Along with the Cardinals, Rex Duncan returns from his winter break, just in time.

Here in southern Illinois we just had our coldest spell of the winter.  Saturday's low of nine degrees couldn't faze me, though.  Forget the groundhog.  Pay no attention to that snow on the ground and the crackling sidewalk salt underfoot.  The Cardinals have begun their annual pre-migration gathering in sunny Jupiter, Florida.  There they will flex their wings, reacquaint themselves with old friends, and learn who their new teammates are. 


Next month, a few will make a peculiar and potentially ill-advised detour to participate in the World Baseball Classic.  During that period of time, we will hold our collective breaths and hope that there are no injuries occur in this tortured collision between Bud Selig and the United Nations.  God bless So Taguchi, who declined an invitation to participate with the Japanese team.  Taguchi correctly reasoned that his March would be best served with the team that pays him and with the best baseball fans in the nation who have ardently supported him.


In a few weeks our Cardinals will migrate north to a new nest.  There will be quite a few familiar faces, but they will all wear the birds-on-bat on that's good enough for me.  I like the team that is taking the field in Jupiter.  I like it because it is a team with some question marks – dare I say some mystery. 


Who should we start with?  How about the reconstructed Scott Rolen.  Will his brittle left shoulder hold up under the pressure of a long season?  Will it give the best third baseman in the game the freedom of motion to swing a bat with 2004 authority.  Guys named Pujols and Edmonds are praying that it will.


Who will start at second base?  Junior Spivey seems to have the upperhand, although he has yet to field a ground ball for the Cardinals.  Is the versatile Hector Luna slated to be 2006's Abraham Nunez, of greater value as a multi-faceted reserve than a starter?  Will we see Aaron Miles or Deivi Cruz at second in St. Louis or Memphis?  This is shaping up as a real dogfight.


Perhaps the greatest unknowns are in the outfield.  Jim Edmonds should be coming in with fire in his eyes as he approaches his potential walk year.  The beat and battered Edmonds, still spectacular on defense, slipped significantly at the plate in 2006.  He attributes the slippage to the development of poor habits ostensibly in trying to satisfy batting coach Hal McRae, but Jimmy Ballgame is no spring chicken and he has hurled much abuse on his aging body.


Will we see the Larry Bigbie of world-beating potential emerge, or will this be another platoon year in left field?  My favorite to watch will be for John Rodriguez to continue his torrid hitting.  Rodriguez was a tantalizing talent after his mid-season call-up, seeming to have successfully run the major league-making gauntlet of handling breaking pitches after he teed off on fastballs.  His winter ball performance (.346 batting average in 78 at-bats with seven home runs) continues to tantalize.  If J-Rod can hit .280-.290 consistently, he would provide a tremendous lift to the middle order out of the six or seven spot in the batting order.  Rodriguez might be the missing link that ties this offense together from top to bottom.


The bullpen is a work in progress.  One thing is crystal clear.  Braden Looper, argued in several corners as the worst off-season signing in baseball, must prove his detractors wrong.  Remember, though, that Walt Jocketty, human though he is, has an uncanny knack for seeing solid performers where others see wreckage.  If Looper can effectively set up closer Jason Isringhausen, he will be a worthwhile addition.  If he fails to live up to the Cardinal hype, he will remind us of Tino's gone by.


This bullpen picture still isn't complete.  They lack that long reliever that good guy Cal Eldred filled so capably and I would hate to see Anthony Reyes used in that role.  With the logjams at second and the outfield, the Cardinals may take the trade route to fill gaps in the bullpen.


Unlike last year, the 2006 Cardinals are a bit of a mystery to me, a delightfully unknown quantity that has the potential for either a World Series victory or a second place finish in the National League Central.  Last year the question was how high would they go.  There was a presumption of good things.  This team, with a few breaks, could win 100 games but it will take a couple of breakout performances and a bullpen that performs at least as well as last year.  All that said, it's going to be quite a ride in 2006.  See you at Busch III.


Rex Duncan

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