Sunday Morning Coffee with Ray Mileur

If you think these spring training games don't count, ask; Colby Rasmus, Joe Mather, David Freese, Chris Duncan, Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston, Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson and Jason Motte. By the way, the Cardinals are on pace to post their best spring training record in a decade, what does that mean? Well...

The results are in, the St. Louis Cardinals appear to be on pace to return to the postseason, with a promising spring training record 14-6-2 going into Sunday's game against Baltimore.

Granted, I know spring training games don't mean anything, that is unless you are; Colby Rasmus, Joe Mather, David Freese, Chris Duncan, Brendan Ryan, Brian Barden, Joe Thurston, Kyle McClellan, Brad Thompson and Jason Motte. but for the fan looking for any reason to be hopeful for another championship season this year, or at least a trip to the postseason, the Cardinals spring training record could be a forecast of things to come.

The Cardinals will likely post their best spring training record in the past 10 years, including the seasons they reached the postseason; 2006 (15-14-1), 2005 (15-11-2), 2004 (17-12-0), 2002 (17-10-3), 2001 (17-15-0) and 2000 (17-11-0).

I thought the Cardinals came out of spring training in 08, (17-10-2), in pretty good shape despite some pitching issues. I was hoping for the return of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder & even Matt Clement. I thought their return was going to be necessary to even contend for second place, let alone a division championship. We all know how that came out, a fourth place finish, but let me add, I was very proud of the 08 team and the way they battled throughout the season, overcoming a lot of obstacles and facing daily adversity to stay in the pennant race until September.

In 07, (16-10-3), I wasn't sure how the Cardinals were going to come back after winning a World Championship the previous season. The Cardinals didn't really play that well in the second half of the 06 campaign, so I had my doubts about this team early on. One of my problems with Cardinals' manager Tony La Russa, is this philosophy that we'll just make it into the postseason and then will see what happens. That is, in other words, there is no shame in getting in through the Wild Card spot, an attitude or belief that can spell disaster in September, if you find yourself battling three or four teams for the Wild Card spot, rather than perhaps defending a lead or a battle against one team for a division championship.

Moving ahead to this season, Saturday the Cardinals roughed up the Washington Nationals top rookie pitching prospect Jordan Zimmermann, for five runs on seven hits in just over two innings, but eventually had to hang on for dear life in the end to pull out a narrow 12-11 win over the Nationals at Space Coast Stadium, which I always have to be careful about and not type Space Ghost Stadium, if you are over 45, you may know what I'm talking about and why doesn't Space Ghost have a stadium named after him?

It's hard for me to get a read on things in spring training, I'm not afraid to admit. As a matter of fact, the more I try to study the game and the more I try to learn, the more I realize I don't know and it can be very humbling at times. I personally struggle when I have an 0-for-4 day with my prognostications, so pardon me if I occasionally boast about hitting one out of the park now and then. (Don't let me down Jason Motte!)

Take the Nationals' Jordan Zimmerman, Saturday was the first time this spring he has given up a run. The 22-year-old right-hander, considered a front-runner for one of the team's final rotation spots, had allowed only six hits and two walks with 22 strikeouts in 12 1-3 innings before being battered by the Cardinals. I can only imagine him sitting on the bench, almost punched drunk with little redbirds dancing around his head wondering what went wrong. In Zimmerman's case, he has the advantage of being tagged the Nationals top prospect, that gives you some cushion in management's decision, if you stay or go, the same thing applies to the Cardinals' top prospect.

As spring training winds down to the final two weeks, fans and perhaps even Cardinals management, to some degree, is still trying to get a read on the team and who'll end up on the team's 25-man roster to open the season. I say "to some degree" about Cardinals management, because I don't really buy into that there is legitimate competition for positions in spring training. My take is, La Russa has his mind well made up as to the roster, including probably his lineups and rotations for the first month of the regular season, before he applies his first application of sunscreen.

In the outfield for example, I've been pretty confident all along that Colby Rasmus was going to make the team not matter what, for that matter, before I go any farther, so was Chris Duncan. The ideal that there was going to be competition for Rasmus to make the 25-man roster didn't seem legit. The Cardinals management this winter, including La Russa, were practically tripping over themselves, heaping praise on the five tool prospect, almost talking themselves into a corner, to the point that they almost have to let Rasmus make the club are appear to be no smarter than your average blogger, something that I aspire to become someday.

