It's a given, Albert Pujols is at first base. If you have any doubts, let me put your minds at rest. Chris Duncan, the minor league first baseman, the son of pitching coach, Dave Duncan, is playing winter ball, to learn how to play in the outfield. You can only carry nepotism so far.
At the other corner, at third, Scott Rolen will be back, again, barring any rehab setbacks.
Rolen, who underwent surgery for a torn labrum on the shoulder in August, after a May 10 base-running collision, was placed on the 15-day disabled on July 22 and it was initially reported after his surgery, that he will be out for six months. The third baseman, was batting .235 overall with five homers and 28 RBI in 56 games, before his season came to an early end.
David Eckstein will be back at shortstop, and any question that Cardinal fans ever had about this guy playing at short, is long gone. Eckstein signed a three-year, $10.25 million deal with the Cardinals in December of 2004 and now that seems like a bargain.
Behind the plate the Cardinals' catcher of the future, Yadier Molina, is the catcher now. He's been major-league ready behind the mask for a couple of years now, but there was always concern about his bat. The kid hit .252 with eight homers and 49 RBI in 114 games.
Yadier started the season, kind of slow, like we expected. He hit just .197 through March and April, but than he began to put it together and hit his stride, in May hitting .345, June hitting .323 and for the rest of the season hitting in the neighborhood of .300.
Molina missed playing time this season with a broken hand, but he should be at 100% for spring training.
So all Walt has to do is pencil in his starters, Pujols at first, Rolen at third, Eckstein at shortstop and Molina behind the plate. Then there is free agent, Mark Grudzielanek and what to do at second base. It's always something.
The only infield question this winter is, who's going to play second base? Mark Grudzielanek is a free agent, coming off a one year contract with the Cardinals. Grudzielanek and Eckstein led the majors in double plays, to the surprise of the Eckstein/Grudzielanek distracters. It has been several months now since I have heard any moaning and groaning about the signing of these two infielders.
Abraham Nunez, by the way, also a free agent, could move to second base if the Cardinals can't sign Grudzielanek. Of course the Cardinals have to sign Nunez to accomplish this.
Personally, I lean toward getting the deal done with Grudzielanek. My only reservations with him, is his last name.
Grudzielanek, do you realize how many times during a season I have to type out Grudzielanek? Have you ever tried to use spell check on Grudzielanek? And if on that rare occasion I misspell Grudzielanek, I get some English professor writing me about some rule about "e" before something, except after something, unless something else, every other Tuesday.
Do you really think they had Grudzielanek's last name in mind, when they came up with any of these English rules? Of course the fact that anyone thinks I'm a writer in the first place, I find amusing. I'm a fan, my subscription to the Post Disptach will be the closest I ever get to a Pulitzer.
How easy it must have been to cover the Cardinals with names like, Bill White, Ken Boyer, Curt Flood, Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, I can spell these easy.
Back to the bigger issue. I don't really want to tamper with the double play combo of Eckstein/Grudzielanek, it is a key factor in the Cardinals success. With these guys side by side, along with Jim Edmonds in center field and Yadier Molina behind the plate, you have potentially gold gloves at every position up the middle. You can't get much better than that and it makes it much easier for our pitchers to be effective.
Don't look to free agency for the solution at second base, unless we are talking about our own Abraham Nunez and Mark Grudzielanek, (there is that name again). Carlos Baerga, Damion Easley, Fernando Vina, Tony Graffanino, Denny Hocking, Miguel Cairo, Joe McEwing, Dave Berg, Bret Boone, Mark Bellhorn and Pokey Reese are among the best in what can be described at best a shallow market at second.
Don't expect any help from the Cardinals minor league system. There is fan favorite Bo Hart at Memphis and Aaron Herr and Travis Hanson at Springfield, they could play second in an extreme emergency, but none of them are in the Cardinals' plans for 2006.
The bottom line is, Walt needs to sign both Nunez and Grudzielanek. The 35 year old, Grudzielanek will want a two or three year deal and that could be the breaking point and the Cardinals may go with a less expensive option, such as Nunez to fill the hole. Regardless it makes sense to get Mark back at second and keep Nunez as a very valuable reserve player.
Nunez, is just 29 years old and had a remarkable season at third, filling in for the injured Scott Rolen. He hit .285 with 5 homers and 44 RBI with an on base percentage of .343. In addition he played stellar defense at third. He may lack the range of Scott Rolen, but when Nunez gets to the ball he makes the play. In addition, Nunez' ability to play third, second, shortstop and left field, makes him a very valuable utility player.
Nunez' price tag will go up over last season, but it should. He has proven that he can play everyday and you could do a whole lot worse than him at any infield position. And Nunez, if it comes to that, is a whole lot easier to spell than Grudzielanek.
Ray Mileur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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