Cardinals Insiders Spring Training Report

Eckstein was sent home yesterday, after suffering with flu like symptoms. Hopefully, it's not the same internal parasite that cause minor league third baseman, Travis Hanson to lose 12 pounds over the past week. Eckstein did not play in Thursday's game and should be considered day to day, for now.

INSIDE PITCH: He probably is playing from behind, but right-hander Adam Wainwright, one of the candidates for the fifth starter's job, worked four quality innings Thursday against Baltimore in his first start this spring. Wainwright gave up two unearned runs.

Adam believes he belongs in the majors and my take is, he'd rather be in the bullpen than being sent back to Triple-A Memphis.

Meanwhile, right-hander Jason Marquis, whose turn it was to pitch, worked in a Triple-A game against the Dodgers' Las Vegas team. Marquis pitched 4 1/3 scoreless innings, fanning five and giving up four hits.

Wainwright, who probably will lose out to veteran right-hander Sidney Ponson, might be used out of the bullpen the rest of the spring as the Cardinals seek another right-handed reliever for a projected 12-man staff.

Right-hander Josh Hancock, picked up when Cincinnati let him go, worked two impressive innings in relief and inserted himself into the mix.

Right-hander Brad Thompson, who had been unscored on in his first 5 2/3 innings this spring, gave up two runs in the ninth inning as Baltimore won 4-2. Thompson, a standout in his rookie season in 2005, probably has a spot secured in the bullpen.



--INF Hector Luna is having an unimpressive spring. Luna missed a ball he should have had at shortstop and left two runners on base Thursday, although his first-inning single set up a run.

I'm not sure how long the love affair between the Cardinals and Luna will continue, but he isn't getting the job done this spring.

--INF Deivi Cruz isn't long for the club. His average dropped to .095 and he fanned twice in three at-bats Thursday.

Cruz didn't come into camp in my opinion like he needed to earn his way onto this team and he hasn't.

--SS David Eckstein was sent home with the stomach flu.

--INF Aaron Miles made his first appearance in two weeks after suffering a jammed left wrist. Miles grounded out as a pinch hitter. Miles probably is ticketed for Triple-A Memphis.

It's too bad he had this injury, I'd like to see him playing at second.


BY THE NUMBERS: 10.57 -- Earned run average for the Cardinals' starting pitching candidates the first time through the rotation.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't consider Spivey a part-time player." -- Manager, Tony La Russa, when I asked him if he considered Spivey a utility player.

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), INF/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.

Scouts are telling me that Reyes' mechanics are all screwed up. Throw in the new two seamed fastball he's suppose to incorporate into his game and I don't expect him to start the season with the Cardinals.

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.

His numbers this spring won't impress you, but he is coming back from off season shoulder surgery and he should be ready and at 100% by the time the season starts.

--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.

It gives me great comfort to see Nelson in the bullpen. 

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.

David has the flu, but I would expect him back in the lineup by Monday.

--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.

In the batting cages, Bigbie has been one of the most impressive Cardinals in terms of hitting the ball out of the park. Took me by surprise as well.

--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 drop-off. 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.

Rolen is coming back, slowly but surely. He still needs some time to build his strength back up.

--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 flashed with Arizona a few years ago.

In spite of all the missed time, when I pressed Cardinal Manager Tony La Russa about Spivey's ability to get 450 at bats. Tony made it clear to me, that he considers Spivey an everyday player, despite Spivey's recent track record of fewer than 300 at bats over the past couple of seasons.

--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 off season. 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.

It may come as a surprise to many Cardinal fans, but Luna played more games in the outfield than any other position last season.

He hasn't looked very good this spring on the field or at bat, but it's hard to see the Cardinals not keep him on the roster. He hasn't showed me anything in camp that would warrant keeping him on the team, but then he isn't playing for me.

--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.

The Cardinals finally signed Taguchi to a one year contract. He'll platoon in left with most likely Larry Bigbie and be the primary back up for Jim Edmonds.

--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.

Cruz, hasn't showed me much this spring, it's like he's just strolling through camp.

--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.

Rodriguez is thought of a lot more by the fans and sportswriters than he is by the Cardinals organization. J-Rod is coming back from a shoulder problem and is likely to start the season at Triple-A Memphis.

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.

At this time, I don't see Reyes beating out Ponson.

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.

Gall has been impressive this spring in the field.

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.

My take is, it's Spivey's job to lose, but I give Miles serious consideration, I'm just not sure there is enough time left to for Miles to win the job.

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 off season Tommy John surgery. LHP Randy Flores and RHP Braden Looper both are coming off what is believed to be minor off season 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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