The Cardinals came out of spring training knowing that they have the best 1-2 starting pitching punch in the National League in Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. They knew also that their 3-4 offensive combination of Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday was second to none.
But they probably have an issue of depth.
The infield reserves are very capable offensive players -- switch-hitting Felipe Lopez and Julio Lugo -- and catcher Jason LaRue is a tried and true backup to Yadier Molina. LaRue, in fact, might be needed quite a bit at the start of the season if Molina's strained right oblique, suffered with 10 days to go in spring training, doesn't heal quickly enough.
But the Cardinals were set to enter the season with youngsters Joe Mather, Allen Craig and perhaps Nick Stavinoha manning the backup outfield spots. And they had no left-handed presence on the bench for late inning matchups with tough right-handed closers other than the switch-hitting Lopez, who wasn't even here until the club signed him in mid-February. A veteran left-handed hitter bench man is likely to be sought with more urgency later in the season.
The rotation beyond Carpenter and Wainwright, who combined for 36 wins last year, is solid enough with veteran right-handers Brad Penny, signed as a free agent, and Kyle Lohse. Left-hander Jaime Garcia, who missed most of last season as he recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery of the season before, was the standout in camp and appeared to have pitched himself into the rotation at the start of the season.
Barring some long-lasting injuries, the Cardinals would appear to be the odds-on favorites to defend their National League Central Division title and make their eighth playoff appearance in 11 seasons.
But Pujols was sidelined twice this spring, once more briefly than the other, with back ailments, and Molina was nursing a sore right side as the season approached. Those two players probably are the most indispensable on the club.
THE CARDINALS WILL CONTEND IF ...: Their key players have their normal seasons. Given good health, Carpenter and Wainwright can be expected to win 32 to 36 games between them, and Pujols, Holliday and RF Ryan Ludwick can be counted on to knock in 300 or more runs. Nobody else in the division can match up with either of these two groups of players.
PRIMED FOR A BIG SEASON: CF Colby Rasmus is much more at home in his second season after admitting he felt stressed last year, knowing that a couple of veteran outfielders were unhappy he was taking some of their playing time. Rasmus should stretch his 16 homers to 20 or more and his RBI total from 52 to 75 or 80.
ON THE DECLINE: It would be hard
for RHP Ryan Franklin to duplicate his 38-save season, in which he also sported
a 1.92 ERA.
--C Yadier Molina, suffering from a right oblique strain suffered with 10 days to go in spring training, said he would be ready for opening day, but manager Tony La Russa sounded a more cautious note. "We're going to be really patient and really optimistic," La Russa said. "Doubtful for (the rest of) spring training. Fingers crossed for early in the season, opening day. He's got to be careful, and the thing about him is he doesn't like being careful."
--C Matt Pagnozzi, who had been optioned to Class AAA Memphis, returned to big-league camp. For Pagnozzi to be active on opening day the Cardinals would likely have to put a player on the disabled list or carry three catchers into the regular season.
--LHP Jaime Garcia, who had been the Cardinals' best pitcher in the exhibition season, appeared to have seized the open fifth starting job. RHP Kyle McClellan, who had been effective himself, was moved back to the bullpen. "I don't want to say I didn't expect (Garcia) to pitch well, but he's exceeded my expectations," said pitching coach Dave Duncan.
--RHP Kyle McClellan's return to the bullpen bolsters what had been something of a question mark. RHP Mitchell Boggs, notably, had been ineffective this spring. McClellan took his move philosophically. "I'm not a starter. I'm not a reliever. I'm just a guy who wants to make the team," he said.
--1B Albert Pujols, who had been out a second time with lower back issues, returned to the lineup with 10 days to go in spring training -- pain free. Pujols, who received an injection to lessen the inflammation, said, "Now it's getting my timing right where I want it. Being able to swing the bat and being back in the field -- those were the most important things. Now I can worry about the other thing, which is finding my swing."
BY THE NUMBERS: 5 -- On opening day, number of decades in which Tony La Russa will have managed.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've always been a goofball and all of that, but maybe now you're a goofball that can help." -- Young SS Brendan Ryan.
The Cardinals, who didn't have many jobs open anyway, had a reasonably uneventful spring training although they had some scattered concerns about 1B Albert Pujols' back issues, LF Matt Holliday's strained rib-cage muscle and C Yadier Molina's strained oblique. Mark McGwire seemed to transition seamlessly into his new role as hitting coach.
1. RHP Chris Carpenter
2. RHP Adam Wainwright
3. RHP Brad Penny
4. RHP Kyle Lohse
5. LHP Jaime Garcia
ROTATION ANALYSIS: Penny, a free
agent acquisition who finished strongly with
RHP Ryan Franklin (closer)
RHP Jason Motte
RHP Kyle McClellan
RHP Blake Hawksworth
RHP Mitchell Boggs
LHP Trever Miller
LHP Dennys Reyes
BULLPEN ANALYSIS: Boggs had a
notably poor spring and was in danger of losing his job to fast-rising RHP Adam Ottavino, a former No. 1 draft pick who has been a starter through his career.
The club probably still is looking for a veteran right-handed setup man and
occasional closer to help
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
LINEUP ANALYSIS: After a slow start, Freese, a rookie, showed pop, but he still will be toward the bottom of the lineup. With various injuries, the Cardinals didn't have Pujols, Holliday and Molina available at the same time very often, and Molina's status for the start of the season was doubtful because of the strained right oblique he suffered near the end of camp. Rasmus could be the surprise of the lineup and might hit sixth rather than second if manager Tony La Russa wants his bat to be in an RBI spot.
C Jason LaRue
INF Felipe Lopez
INF-OF Joe Mather
OF Allen Craig
RESERVES ANALYSIS: Other than
LaRue, Lopez and
ROOKIE WATCH: St. Louisan David Freese, who seemingly has overcome the stigma of his DUI arrest in the winter, came on strong late in camp to grab the 3B job. Though technically not a rookie because he spent last season on the disabled list, LHP Jaime Garcia was the most impressive pitcher in camp and seized a job in the rotation.
--C Yadier Molina (strained right oblique) was injured with 10 days left in spring training and could miss the start of the season.