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Sports Illustrated's 1999 Baseball Preview
 
  Even McGwire's understated skipper has joined in the hype by suggesting Big Mac could go deep 75 times in '99. V. J. Lovero

St. Louis Cardinals

The Redbirds have a home run king but still lack that elusive trump Card: an ace

By Michael Farber

Seventy home runs can put a man on the covers of magazines and under the covers with Helen Hunt's character on Mad About You, but that doesn't get you to first base with the women of Jonathan T's hair salon in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. -- at least not at 1:50 p.m. on Wednesdays. Earlier this month Mark McGwire stopped by for a trim only to be politely turned away because the shop was closing in 10 minutes. Maybe this wasn't the unkindest noncut of all but merely a sign that normalcy might be returning to McGwire's life.

McGwire reduced an entire sport to four or five nightly plate appearances of home run derby, obscuring nearly everything else in baseball, including the Cardinals. "Our record?" says pitcher Matt Morris. "To be honest, I don't think I know what our record was last year." Like anyone else, the Cardinals can tell you 70-66 (McGwire over Sammy Sosa), but they fumble for 83-79, a mark that left third-place St. Louis 19 games behind the National League Central-champion Astros.

 
Manager
Tony La Russa
(fourth season with St. Louis)
1998 Record
83-79 (third in NL Central)
Prediction
second in NL Central
Batting Order
SSEdgar Renteria
LFJ.D. Drew
1B Mark McGwire
CFRay Lankford
RF Eric Davis
3B Fernando Tatis
C Eli Marrero
2B David Howard
Starters
LH Donovan Osborne
LH Kent Mercker
LH Darren Oliver
RH Kent Bottenfield
RH Manny Aybar
Bullpen
RH Juan Acevedo
LH Scott Radinsky
RH Ricky Bottalico
LH Lance Painter
LH Mike Mohler
RH John Frascatore
Next Up...

Rookie leftfielder J.D. Drew is going to see more smoke than R.J. Reynolds. Drew will bat in front of Mark McGwire, guaranteeing him a glut of fastballs from pitchers who don't want to work to Big Mac with anyone on base. "The pitchers can only mess around with him [Drew] so much, because they can look over to the on-deck circle and see what's coming," manager Tony La Russa says. After his September call-up last year, Drew socked five homers and had 13 RBIs in 14 games, earning the label of "stud" from McGwire. Why not? Drew averaged one homer every 7.20 at bats, slightly better than Big Mac's ratio of one every 7.27.

The home run chase deflected scrutiny from the team and provided it as big a boost as McGwire's blasts. Last September, during the height of McGwiremania, St. Louis went a stealthy 18-7. "Mark didn't get any more attention than Michael Jordan got, and [Jordan's] got six rings on his fingers," manager Tony La Russa says, scoffing at suggestions that the attention paid to McGwire hurt the team. "So why wasn't Michael Jordan a detriment to the rest of the Bulls' winning a championship? And why did we play so well at the end during the craziness? Because having Mark on our team is a big plus."

McGwire said he'd like to hit at least 50 home runs in 1999, which would make him the first player to reach that mark in four consecutive seasons. During the winter La Russa, who has never been the clown prince of baseball, told Cardinals boosters in semi-jest that McGwire could hit 75, basing the number on the hope that McGwire gets a lot more than 500 at bats. (In 1998 he had 509, plus a National League-record 162 walks.)

St. Louis has to find a way to parlay McGwire's home runs into more offense. The Cards were sixth in runs despite leading the league with 223 homers, but then they didn't have young outfielder J.D. Drew in the lineup every day. Drew was up for a cup of coffee in September (he batted .500 with runners in scoring position), but he could end up owning Starbucks before long. Drew will play mostly leftfield, although he should see some time in center, his natural position, early in the season when the Cardinals proceed cautiously with Ray Lankford, who had off-season arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Between Drew and free-agent pickup Eric Davis in right, St. Louis should easily compensate for the free-agent defection of Brian Jordan (.316 with 25 homers and 91 RBIs) to Atlanta.

St. Louis could be better up the middle as well. Though they lost second baseman Delino DeShields to free agency, the Cardinals significantly upgraded themselves at shortstop by trading for All-Star Edgar Renteria (.288 lifetime average). For now, light-hitting veterans David Howard and Pat Kelly will platoon at second and possibly bat ninth, behind the pitcher. (Last year the Cardinals were 46-36 with the funky batting order devised to get McGwire, who batted third, to the plate in the first inning while giving him the feel of being a cleanup hitter the rest of the game.) The bullpen, which blew 31 saves last season, has been reinforced by the acquisitions of former Dodgers' lefty Scott Radinsky and ex-Phillies' righty Ricky Bottalico (34 saves in both 1996 and '97). Juan Acevedo (13 saves in the second half) will be in the closing mix too, though he could join Manny Aybar and Kent Bottenfield as swingmen, thereby giving La Russa some flexibility as he attempts to patch the holes in a middling rotation that has been decimated by injuries for a second straight year.


  • Cardinals
  •  
    Before the start of last season, La Russa appeared to have two blossoming aces: righthanders Alan Benes and Matt Morris, who were a combined 21-18 with a 3.07 ERA in 1997. However, Benes, 27, has yet to recover from the right shoulder injury that sidelined him for all of '98 and will likely be out until midseason. Morris, 24, who had seven wins and a 2.53 ERA after sitting out most of the first half of last year with a strained right shoulder, will be out for the season with a right elbow tear he sustained in spring training. Suddenly the optimism generated by the club's off-season improvements has been replaced by a palpable anxiety. "It's very unfortunate," McGwire says of Morris's injury. "He's one of the top up-and-coming pitchers in baseball. It's not good to start the season like this."

    Issue date: March 29, 1999



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