The St. Louis Cardinals Team Report

The Birdhouse staff takes a look at the St. Louis Cardinals as they prepare to get underway in defense of their National League Championship Crown.

INSIDE PITCH: The Cardinals found out how much they liked new LHP Mark Mulder in spring training. Mulder, coupled with RHP Chris Carpenter, gives them the 1-2 punch they really lacked last year even though they won 105 games.

The Cardinals might have a hard time replacing RHP Kiko Calero (trade to Oakland) and LHP Steve Kline (free agent to Baltimore), although several relievers were impressive this spring.

Manager Tony La Russa decided to keep 3B Scott Rolen as his cleanup man behind 1B Albert Pujols instead of inserting CF Jim Edmonds, a left-handed hitter, between the two right-handed power hitters. Rolen was successful hitting cleanup last year.

La Russa also decided to keep RF Larry Walker as his No. 2 hitter ahead of Pujols even though Walker hadn't hit second in his career until coming in trade from Colorado last August.

The Cardinals not only hope but expect to win their division. They seem to have fewer problems than anyone else although bullpen depth and no strong right-handed hitter off the bench could be issues.

Their strength is the heart of their lineup. Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds are the most productive trio in the National League and perhaps the majors.

The Cardinals, however, are well aware that no team has repeated a championship in the National League since the 1991-92 Atlanta Braves.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: SS David Eckstein got on base 50 percent of the time for much of the spring and, hitting in front of Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds should assure him of 110 or more runs scored.

ON THE DECLINE: It will be interesting to see how much RF Larry Walker has left at age 38. He overcame early-spring back problems, but his recent injury history has been lengthy.

NOTES, QUOTES: --The Cardinals trimmed four position players Sunday (March 27), including Bo Hart, who was their regular second baseman for most of the second half of the 2003 season. 2B Hart, OF John Gall, INF Scott Seabol and C Mike Mahoney all were optioned to Triple-A Memphis. Seabol, who had 31 home runs last year at Memphis, had the best spring of the quartet, hitting .313 in 32 at-bats. Two more position players, one of them likely OF Rick Ankiel, will be cut before the season starts on April 5. --INF Abraham Nunez, who is hitting .349, is almost certain to make the team as a backup infielder. --INF Hector Luna, who is hitting 324, is almost certain to make the team as a backup infielder. --LF Reggie Sanders, out 10 days after having an appendectomy, is beginning to take batting practice.

BY THE NUMBERS: 7 -- Number of teams that have won National League titles in the last seven seasons. QUOTE TO NOTE:. "His delivery is not a textbook delivery. It needs a little maintenance." -- Pitching coach Dave Duncan, addressing new LHP Mark Mulder and his big motion.

ROSTER REPORT: The Cardinals lost a pitcher but gained a prospective outfielder this spring when LHP Rick Ankiel decided to quit pitching and become a hitter. He won't open the season with the big club, though. Otherwise, the Cardinals gained a pitcher they didn't think they'd have until mid-May when RHP Matt Morris rebounded more quickly than expected from offseason shoulder surgery. Camp mostly was injury-free, except for LF Reggie Sanders, who had to undergo an appendectomy with two weeks to go.

ROTATION: 1. LHP Mark Mulder 2. RHP Chris Carpenter 3. RHP Jason Marquis 4. RHP Jeff Suppan 5. RHP Matt Morris

The Cardinals will have four of the five starters who helped them win 105 games last year, and Mulder, replacing RHP Woody Williams, should be an upgrade.

BULLPEN: RHP Jason Isringhausen (closer) LHP Ray King RHP Julian Tavarez LHP Mike Myers RHP Cal Eldred RHP Al Reyes LHP Randy Flores

The bullpen was among the team's stronger points last year, but LHP Steve Kline and RHP Kiko Calero will be difficult to replace. Isringhausen never has pitched an entire season completely healthy, but if this is the one, he could be a candidate for 50 saves. King and Taverez will be the primary setup men, but Myers will be a key against such left-handed-hitting teams as Cincinnati when the Cardinals might need a left-handed reliever in the seventh inning and again in the ninth.

LINEUP: 1. SS David Eckstein 2. RF Larry Walker 3. 1B Albert Pujols 4. 3B Scott Rolen 5. CF Jim Edmonds 6. LF Reggie Sanders 7. 2B Mark Grudzielanek 8. C Yadier Molina

The lineup still is one of the best in baseball. There may be more hit-and-run action and less stealing this year without 2B Tony Womack, although leadoff man Eckstein has some speed. If Rolen's knee is sound, he may be able to run more this year.

RESERVES: INF-OF John Mabry OF Roger Cedeno OF So Taguchi INF Hector Luna INF Abraham Nunez C Einar Diaz

The Cardinals' bench could use some youth in the outfield and a good right-handed hitter, but it didn't happen this spring. A trade may be in the offing later on.

ROOKIE WATCH: No rookies made the club, but RHP Anthony Reyes served noticed that he will be in the majors before the season is over. Reyes dazzled in the spring with his stuff and poise. "I'm very intrigued by him," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "But right now, realistically, he's still a developing pitcher. He needs to go out and pitch innings."

MEDICAL WATCH: LF Reggie Sanders had an appendectomy with two weeks to go in the spring and had to curtail his activities for eight to 10 days.

RF Larry Walker was slow off the mark with a back problem but is ready.

RHP Matt Morris is well ahead of schedule after offseason shoulder surgery.

RHP Mike Lincoln had to back off a bit in his recovery from Tommy John surgery, which he had last year.

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