The Cardinals defined by Associated Press reporter Barry Wilner, as "a franchise that defined dysfunction since the 1960's" has accomplished what would have been considered almost impossible, eight months ago, a trip to Super Bowl Sunday.
Meanwhile in St. Louis the baseball Cardinals begin preparation in earnest this week for what many would consider their improbable journey to a 11th World Championship title.
Last year at this time, other than Brian Walton and me, the St. Louis Cardinals were expected to be nothing more than a doormat in the National League Central Division. So they didn't surprise us that the Cardinals exceeded the expectations of most by winning 86 games, despite the loss of three of their five projected starting pitchers; Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder & Matt Clement, as well as dealing with losing outfielders; Rick Ankiel (lower abdominal strain), Chris Duncan (neck surgery in August) and struggling with starter Adam Wainwright sidelined for 2 ½ months and closer Jason Isringhausen suffering with arm issues requiring surgery in September.
The Cardinals fourth place finish last year is responsible for the despair and hopelessness that appears to be running rampant throughout Cardinal Nation. Yet there is some rationale for those who are willing to see the glass as half full, to believe that the 2009 St. Louis Cardinals could do what the football Cardinals did this past season, that is, make true believers out of most of the skeptics.
Key starters; 3B Troy Glaus, SS Khalil Greene, 2B Adam Kennedy and outfielder Rick Ankiel will be free agents at the end of this season. If you believe that players tend to produce more in their contract season than others, then there is reason to believe that these guys could put up some impressive numbers this year that could carry the Cardinals into the postseason.
The Cardinals rotation will be much better this season with a healthy Chris Carpenter back on the mound. The team's staff ace has a supporting cast that includes right handers; Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro. This rotation doesn't have to take a back seat to anyone and should go a long way in easing the anxiety plaguing Cardinal Nation, once play begins.
The outfield is crowded with Rick Ankiel, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, Chris Duncan, Joe Mather, Brian Barton and top prospect Colby Rasmus all vying for playing time. Pencil in a starting outfield of Ankiel, Ludwick, Schumaker, with a healthy Duncan and Rasmus on the bench and you have one of the best outfields in the major leagues. Regardless of which five or six outfielders the Cardinals go with, the club has enough depth in this position that could lead to a trade to address any other needs by the trade deadline.
The bullpen took a lot of heat last season with a league leading 31 blown saves (ouch) it hurts even to just type it. To put the 31 blown saves in perspective, the Astros had only 17 blown saves. Closer Jason Isringhausen was inconsistent at best before his season ended when he went on the disabled list August 22. He'll be replaced by either Chris Perez or Jason Motte or a combination of the two. The Cardinals look as if the improved the left side of the bullpen adding lefties, Trever Miller, Charlie Manning and Royce King to make up for the departures of left-handers Ron Villone, Randy Flores and Tyler Johnson. From the right side the Cardinals have; swingmen Kyle McClellan and Brad Thompson, along with Ryan Franklin and the return of 2006 World Series hero Josh Kinney, who has missed most of the past two season recovery from multiple elbow surgeries.
The Cardinals didn't make that blockbuster trade this winter or signed that top tier free agent that many fans expected, but that doesn't mean this team isn't ready to compete.
Call me an optimist, a hopeless romantic always rooting for the underdogs, but I'll be rooting for the football Cardinals tonight and I'm looking forward to rooting for the baseball Cardinals in postseason about eight months from today.
Against all odds, that's the way I like it.
The Cardinals are likely to come to terms with Ryan Ludwick soon to avoid an arbitration hearing, but you can expect Rick Ankiel and Scott Boras to hold out for a contract after a hearing later this month.
The Mets appear to be closing in on signing left-hander Oliver Perez and lefty Randy Wolf is likely to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers soon. Both pitchers were on the Cardinals radar screen earlier in this offseason, but St. Louis appears to heading into spring training playing with the Cards they have now.
Albert Pujols is lobbying in vain for the Cardinals to sign free agent Manny Ramirez. Ramirez has worn out his welcomed everywhere he's played, could end up back in Los Angeles, with the Dodgers coaching staffing petitioning the front office for Manny's return.
Braden Looper is still a free agent with the Baltimore Orioles showing the most interest in this former Cardinal.
Russ Springer agreed to terms with the Oakland A's for a one year deal. Springer spent two seasons with the Cardinals posting a 2.24 ERA in 116.1 innings pitched and despite being 40; I thought he could have still been a valuable member of the Cardinals 2009 bullpen.
There has been some speculation that outfielder Skip Schumaker could be the most likely candidate for a trade if the team has to make room for rookie Colby Rasmus. A healthy Chris Duncan and productive spring training from him could make him a potential trade candidate.
Ray Mileur can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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