Sunday Morning Coffee with Ray Mileur

Unofficially it's year two of a three-year rebuilding phase as the Cardinals begin spring training. For the second season in a row the team isn't expected to contend for a National League Central title, let alone an 11th World Championship, but Colby Rasmus is ready to lead a second wave of homegrown talent to the majors to make believers out of ye of so little faith.

Last season the Cardinals set a franchise record with 11 players making their major league debut, remarkable considering manager Tony La Russa's historical tendency in playing veterans over even the most promising rookies.

With more questions than answers about whom the Cardinals will break spring training with to begin the season, several young players will be given a legitimate shot to make the team's 25-man roster on opening day.

Young guns Chris Perez and Jason Motte will compete for the closer's role with (at least according to me) the early edge leaning towards Motte. Perez is still dealing with a bone spur in his left ankle that has troubled him since last September. Perez will likely miss some playing time and be given anti-inflammatory medications or cortisone injections to help control the pain and the inflammation. Surgery is an option that will probably be considered only as a last resort.

Last season Perez was forced into the closer's role for the St. Louis Cardinals sooner than expected with mix results. He appeared in 41 major league games, finishing 23 of them, while picking up seven saves. His 3-3 record with a 3.46 ERA was very impressive, yet there remain some questions or doubts about Perez stepping into the Cardinals closer role next season. He struggled in several of his September appearances, blowing a couple of saves along the way, giving some cause for concern. In his last 10 games, Perez posted a record of 1-2 with one save and a 5.19 ERA. For certain, Perez is sure he's ready and he's more comfortable in the closer's role.

Motte made his major league debut in September, appearing in 12 games for the Cardinals posting a record of 0-0 with 1 save and an ERA of 0.82. Prior to his call up, Motte had recorded 110 strikeouts in just 66.2 Triple A innings. In his 12 games in majors, 11 innings, he struck out 16 batters, while walking only three. He'll be given the opportunity to prove he can survive on basically one pitch, an amazing fastball with a slider as a secondary pitch in the development stage.

The Cardinals bullpen led the league highs in losses (31) and blown saves (31) and it's no secret that manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are reluctant to designate either Motte or Perez at the team's closer, but the only other alternative is to go with the bullpen-by-committee approach that La Russa used in 2001, when the Cardinals had seven different pitchers picking up a total of 38 saves on the season, with Dave Veres leading the club with 15 saves.

Righthander Ryan Franklin, who led the club with 17 saves last season, could become the chairman of the committee if the club uses the bullpen-by-committee strategy with newcomer lefty, Trever Miller along with Perez and Motte also being given the opportunity to close out games. It could work.

A wild card in this whole scenario is former St. Louis Cardinals closer and the team's all-time saves leader, free agent Jason Isringhausen. Izzy is still unsigned so don't be surprised to see him eventually show up in camp and be given a shot to make the club. I'm beginning to believe somewhere there is already a gentlemen's agreement to that effect.

Of course all eyes will be on another rookie who could lead the next wave of home grown talent to break into the majors, Colby Rasmus. Rasmus is still considered the organizations top prospect even though he's coming off an injury-filled campaign at Triple-A Memphis last season. Colby was expected to make the Cardinals team last spring before being sent to Memphis where he wasn't very happy and it showed. It didn't help he suffered a knee injury that cost him significant playing time as well, missing out of the Team USA games in the Olympics. Rasmus played in 96 games last year including six games on a rehab assignment, finishing the season with a .252 batting average with 12 home runs and 38 RBIs in 349 at-bats.

The Cardinals will likely have to make a move, either by a trade or the creative use of the DL, to make room for Rasmus on the 25-man roster, but the front office has almost talked themselves into a corner this winter about the promise of Rasmus and the confidence in his ability to play at the major league level now, so another trip to Memphis doesn't seem to be in the cards.

RANT OF THE DAY

The World Baseball Classic being held during spring training is just ludicrous and I'll refrain from using the adjectives that so easily roll off the tip of my tongue in describing what I think about the current baseball commissioner and his directive to teams to support and provide players to this exhibition series.

The WBC provisional roster includes Cardinals regulars; Albert Pujols (DOM), Yadier Molina (PUR), Ryan Ludwick (USA), and Joel Pineiro (PUR) and while I'm strongly against any them playing, hearing that Pineiro is wanting to go and the Cardinals are considering letting him go, kind of just drives me up the wall.

Pineiro finished last season with a 7-7 record and a bloated 5.15 ERA, allowing opposing hitters to hit a robust .301 average against him, leading one (me) to believe that his spot in the Cardinals rotation could be in jeopardy this season, especially considering he earned $5 million last season and gets a salary bump to $7.5 million this season. I was expecting Pineiro might show up in camp a little early to get his game on and prove to the Cardinals he was worth the team's $12.5 million dollar investment.

I can understand Pineiro's desire to want to pitch for his native country Puerto Rico, they are a proud people who love their country and the game, but my concern is if he'll actually be ready to pitch and then the role in which the team will use him. According to reports in the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Cardinals would likely give Pineiro the green light if he is used only as a starter. My take is Pineiro and for that matter everyone, including Pujols, Ludwick and Molina needs to be in spring training, preparing for the 2009 campaign.

MEDICAL WATCH

Righthander Mitchell Boggs who could have an outside shot of making the Cardinals 25 man roster, depending on injuries and the return of Chris Carpenter, got some good news about the tightness in his right shoulder that he experienced in early bullpen sessions. After being examined yesterday the Cardinals plan to rest him for a few days, let the anti-inflammatory medication they prescribed to him to take effect and re-evaluate him early next week.

Minor league pitcher righthander Matt Scherer, who was added to the Cardinals 40-man roster in November, was scratched from his scheduled throwing session Saturday due to forearm tightness. He'll be examined by team doctors before participating in any bullpen sessions.

POSITION BATTLES

Second base – Outfielder Skip Schumaker who is guaranteed a spot on the Cardinals 25-man roster will compete with non-roster invitee Joe Thurston, utility man Brendan Ryan and prospects Tyler Greene, Brian Barden and Jarrett Hoffpauir. Manager Tony La Russa has been quoted as saying that they are all equal as this competition for this position begins. (Yeah right). Early edge to Schumaker with Brian Barden putting pressure on the other more prominent names in this competition.

Third base – Rookie David Freese should have the advantage over the others competing for the job to replace Glaus for the first four-to-six weeks of the season.

Bullpen – The Cardinals brought in four lefties this offseason, Trever Miller who will be in the bullpen, with Charlie Manning, Ian Ostlund and Royce Ring competing for either one or two more spots in the bullpen. If there is only one opening, Manning should emerge as the winner in that competition with Ostlund and Ring competing for third place on the depth chart.

Rotation – Righthander Kyle McClellan appears to be the most likely candidate to move from the bullpen into the starting rotation if needed. Other options include, using swingman Brad Thompson or going with a rookie in Mitchell Boggs, probably in this order.





Ray Mileur can be reached via email at raymileur@yahoo.com.

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