It's a give in any circle that Rasmus has struggled at the plate this spring, but Saturday he went 5-for-6 and drove in three runs to raise his batting average from average from .231 to .293. Prior to Saturday's contest the prevailing thought among fans throughout Cardinal Nation and my opinion as well, was Rasmus was having a rough spring probably en-route to Memphis, while Chris Duncan was making a major comeback and going to be platoon in left with somebody, yet at the end of the day, Rasmus is hitting .293/.359/.431 and Duncan is hitting .291/.355/.455. So who's having the good spring training? Of course, Rasmus brings to potential Gold Glove to the table and you know the price of gold.

A look at some of the other position battles and performances to date that keeps you wondering about who's going to make the team and who's playing where.

Outfielder Ryan Ludwick, off to a terrible start this spring offensively, hit a grand slam and doubled, knocking in five runs, Saturday, hopefully a sign that he's on his way back. I don't think he was heading to Memphis by any means, but he could have lost some playing time as a result of his lack of offense.

Saturday Kyle Lohse started and went 5 2/3 innings for the Redbirds, giving up a pair of runs, on five hits, including two solo home runs (the best kind) in posting the win. Lohse coming off the big contract signing this offseason, has been impressive this spring. Throw him in there with Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright, Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro, who is having a great spring and this rotation matches up with anyone and is the only rotation in the National League Central that could give the Chicago Cubs and their fans another reason to have to wait for another year for another shot at a World Championship.

Kyle McClellan was tagged for six runs in a single frame and as a result, he could be on the bubble to make this team with his bloated 10.64 ERA. I was one of those who thought if the Cardinals needed someone to fill in as a temporary starter, McClellan could fit the bill. Named the Hamilton Jewelers and Baume & Mercier Watch Company Cardinals Rookie of the Year last season, McClellan's 68 appearances were 3rd-most ever by a Cardinals rookie reliever (M. Perez 77 in 1992 and T. Worrell 74 in 1986). Kyle seemed to hit the wall last season at around 65 innings. In his last 10 games of the season season, from August 15 to September 2, McClellan posted a record of 0-2 with an ERA of 10.32. He hasn't rebounded this spring like I thought he would and he may even have a problem making the club.

David Freese is finally healthy after being hampered by a sore Achilles' tendon since January, and with Joe Mather currently in an 0-for-19 slump, without the protection of the "Top Prospect" tag, Freese could still beat out Mather for the job at third until Glaus returns.

Royce Ring, bless his heart, there wasn't a transaction this winter, not that there was that many, that ticked the fans off any more than the signing of this free agent. Last season with the Atlanta Braves, in 42 appearances Ring posted a record of 2-1 with an ERA of 8.46. I can remember that day so clear when this deal was announced, I was almost afraid to walk down the street, the reaction to this deal was interesting, to say the least. Saturday, Ring gave up three runs on three hits in his one-third inning of relief. A kid with some potential, Ring will begin the season at Triple-A Memphis.

Joe Mather is in an 0-for-19 slump and took Saturday off and remained in camp to work on his swing. Mather is hitless with six strikeouts since his walk-off home run beat the Boston Red Sox on March 12th. Since then his average has dropped from .313 to .196. I thought Mather had a stranglehold on the third base job with Freese on the sideline, though I prefer Freese over Mather at third, but with Mather struggling at the plate and his lack of experience as a professional on the infield, it is very possible, Freese, Brendan Ryan, Joe Thurston or Brian Barden (in that order) could sneak in to cover the hot corner in April.

Rookie Jason Motte, who, as far as I'm concern, should start the season as the team's closer, stopped the Nationals cold Saturday after they had rallied from a 12-2. Jason picked up the save after retiring the side in order in the ninth, adding his 13th strikeout this spring versus one walk to preserve a 12-11 win. What else does this kid have to do to get the job?

Coming Up

Todd Wellemeyer will take the mound Sunday as the Cardinals will return to Jupiter, Fla., to face the Orioles at Roger Dean Stadium in a 12:05 p.m. CT contest. Also scheduled to pitch for St. Louis; Brad Thompson, Ryan Franklin and Blake Hawksworth. Don't forget you can catch this game on KTRS the BIG 550, MLB Gameday Audio, MLB TV and in the St. Louis area, on TV on KSDK Channel 5.

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