Keeping Cardinals Spring Training in Context

March is all about neither flying too high nor falling too low.

Yesterday, I provided the details of how I believe the Cardinals regular season roster will fall out over the next month of spring training along with a bit of logic about why.

In case you missed it, here's the net version: There are a boatload of certainties and a small handful of semi-interesting competitions for back-up jobs.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about the fact that the 2005 Cardinals team is pretty much set. It's just that as a result, a lot of the excitement has been taken out of the spring, given the dearth of meaningful challenges.

Yeah, I know what Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan are saying. It's the same thing they've said for 25 springs and countless other managers and coaches said before them and will continue to do for the foreseeable future.

"So and so is throwing great. He's picked up some velocity. As long as he keeps the ball down, he'll be just fine. Or, look at Mr. X. He's lost weight and has been working out this winter. He's come to camp with a great looking stroke and is looking better than ever." And on and on they go…

Of course, eternal optimism is a welcome and expected part of every team's spring training. So, why should the Cardinals be any different?

Well, it is different this time. The reality of the situation is that for many of the Cardinals, this March is a time to prove to oneself and to others that past problems have been left behind, whether they were driven by injury (Jason Isringhausen and Matt Morris), ineffectiveness (Mark Mulder) or an odd combination of the two (Rick Ankiel).

Time to take a quick look back to again help remind us all that we should treat play in the month of March with a healthy dose of … calmness.

They're only tune-up games, folks
As starved as we all are for live baseball action, it is easy to put far too much importance on spring training results, especially the few early games, which get underway Wednesday with the spring opener against Florida Atlantic University. In reality, barring some very unusual circumstances, the vast majority of the Cardinals team can spend the month properly pacing themselves to get ready for the regular season that follows.

Expect more of the same
Over the past five years, the Cardinals have had a winning record each spring. In fact, they've won exactly 17 games four of the last five and averaged 12 losses over that span. It is ok to expect a similar record again in 2005, but if it is 12-17 instead, don't panic. The good news is that George Steinbrenner is not the managing general partner of this team. Be very thankful for that.

Veterans know how to prepare
Try not to fall for the understandable temptation to get too high or too low on the team or its individual performers based on what you see from the reports this spring. The 2005 Cardinals are a veteran squad guided by an experienced coaching staff who by now know well what it takes to prepare for the six-month grind ahead of them.

Who were those guys?
Let's think back to one year ago. Coming into camp, there was a lot of interest in fresh, exciting names like Greg Vaughn, Brent Butler, Steve Cox, Mark Quinn and Kevin Witt. Promising youngsters like Dan Haren and Jim Journell seemed ready to make the final step to join the staff once and for all.

After the first week of camp, the two Cardinals who were getting the rave reviews from the coaches and in the press were outfielder Emil Brown and pitcher Alan Benes. In mid-March, Brown was still hitting a lusty, team-high .571.

In case you missed it, eight of these nine guys did not make even a single day's appearance on the big league roster all season.

The exception to this was Haren, who also did not make the team out of camp. After a two-month exile, he arrived back in the bigs in time for one ill-fated ten-run outing in Chicago on June 10 and was promptly not seen again for over six weeks.

Unexpected March heroes fade fast
Around the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues last spring, here were some of MLB's top hitters. Arizona second baseman Matt Kata was second in NL spring batting average with a lofty .450 mark. That all changed in the regular season, when Kata got all of 162 at-bats and hit .247 as a reserve for the Diamondbacks. For reference, Hector Luna received 173 at-bats for the Cards, hit .249 and most observers believe he should spend 2005 in the minors.

The majors' leading home run and RBI man last spring was Abraham Nunez – not the Cardinals one – the outfielder who was with Florida at the time and moved to the Royals mid-season. His slugging percentage was a Pujolsian 1.000. Nunez' ten March home runs doubled his entire regular-season output.

Boston's 25th man, David McCarty, was tied for next in spring homers with seven. He hit two in total over the next seven months.

Milwaukee's Trent Durrington tied for the MLB lead in steals with eight in the spring of 2004. He managed 82 regular-season at-bats. That was downright impressive compared to the guy right behind him with seven spring thefts. Rich Thompson, then of Kansas City, collected just one at-bat when it counted - during the entire 162-game regular campaign.

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the point by now.

Keep it all in perspective
So, let's remember this is spring training, not the real thing. Expect what transpires over the next month to simply be fine tuning. We already know who most all of the players who will be standing in a row down the third base line at Houston's Minute Maid Park on April 5th when the bell rings for the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals.

I am confident of one thing. Regardless of what happens in March, this team will be ready to play.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net


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