St. Louis Cardinals Insider Report

An Insiders' look at the St. Louis Cardinals.

INSIDE PITCH

Third baseman Scott Rolen appeared to pass his first test Tuesday after missing the last 2 1/2 months of the 2005 season following a second shoulder surgery.

Batting second in his first appearance of the spring, Rolen was 0-for-2 but advanced David Eckstein with a first-inning groundout to second. Rolen also handled three chances flawlessly in his five innings.

Manager Tony La Russa plans to use Rolen every other day for a while, giving him two at-bats a game, before stepping up his pace. Rolen has said all along he expected to be ready to play on Opening Day, April 3.

Center fielder Jim Edmonds still hasn't played, although that day may be coming soon, too, as Edmonds almost is healed from a bruised right foot.

But outfielder John Rodriguez, who was straining at the plate, has been shut down for a couple of days because of a sore left shoulder. Outfielder Larry Bigbie missed the last two games with a thigh problem, but he is on the traveling squad to go to Viera, Fla., for a game Wednesday.


NOTES, QUOTES

--RHPs Jason Isringhausen and Jeff Nelson both made their first appearances of the spring and each worked a scoreless inning Tuesday in the Cardinals' 3-1 loss to the Dodgers.

--RHP Jeff Suppan wasn't great, giving all three Dodgers runs in the second inning Tuesday, but it was better than his last spring appearance when he allowed nine runs in 1 1/3 innings against the Mets.

--The Cardinals have lost four of their first six exhibition games.

--Nine players were trimmed from the team's roster, including LHP Chris Narveson, who was optioned to Triple-A Memphis. Veteran INFs Dave Berg and Kit Pellow were returned to the minor league camp.

BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Number of games not started by a member of the Cardinals' five-man rotation over the last two seasons.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "People talk like I can't hit. I know I can hit." -- C Yadier Molina, who had a .252 average last year. He hit a three-run homer in the first exhibition game.

ROSTER REPORT: After winning 205 games in the past two years -- the most in baseball -- the Cardinals still need to take one more step to validate themselves as the best team in baseball. They need to win the franchise's first World Series since 1982. The pitching seems to be in place, especially in the rotation, although there are questions in the bullpen and at both second base and left field.

ARRIVALS: RHP Sidney Ponson (free agent from Baltimore), LHP Ricardo Rincon (free agent from Oakland), RHP Braden Looper (free agent from New York Mets), RHP Jeff Nelson (non-roster free agent from Seattle), C Gary Bennett (free agent from Washington), INF Junior Spivey (free agent from Washington), INF Deivi Cruz (free agent from Washington), 2B Aaron Miles (trade with Colorado), OF Larry Bigbie (trade with Colorado), OF Juan Encarnacion (free agent from Florida).

DEPARTURES:  RHP Matt Morris (free agent, signed with San
Francisco), LHP Ray King (traded to Colorado), RHP Julian Tavarez (free agent, signed with Boston), RHP Cal Eldred (retired), OF Larry Walker(retired), OF Reggie Sanders  (free agent, signed with Kansas City), 2B Mark Grudzielanek, signed with Kansas City), IF-OF John Mabry (free agent, signed with Chicago Cubs), IF Abraham Nunez (free agent, signed with Philadelphia).

PROJECTED ROTATION: The Cardinals have perhaps baseball's best starting pitcher (at least last year) in RHP Chris Carpenter. To back him up, they have the only pitcher who has won 15 or more games in each of the last five seasons, LHP Mark Mulder. The depth of the rotation is such that the next two starters, RHP Jeff Suppan and RHP Jason Marquis, have won 60 games among them -- an average of 15 a year -- for the last two years.    --RHP Chris Carpenter went from quality starter to top-of-the-line starter last year. The Cardinals have him on the relative cheap. At the most, Carpenter will make just $13 million in the next two years.
    --LHP Mark Mulder. Now that Greg Maddux's streak has been stopped, Mulder has the longest streak of winning 15 or more games in a season. At 16-8, he was a strong No. 2 starter last year but the club is looking for more this year, his free-agent year.
    --RHP Jeff Suppan has had two straight 16-win seasons that have moved him from mediocre to reliable in the eyes of baseball observers. Doesn't throw that hard but is smart and hits spots.
    --RHP Jason Marquis is baseball's best hitting pitcher (.310 in 2005) and that makes him a real player when he pitches. If he sticks to pitching coach Dave Duncan's plan of pounding his sinker pitch after pitch, he may be ready to go to the next level.
    --RHP Sidney Ponson was a washout last season, partially because of alcohol and legal problems, Ponson is a bargain at a base of $1 million. He would be the hardest-throwing pitcher in the rotation if he makes it.
    --RHP Anthony Reyes is the prized prospect in the system, but his fate is tied to Sidney Ponson's showing this spring. If Ponson does well, Reyes will end up in the bullpen or in the rotation, briefly anyway, at Triple-A Memphis.


