The Cardinals enter spring training with arguably the National League's best 3-4 combination in the lineup and the best 1-2 starting punch on the mound.
Left fielder Matt Holliday, who batted .353 and knocked in 55 runs in 63 games after coming from Oakland last year, was re-signed to a seven-year, $120 million deal, and he will be locked into the No. 4 position in the batting order behind three-time Most Valuable Player Albert Pujols. The first baseman merely has had nine consecutive seasons with at least a .300 average, 30 homers and 100 RBIs.
With those four players in place, it would almost be illogical for anyone to pick against the Cardinals to repeat their NL Central crown, but there are potential thorns.
For one, the Cardinals are likely to have an inexperienced bench, meaning that if a Pujols or Holliday or catcher Yadier Molina gets injured, there isn't much backup.
Right-hander Brad Penny, who
The appearance of McGwire, who hit a then-record 70 homers for the Cardinals in 1998, was going to cause a stir anyway, but the steroids issue (he has confessed his use) is likely to follow him around this spring.
This will be manager Tony La Russa's 15th season as Cardinals manager. In his first 14 seasons, the Cardinals have won seven division titles and earned one wild-card playoff berth, but this might be La Russa's last season with the team. He is on a one-year contract and occasionally has wondered lately if he has been around too long.
WHERE: Roger Dean Stadium,
TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: INF/OF Joe Mather, if his troublesome left hand has healed, could provide depth at several positions. Mather displayed power, speed and defensive ability in 2008 before getting hurt. After briefly holding the Cardinals' third base job last spring, Mather had a lost 2009 season at Class AAA Memphis and Class AA Springfield.
TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Ryan Franklin had a splendid 2009 season as the Cardinals' closer and made his first All-Star team, but he weakened down the stretch, causing some offseason doubt in his ability to replicate his 38-save season.
AUTHORITY FIGURES: Tony La Russa returns for his 15th season as Cardinals manager, having won 1,232 games in St. Louis and 2,552 games overall, which is third on the all-time list. The 65-year-old La Russa, for the first time with the Cardinals, has only a one-year contract, fueling speculation that this might be his last season on the field. The coaching staff returns intact with the notable exception of former Cardinals star Mark McGwire replacing Hal McRae as the hitting coach.
--2B Skip Schumaker, the only Cardinal remaining who was eligible for arbitration, agreed to a two-year deal that will pay him $2 million this year and $2.7 million next season. "We're trying to accomplish a few things with this deal," general manager John Mozeliak said. "We want to reward him for all he accomplished last year moving positions (from outfield to second base) and give him the security he desires, and at the same time give ourselves some cost certainty for the next few seasons." Schumaker, 30, earned $430,000 in 2009 while batting .303 and scoring 85 runs as the Cardinals' primary leadoff hitter.
--Marty Mason has grown a bit after double-knee replacement that has allowed him to stand some two inches taller. Mason will be starting his 11th season as the Cardinals' bullpen coach.
--Pitching coach Dave Duncan said that RHPs Kyle McClellan, Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth and LHPs Jaime Garcia and Rich Hill all would receive innings in camp as the club seeks to fill out its rotation.
--The club told RHP P.J. Walters to remain with family as long as he needs. Walters' first child was delivered 13 weeks prematurely earlier this month. Walters was 0-0 with a 9.56 ERA in four appearances for the Cardinals last season.
--INF Tyler Greene, who hit .222 with two homers in 108 at-bats with the Cardinals last season and had 15 homers and 31 steals at Class AAA Memphis, is hoping to make the club as a utility player or even as the third baseman. "During spring training, I want to compete for a starting spot," said the 26-year-old, who was the Cardinals' first-round pick in 2005.
BY THE NUMBERS: 9 -- Errors made by novice 2B Skip Schumaker in 133 games at the position.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'd like to stay the course and get to spring training before we really prioritize our needs." -- GM John Mozeliak.
