Tony La Russa has gotten where he is today in the baseball world by being aggressive and savvy. The Hall-of-Fame shoo-in is known throughout baseball as one of the most intellectual, organized, and visionary men ever to guide major league baseball team. Folks, right now Tony La Russa probably would rather skip the rest of spring training and start the 2006 season today
There's handwriting on the proverbial wall and La Russa can see it as clearly as anyone in the National League Central. At the start of the season, the Cardinals are the only upper-half NL Central team with an intact starting rotation. With Albert Pujols' three huge home runs in Friday's game indicating that the big man is locked in, with Juan Encarnacion making solid contact, with the treasured Scott Rolen back and seemingly healthy, La Russa has to be thinking "Let's get it on!"
The fact is that neither the Brewers (with #1 starter Ben Sheets injured), nor the Cubs (talented but consistently injured Kerry Wood and Mark Prior both on the DL), or the Astros (sans Roger Clemens) have the solid 1-5 healthy pitching rotation the Cardinals will answer the bell with Monday in Philadelphia. In Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Sidney Ponson, the rest of the NL Central can only drool.
The potential opening day Cardinal line-up could be electric. Lead-off hitter David Eckstein will do most anything to get on base. Encarnacion, coming off a terrific 2005, is clearly going to see some great hitters' pitches as he bats in front of Pujols. The league's MVP from last year looks like he is in top form – a scary prospect for opposing pitchers who are merely mortal. If Jim Edmonds can continue to provide even steady, if unspectacular, production in the clean-up spot he'll a huge asset. Rolen's return completes the upper half of the line-up in a way that few other teams can attain. If he will swing within himself and be satisfied with line drives to opposite fields he and the Cardinals offense will be fine.
Without the departed Reggie Sanders, the line-up softens in the lower half, although catcher Yadier Molina has been very productive during spring training. It would be a great boost to this offense if Molina dodges the slow start that dogged him in 2005 and opens hot.
Clearly there are questions on this team. Second base remains something of a mystery, but give Aaron Miles credit. If anyone has asserted himself at that position this spring, it's Miles. He may have found a way to win a position that no one seems to want. Left field as well is still up for grabs, but I'm an unabashed So Taguchi fan and would be perfectly content to see him camped out there. The bullpen has questions marks as well, but what team ever came north without questions?
With the stage set and the
exhibition season soon a memory, La Russa has to be very pleased with his 2006
Redbirds. Expect him to play hard –
very hard – from Day One to win often in this first half. As injury issues are resolved on other
NL Central teams, they'll become more competitive so the order of the day in
If La Russa has his way, he'll have the Cardinals playing with the same relentnessness that characterized their 2005 campaign, and he'll press from the start. He knows that the best way to capitalize on other teams' injury bugs and weaknesses is to pile up the wins early. Many managers start out new seasons running their teams as if they are still warming up, as if some of the lassitude of spring training remains to be shaken off. If La Russa and his Cardinals can start hot and stay hot for the first few weeks of the season, the rest of the NL Central will only be able to look up – way up - to see the Cardinals.