Cardinals' Florida Spring Was a Good One

A quick look back at the St. Louis Cardinals' spring training performance.

With the St. Louis Cardinals having ended their time in Florida for another spring, it is worth taking a quick look back at the period. It was a stretch that ended far better than many ever expected from a team that a number of prognosticators had relegated to also-ran status even before the first pitch of the spring had been thrown.

Sure, spring training exhibition results mean absolutely nothing and there is no correlation whatsoever between them and what happens during the regular season. After all, there are a lot of March at-bats taken and innings thrown by players that invariably end up in the minor leagues or out of jobs completely.

Yet, with so many new faces in key roles for the 2008 St. Louis club, isn't it far more reassuring to see the revamped team playing so well?

How well? Only three other National League teams, the Mets, Florida and Milwaukee, have as many or more wins than the Cardinals, who end their Florida stint at 17-10-2.

In fact, the Cardinals haven't posted a better spring record since 1997, when they went 21-11. (They were also 17-10-3 in 2002.)

Following Thursday's shutout led by new acquisition Kyle Lohse (right), the Cardinals pitching staff ranks fourth in the 16-team National League with a collective spring ERA of 4.01.

Yes, the Cardinals were compelled during camp to go out and get Lohse to shore up their injury-plagued rotation. But consider the other NL Central teams. Perhaps they wish they had Lohse, too.

None of the group of the Cubs (5.05), Milwaukee (5.06), Pittsburgh (5.14), Cincinnati (5.66) and Houston (dead last in the NL at 6.62) have posted team ERAs within a run per game of the Cardinals.

The St. Louis hitters, with a .286 collective batting mark, rank fifth in the league.

It wasn't always this way.

Prior to an exciting ten-inning win over the visiting Mets on March 13 sparked by a Rico Washington game-winning RBI, the Cardinals were limping along with a 6-9-1 record, buoyed by one exhibition victory against a college team. In other words, they were winning at about the same 40% clip as the most pessimistic were projecting out of the club during the upcoming regular season.

There was concern up the middle with second baseman Adam Kennedy looking sluggish coming off knee surgery and supposed gloveman extraordinaire shortstop Cesar Izturis stuck with more errors than hits.

Starter Joel Pineiro had been shut down twice with shoulder soreness and Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan admitted that he was surprised that recently-signed Matt Clement was not recovered sufficiently to be his number three starter.

Perhaps it is just window dressing, but who isn't feeling better after a post-March 12 stretch of 12-1-1 ball achieved as they outscored their opponents 90-39? Most importantly, the Cardinals players themselves have to be in a good state of mind about consistently playing winning team baseball.

Not all concerns can be washed away in the good cheer. Despite recent improvement, Izturis is still hitting under the Mendoza line and his defense remains under scrutiny. Yadier Molina has come in at a very quiet .222. Kennedy has cooled off after a hot streak. Chris Duncan's sore back may have been what restricted him to a .176 batting average and a .222 slugging mark.

A boatload of other hitters are not only doing well, but each of the following is batting over .350. They include new leadoff man Skip Schumaker (.394), spring phenom Brian Barton (.351), all-everything Albert Pujols (.407), new cleanup hitter and centerfielder Rick Ankiel (.351) and new third baseman Troy Glaus (.364). Those numbers represent a lot of base raps and these five could be together at the top of Tony La Russa's opening day lineup card.

Even a number of those who aren't still with the club impressed. Top prospect Colby Rasmus demonstrated he belongs with his trademark defense, a team-high three stolen bases (tied with Schumaker) and a .302/.464/.605 line (BA/OBP/SLG). Joe Mather showed his 31 home run 2007 wasn't a fluke, putting up a nice .289/.386/.526 mark of his own.

Despite his March pitching that was, in Adam Wainwright's words, "Very, very mediocre. Very average," the de facto ace signed a nifty new long-term contract and finished with a 3.38 ERA. Brad Thompson at 2.72 continued to quietly shine. Anthony Reyes, the man, the quandary, sits at 3.32 and doesn't even have a steady job.

Things are looking up for other rotation members. Braden Looper had two rough starts, but went five one-run innings his last time out, creating hope. Todd Wellemeyer, whose walks are often his downfall, issued seven in his first two outings, but only five in total over the next three, even as his workload increased – a significant improvement if he can maintain it.

The somewhat anonymous bullpenners assured of coming north with the team have posted these sparkling March ERAs: 1.69 (Randy Flores), 3.24 (Jason Isringhausen), 1.38 (camp surprise Kyle McClellan, pictured), 1.29 (Russ Springer) and 0.84 (Ron Villone). Only Ryan Franklin's 5.84 drags down the group.

Following two exhibition games this weekend against the Double-A club in Springfield that are going to be great for the fans but don't even count in the already-meaningless spring stats, the 2008 regular season will begin in earnest on Monday.

When the Colorado Rockies visit Busch Stadium, the games will truly begin to matter and all the goodness that happened in Florida will become relegated to footnote status at best.

Still, especially considering the alternatives, it has been a pretty good month for the St. Louis Cardinals, hasn't it?



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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