Scott Rolen - For all of the talk about Albert Pujols – and there's much to talk about – this team seemingly feeds off of Scott Rolen. With Rolen back, healthy, and invigorated this is a different and much-improved team and his teammates sense that. With great respect for Abraham Nunez's efforts at the hot corner in 2005, no one in the game today does it like Scott Rolen. Nunez made plays. Scott Rolen wins games.
Second Base - For all the hype about the great pre-season battle for second base and the putative winner being Junior Spivey, Aaron Miles is doing just fine, thank you very much. Miles seems to be in perfect sync with similarly-diminutive shortstop David Eckstein. They have proven to be a very proficient double play combination that has so far complemented the fine corner play of Rolen and Pujols by securing the middle infield. I enjoy watching the movement of players away from the ball, and Miles has impressed me in this regard. He doesn't stand still when the ball is hit in other directions. He positions himself to be an asset whether he actually touches the ball or not. I admire that kind of fundamental play in a world of one-handed catches. Spivey may turn his game around in Memphis and be a factor yet, but in the king-of-the-hill competition for playing time, Miles has played well enough so far to stay at the top of the heap.
Yadier Molina – The young catcher started out the 2005 campaign like a flat tire, ineffective in and of himself and a drain on the energy of the rest of the team. For the first couple of months of the season last year he batted well below the dreaded Mendoza line until a mid-season surge saw him finish respectfully. At that time I was able to draw an interesting correlation between Molina's offensive funk and the Cardinals chances for wins. When Molina hit even once in a game, the Cardinals were significantly more likely to win. So far in 2006, Molina looks like he will contribute early with his bat as well as with his excellent glove.
Braden Looper – While I don't yet know what to make of the surgically-repaired Looper, it is my sense that once he works out his mechanical problems he could be the solid and sane (remember that Tavarez guy?) set-up guy that will be needed to get to closer Jason Isringhausen. Looper pitched well against the Cubs and then again against the Brewers in Monday night's game before failing to close the deal. Izzy's appearance made it even more interesting. I recall, though, Tony La Russa's patience last year with Molina, leaving him in to bat during a critical part of a game when the Cardinals were losing, but surging. La Russa allowed Molina to bat and Molina failed, but the wizened coach communicated his confidence in his young catcher and that paid big dividends later. I thought that perhaps La Russa might have applied that same standard in Looper's case Monday night. A shot of confidence now might go a long way later.
Izzy – Izzy is, well, Izzy. He's not the best closer in the game, or even the National League, but by the end of the season he'll have bagged 35-40 saves. He'll finish with five or six losses and a couple of wins, but that's the curse of the closer. Whether he wins (which means he lost the save opportunity) or loses, either number indicates some degree of failure. Izzy will scare us to death at times as he has for the past three years, but La Russa's philosophy is that if a save situation presents itself at the end of the game Izzy is his man for better or worse. Might as well get used to it, folks.
Juan Encarnacion – The new guy in right field simply looks lost batting second in the order. Better suited as a hitter to the middle of the order, he just doesn't seem to fit well in the two spot and is struggling. Eckstein as lead-off seems to be picking up where he left off from a stellar 2005 campaign, but Encarnacion's lackluster opening week is putting more pressure on Pujols. I'm not sure how long La Russa can stick with Encarnacion batting second before he tries someone else like Aaron Miles.
Starting Pitching – The Cardinals' starting pitching has been everything it was advertised to be and more. All five starters had good to great opening appearances. They've had to endure the agony of some bullpen losses, but they should feel good about their performances so far. The 1-2 combination of Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder is as good as it gets in baseball today. Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and the resurgent Sidney Ponson ice a very solid cake. If you factor in Adam Wainwright in the bullpen and Anthony Reyes in Memphis, Cardinal starting pitching is actually seven deep, an unheard of luxury today. There are a lot of pitching coaches who are deeply jealous of Dave Duncan, and with good reason.
I'm hoping that the Chicago series was an aberration and not truly reflective of this team. I believe that to be the case, but that was just a lousy performance from a team that is better than that. As the 2006 Cardinals continue to gel, I'll expect more consistency in the quality of this team's play. The Cub series was a reminder, though, that for all the hype and high expectations the Cardinals are human and can be had. Let's just hope that doesn't happen to often. The Cards – with perhaps a touch of the Cardiac in them – remain the best team in the league, but they are going to have to do it the old fashioned way and earn their way into the Series.