan to go under the knife after the World Series was altered when he instead underwent sonic treatment provided by a Austrian physician. When the pains reappeared in January, it was too late to reconsider surgery for 2005. While Pujols is always tight-lipped, watch him for signs of limping this spring.
Scott Rolen, who along with Pujols and Edmonds make up the Cardinals "MV3" core, had knee surgery in the off-season. That followed his shoulder injury during the 2002 playoffs that took the air out of the Cardinals' chances that year. Rolen plays hard every day and never wants to come out. But, his 0-for-15 World Series performance would seem to indicate more regular rest during 2005 would be a good idea.
Edmonds may eventually use up his nine lives after making diving catch after leaping home run-saving grab time and time again. His aggressive defensive play is exciting to watch, but has to take a physical toll.
The Cardinals cannot afford to lose any of these three for any considerable period of time.
5) Bullpen depth. Few are aware that the 2004 Cardinals lost the NL ERA title on the final day of the season. Given the off-season personnel changes, maintaining that record in 2005 seems to be a tall order. To conserve cash, the Cardinals let Steve Kline depart for Baltimore and surrendered vastly underrated Kiko Calero in the Mulder deal. Replacing them are journeymen Mike Myers and Al Reyes. However, when Morris and the rest of the rotation are ready, Ankiel is slated to slide into the pen. This will substantially increase the match-up options from the left side that Manager Tony La Russa so loves to exploit.
Coming off his ninth season with the Cardinals, La Russa received a new three-year deal reportedly coming in at slightly over $8 million. La Russa's 2114 managerial wins in 25 years is the sixth highest of all time. He will end the 2005 season in third place in career wins, yet is still looking for his second World Championship and first since 1988. The Cardinals have been waiting even longer, having last won it all way back in 1982.
Despite assurances from ownership that a deal was imminent, Jocketty worked for a period of the off-season without a contract. Once reports of a three-year offer at a value roughly one-third of La Russa's deal and that of other top GM's leaked, ownership quickly closed a new three-year deal with Jocketty. No doubt that was furthered by outraged Cardinals fans plus the attention of the Diamondbacks and at least one other team hoping to lure Jocketty away. His Cardinals' tenure of over ten years is the third longest GM service with the same team in MLB.
While on paper at least, the 2005 Cardinals look weaker than the unit that trudged off the Busch Stadium field at the end of the World Series, the strength of that ever-deadly offense remains. Any team with Pujols, Edmonds and Rolen swinging the big bats will be a force to be reckoned with. Trusty closer Jason Isringhausen is also expected to be ready to go this spring following winter hip surgery.
As with many teams in today's game, the Cardinals continue to evolve. In fact, Pujols, Edmonds, Morris, Izzy, Rolen (who was injured at the time) and reliever Cal Eldred are the only players remaining from the squad that went down to the Giants in the 2002 NLCS.
Jocketty may not be done assembling the 2005 edition of the Cardinals, either. During spring training last year, he acquired Womack for a middling Double-A pitcher and swiped Edmonds from the Angels with a week remaining before the start of the 2000 regular season. His reputation was made as a master trader, after all.
Even if Jocketty makes no additional moves to shore up the deficiencies noted above, this unit looks strong enough to be favored to repeat as NL Central champions in their final year of play in the current Busch Stadium. A strong player core, solid management, a new ballpark and a payroll that ownership has committed will increase into the $90-$100 million range in 2006 means the Cardinals' roll should continue for the foreseeable future.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org