After winning their first division title in three seasons, the Cardinals really had only one real offseason mission -- to re-sign LF Matt Holliday. This they did at a cost of $120 million for seven years. Their only other player-personnel move of consequence was to sign RHP Brad Penny to replace departed RHP Joel Pineiro in the rotation. They also made one prominent coaching change, hiring former slugger Mark McGwire to replace Hal McRae as the hitting coach.
ARRIVALS: RHP Brad Penny (free agent from Giants), LHP Rich Hill (minor league free agent from Orioles), INF Ruben Gotay (minor league free agent from Diamondbacks).
DEPARTURES: RHP Brad Thompson (released, signed minor league deal with Royals), INF Joe Thurston (free agent, signed minor league deal with Braves), 3B Troy Glaus (free agent, signed with Braves), INF Mark DeRosa (free agent, signed with Giants), INF Khalil Greene (free agent, signed with Rangers), OF Rick Ankiel (free agent, signed with Royals), RHP Joel Pineiro (free agent, signed with Angels), RHP Todd Wellemeyer (free agent, signed minor league deal with Giants), RHP John Smoltz (free agent, unsigned).
SPRING FOCUS: Having re-signed LF Matt Holliday, the Cardinals' lineup should be in good shape for another run at the World Series. 3B David Freese, a rookie, is the only real unknown in the equation, and the Cardinals might have to bring in a veteran presence to compete with him. A fifth starter is needed, as well as bench help, specifically from the left side. Much of the focus will be on new hitting coach Mark McGwire as he returns to baseball after eight seasons out of the game and amid commentary about his use of performance-enhancement drugs when he played.
1. RHP Chris Carpenter
2. RHP Adam Wainwright
3. RHP Kyle Lohse
4. RHP Brad Penny
5. LHP Rich Hill or LHP Jaime Garcia
Penny, a free agent acquisition, replaces RHP Joel Pineiro, a 15-game winner who signed with the Angels. RHP Todd Wellemeyer had the most starts from the fifth spot last year, but he wasn't re-signed, so Hill, Garcia and perhaps RHP Kyle McClellan will contend for the fifth spot. No Cardinals lefty started a game last year, as Cy Young Award candidates Carpenter and Wainwright led an often-dominant, all-right-handed rotation.
RHP Ryan Franklin (closer)
RHP Jason Motte
RHP Kyle McClellan
RHP Blake Hawksworth
RHP Mitchell Boggs
LHP Trever Miller
LHP Dennys Reyes
1. 2B Skip Schumaker
2. CF Colby Rasmus
3. 1B Albert Pujols
4. LF Matt Holliday
5. RF Ryan Ludwick
6. C Yadier Molina
7. 3B David Freese
8. SS Brendan Ryan
The key lineup question for manager Tony La Russa is the No. 2 spot. Does he go for "damage," as he likes to put it, with CF Colby Rasmus, knowing that Rasmus, one of his best base stealers, isn't apt to run much in front of Pujols? Or does he go at Nos. 1-2 with Schumaker and Ryan, neither of whom hits for much power nor walks much, in front of Pujols and Holliday?
INF/OF Joe Mather
INF Tyler Greene or INF Ruben Gotay
OF Allen Craig
Other than LaRue and
TOP ROOKIES: David Freese, who came on strong late last season after recovering from a left ankle injury suffered in a January auto accident, will be given the first shot to win the third base job that belonged mostly to Mark DeRosa in the second half of last season. Freese was 7-for-12 in a late recall from Class AAA Memphis.
LHP Jaime Garcia, a 23-year-old
RHP Pete Parise had an outstanding
Caribbean Series while pitching for
--1B Albert Pujols (arthroscopic right elbow surgery in October 2009) has resumed hitting, and he should be fine for the start of spring training.
--SS Brendan Ryan (right wrist surgery in February 2010) should be healthy for the start of the regular season.
--LHP Rich Hill (left shoulder surgery in August 2009) is expected to be ready for spring training.