The Redbird Report - 03/26

With reliever Josh Kinney having gone down for the year with elbow surgery and with Adam Wainwright and Brad Looper being moved from the bullpen to the rotation, the Cardinals found themselves shorter of late-inning relief than they might have thought.

Young Brad Thompson and veteran Russ Springer were thrust into roles that hadn't necessarily been envisioned for them. The performance of both this spring suggested that they would do well enough as late-inning men, but neither is the power-type strikeout pitcher that is considered ideal for such a role.

General manager Walt Jocketty, a master trader in his 13 seasons with the Cardinals, was mulling all options.

A potential weakness of the team, the starting pitching, turned into a spring training strength.

Ace Chris Carpenter had the highest ERA of the five starters at 3.48. Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes and Wainwright all were under 1.50.

The outfield situation also is a bit muddled. Center fielder Jim Edmonds, recovering from offseason shoulder and toe surgery, may be ready to go by Opening Day or thereabouts, but right fielder Juan Encarnacion still is bothered by a left wrist on which he had offseason surgery. He is nowhere near playing.

The strength of the club, as always, is first baseman Albert Pujols, the best hitter in the National League. If Edmonds is healthy, he can bat fourth between Pujols and third baseman Scott Rolen, who has swung the bat with authority this spring, now completely healed after two shoulder surgeries in 2005.

A potential distraction arose late in the spring when manager Tony La Russa was booked on suspicion of driving under the influence, but the chances were good that the veteran team would be able to survive any tumult.

"He's still our leader," second baseman Adam Kennedy said. "It won't be a distraction at all."

The Cardinals have won five of the last seven National League Central Division titles in undisputed fashion and tied for another. There is no reason to say they won't contend this year, despite the several question marks they have. After all, they won the World Series last year after earning just 83 regular-season victories, and they might be better than that this season.

PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: RHP Kip Wells, with a better offense and better defense behind him than he had in Pittsburgh, can pitch with more confidence now and not run so many long counts. He could be a big winner behind RHP Chris Carpenter, the staff ace.

ON THE DECLINE: How much does CF Jim Edmonds have left? He hit only .257 with 19 homers and 70 RBIs last year. If he has to battle through an assortment of injuries again, similar production might ensue, although Edmonds seemed to be getting healthy faster than expected this spring after having offseason shoulder and toe surgeries.

INSIDE EDGE: With three left-handers in the bullpen -- Ricardo Rincon, Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson -- and a paucity of hard-throwing right-handed relievers, the Cardinals might make a deal to strengthen the relief corps ahead of closer Jason Isringhausen. General manager Walt Jocketty also might be on the prowl for a right-handed-hitting outfielder, especially if regular RF Juan Encarnacion doesn't come around after offseason left wrist surgery.

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