The Redbird Report 02/25

A year ago, converted pitcher Rick Ankiel was a longshot to make the Cardinals club as an outfielder.

"Last year, I pretty much knew I didn't have a shot," Ankiel said. But after hitting 32 homers through early August for Class AAA Memphis, Ankiel crashed the big leagues and finished with 11 more home runs. He drove in 128 runs for the season and he has come to camp this year all but assured of a starting outfield job in either right field or center.

"He comes in with more confidence," manager Tony La Russa said. "He comes in with different expectations for all of us."

Ankiel, no kid anymore at age 28, said, "They're looking at me as somebody who hopefully can contribute every day."

Early last September, a day after he had his best game against Pittsburgh, when he drove in seven runs and hit two home runs, Ankiel's name surfaced as having purchased a shipment of human growth hormone from a Florida clinic.

Amid the resultant rush of publicity about the matter, Ankiel went 0-for-19 and the Cardinals lost nine consecutive games.

"It would be tough to say I didn't struggle with it," Ankiel said. "Clearly, I was affected by it."

La Russa said he hoped the media would leave the issue alone this spring.

"I think it hurt him (last year)," La Russa said. "It was distraction for us. We all felt for him.

"This year ... if I was him, it's already been said."

WHERE, WHEN: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 against the New York Mets.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: 2B Adam Kennedy is coming off the worst year of his career at .219. He finished the season on the disabled list after knee surgery. Presumably healthy, Kennedy should be more comfortable in his second season back in the National League, although, if Kennedy struggles early, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn't likely to go too long with him with Aaron Miles in reserve.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Braden Looper won 12 games in his first year as a starter but must improve his nighttime record of 5-11 with a 6.75 ERA. A 4.94 overall ERA doesn't suggest he would win 12 games again.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: Tony La Russa has 2,375 wins (2,070 losses), ranking him third all-time in managerial victories. He is very much a hands-on manager, although he will let pitching coach Dave Duncan make many of the decisions in that category. La Russa is comfortable with his six-man coaching staff, which has been together for five years.


--RHP Matt Clement has been told to slow his schedule as he builds arm strength. The club is not counting on Clement to be ready by Opening Day. He hasn't pitched since August 2006, when he had a rotator cuff problem that required surgery.

--The club has talked to representatives for RHPs Bartolo Colon and Jeff Weaver but doesn't seem inclined to sign any more pitching, pending Clement's improvement.

"It's not a decision we have to make right now," GM John Mozeliak said. "I think we can allow ourselves more time.

"In the meantime, we have a number of pitchers already here who will be given opportunities."

--Manager Tony La Russa promises more rest this spring and occasional days off this season for tireless 1B Albert Pujols, who has an existing condition: a sprained right elbow ligament.

La Russa may give Pujols some Sundays off before off days in the regular season. "It's something you would consider," he said.

--La Russa said his team would spend considerable time this spring trying to tune up a defense that committed the third most errors in baseball, 121, last year. "Our defense was several levels below what we're accustomed to," La Russa said.

--LHP Mark Mulder, recovering from rotator cuff surgery, is throwing bullpen sessions. "I lifted my leg for the first time, so that's different," said Mulder, who is expected back in May.

--Jason LaRue has been appointed the backup catcher behind Yadier Molina. "It's not a competition. It's Jason," manager Tony La Russa said.

BY THE NUMBERS: 13 -- Triples for the Cardinals last season. No player had more than two.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Don't bet against him. Ever." -- Former Cardinals CF Jim Edmonds on the probability of OF Rick Ankiel replacing him at that position this season.

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