Clearly those standings could change in a matter of a couple of weeks, but the Cardinals are demonstrating an interesting ability to sustain losses in personnel and still keep their heads above water. Injuries are a part of the game and every team must cope with them, but the Cardinals have been able to withstand the loss of some key personnel without too much damage.
That ability to withstand injuries to key people is the fruit of remarkable foresight by Cardinal management and a merry-go-round of players during spring training that was inexplicable to me at the time, but now I see and appreciate the wisdom of the moves then that yield benefit today.
For the life of me, I couldn't understand why the Cardinals kept bringing infielders in to spring training. In addition to "the usual suspects", Hector Luna, John Gall, Bo Hart, and Scott Seabol, they also gave field time to Mike Bell, Wilton Guerrero, and Abraham Nunez. They had already signed David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek. I recall feeling badly for Bo Hart because every time another infielder was brought in was one more nail in Bo's coffin. It was clear that the Cardinal body wouldn't have a Hart in 2005.
Through attrition, reputation, performance, bad hair days or whatever winnowing process was used to separate the wheat from the chaff, Abraham Nunez circled Busch Stadium on Opening Day and we should be thankful that he was the survivor. When All-Everything third baseman Scott Rolen sustained a shoulder injury and was forced to the Disabled List, Nunez was ready and able.
Nunez has demonstrated a remarkable defensive aptitude at third base. He has a strong throwing arm, quickness, and the intelligence to know where to throw under any given situation. He is no offensive liability. He is batting .286 with 10 rbi's and 4 home runs. He is said to be a great presence in the locker and an affable, outgoing teammate.
By Nunez being able to fill so well for Rolen at third, Tony La Russa gets the added flexibility of keeping super-sub John Mabry available for specific situations that call for a left-handed bat. It would be easy to plop Mabry at third while Rolen is out, and he can certainly hold his own defensively, but Nunez' ability to patrol the hot corner adds to La Russa's list of options in late inning situations. La Russa should thank his lucky stars that Nunez was the survivor of the spring training competition for middle infield depth.
When one considers the Cardinals moves in the off-season, including who was signed and who wasn't, Walt Jocketty and the entire Cardinal management team look like pure visionaries in comparison to their lesser counterparts on other teams. To wit:
Sport Illustrated recently rated the signing Edgar Renteria by the Boston Red Sox as the second worst free agent signing decision of the off-season. While Edgar anguishes under the lashes of the Boo-Birds in Beantown, David Eckstein is winning hearts and minds on Edgar's old stomping grounds for one-fourth the money.
Two days later, Sport Illustrated rated the signing of Cardinal second baseman Mark Grudzielanek as one of the better signings during the off-season. Offensively productive and defensively in-sync with shortstop Eckstein, Grudz has been a solid addition to this team. I said it a month ago and I'll say it again, the Cardinals need to sign Grudz to at least keep him here as long as Eckstein is signed.
The decision to let fan favorite Mike Matheny leave for greener pastures in San Fran made sense at the time because of the money the Giants were willing to pay. The first three weeks of season made us long for Iron Mike's presence, but Yadier Molina is showing signs of the plate leadership we knew was there. As Molina's batting average continues to climb, it is clear that letting Matheny head west was the right call.
After a rough couple of starts, the signing of Mark Mulder is looking better and better. While still occasionally inconsistent, Mulder has shown that he is something special. His complete-game, ten-inning win against the Astros last month was magical. Anyone with that much skill, determination, and stamina is going to be an impact starting pitcher.
You can't help but admire again the masterful work performed in the off-season by Jocketty, La Russa, Dave Duncan, and the seldom seen but oh-so-influential Jim Leyland. Their 24-7 approach when the snow was flying is paying great dividends today. They are every bit as important to the success of this team as guys named Pujols, Rolen, and Edmonds. I was too short-sighted to appreciate what they did then, but no longer. Thank you, gentlemen. This Bud's for you.
You can write to Rex Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org