PROJECTED BULLPEN: One of the question marks on the team, what with the departures of four standbys -- RHPs Julian Tavarez, Al Reyes and Cal Eldred and LHP Ray King. In RHP Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals have one of the league's best closers but the team is looking for that one pitcher who can strike out somebody as a setup man. That might be RHP Braden Looper.
    --RHP Jason Isringhausen enters his fifth season as the Cardinals'closer. He has averaged 43 saves a year for the last two years.
    --RHP Braden Looper was a former No. 1 pick by the Cardinals and has had closer experience although arm problems may have limited his effectiveness with the New York Mets last year. Looper, presumably healed, throws in the low 90s.
    --LHP Ricardo Rincon is a situational-type left-hander the Cardinals have been after for several years. He won't pitch to more than one or two left-handed batters at a time.
    --LHP Randy Flores is somebody the Cardinals don't hesitate to call on with runners on base. He permitted just seven of 34 to score last year and he held left-handed hitters to a .171 average.
    --RHP Brad Thompson made the seamless transition from minor league starter to middle man in a big-league bullpen. Also, he is somebody the club doesn't hesitate to bring into a jam. He held hitters to a .179 average with men on base.
    --RHP Jeff Nelson is a veteran non-roster pitcher who probably will make the club. He will be a situational right-hander used to get right-handed hitters out with his sidearm delivery.


PROJECTED LINEUP: Ideally, the Cardinals would want a little more speed in the lineup but maybe new RF Juan Encarnacion can provide that along with whoever plays second base. There is 40-homer power in 1B Albert Pujols and potential 30-homer power in CF Jim Edmonds and a healed 3B Scott Rolen (or so the Cardinals hope). MVP Pujols needs protection from both.

--SS David Eckstein was even a better player than the Cardinals expected last season, his first with the team. He showed surprising pop with eight homers and 61 RBI while hitting out of the leadoff spot.

--LF Larry Bigbie may hit sixth if he makes the lineup but manager Tony La Russa likes a hitter with power in the second spot, especially a left-handed bat. Bigbie's injured Achilles' tendon hurt his productivity last year with Colorado but he is thought to be at full strength now.

--1B Albert Pujols simply is the best overall hitter in the league. There is little doubt that he will put together a sixth straight season of .300 average, 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

--CF Jim Edmonds probably played hurt more than most people knew last year because his production of .263, 29 homers and 89 RBIs represented a significant dropoff. Look for him to get more rest this year. He will return to the cleanup role where he hasn't always prospered.

--3B Scott Rolen must show he is all right after two left shoulder surgeries before manager Tony La Russa will saddle him with the added burden of hitting fourth. Rolen has had his best productivity hitting fifth anyway. He had just five homers and 28 RBI last year.

--RF Juan Encarnacion, reputed to be something of a moody sort, seems to be with a different team every year. But clubs like his five-tool abilities and perhaps fellow Dominican Pujols will rub off a bit on the right fielder.

--2B Junior Spivey had missed large chunks of time in the last two seasons and must be considered a question mark to be the regular at second. But the Cardinals are hoping he recaptures the All-Star form he  had with Arizona a few years ago.

--C Yadier Molina allowed a remarkably low total of only 14 stolen bases in 114 games, easily baseball's best. He will be a contributing hitter, too -- witness his eight homers and 49 RBI in two-thirds of a season last year.


PROJECTED RESERVES: The bench is the last part of the team that GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa put together in the offseason. It is almost certain to be shy of a veteran pinch hitter unless non-roster 1B Brian Daubach makes the club. It will, however, be deep in infield reserves with Hector Luna and Deivi Cruz heading the list.

--INF Hector Luna, though young in experience (less than two seasons), has shown uncommon ability to deliver as a late-inning reserve, whether as a pinch hitter, pinch runner or a double-switch on defense. He can play outfield, too.

--C Gary Bennett should provide more reliable defense behind the plate in place of Einar Diaz, with whom the pitchers didn't feel comfortable. With young Yadier Molina as the No. 1, Bennett doesn't figure to play more than once a week.

--OF So Taguchi was outstanding in a reserve role last year, Taguchi showed more run-producing ability than had been envisioned when he knocked in 53 runs while hitting eight homers. He can play all three outfield positions.

--INF Deivi Cruz is a well-traveled veteran who can play shortstop, third and second. He's an insurance policy at third if Scott Rolen's left shoulder still is troublesome.

--OF John Rodriguez, an eight-year minor leaguer, started fast when called up in the second half last year, then faltered and then rebounded at the end of the season. He showed better discipline at the end of the year to go with a quick bat and above average power.
   

TOP ROOKIES: RHP Anthony Reyes (136 strikeouts, 34 walks at Triple-A Memphis) will be given a chance to make the rotation and should make it if veteran RHP Sidney Ponson falters. Longtime minor-leaguer John Gall (.271, 13 homers, 64 RBIs at Triple-A Memphis) may snag an extra man's job. He impressed manager Tony La Russa with an aggressive bat in a late-season trial in 2005.

SPRING FOCUS: Keep an eye on the three-pronged battle for 2B among Junior Spivey, Hector Luna and Aaron Miles. Manager Tony La Russa probably doesn't want to platoon there.

MEDICAL WATCH: 3B Scott Rolen is rehabilitating after a second shoulder surgery and should be ready for spring training. RHP Al Reyes, who probably will be re-signed as a free agent even though he isn't able to pitch, might be back by August after offseason Tommy John surgery. LHP Randy Flores and RHP Braden Looper both are coming off what is believed to be minor offseason arm surgery. As always, the club will keep a wary eye on 1B Albert Pujols' nagging plantar fasciitis problem in his left foot.


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