Albert Pujols, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams are the only players to rack up 500 RBIs over their first four big league seasons.
An offensive juggernaut appears to have added the missing piece: a frontline pitcher
Who would you rather have, Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder? Soon after the end of last season both Oakland aces were made available to Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who was shopping for a front-of-the-rotation starter to add to a staff that had been battered by the Red Sox in the World Series. In a four-game sweep the overwhelmed St. Louis starters had allowed 26 hits and 18 runs in 17 1/3 innings. So from his seat on a mid-December flight to Hawaii -- en route to a vacation with his wife, Sue -- Jocketty negotiated by phone with A's G.M. Billy Beane and agreed to surrender pitching prospects Danny Haren and Kiko Calero plus minor league catcher Daric Barton to Oakland for Mulder. (Hudson went to the Braves two days before Jocketty and Beane sealed the Mulder deal.)
"In the end Mulder was our preference because we needed a lefthander in our rotation and he was signed for two years versus Hudson's one," says Jocketty. "We also have faith that he'll bounce back from his tough finish last year."
With Oakland, Mulder was a model of consistency, a monster innings eater (he ranks second in the majors with 22 complete games since 2001) who has amassed more wins (72) over the last four years than any other lefthander. But the 27-year-old is coming off his most disappointing season since his rookie year. On Aug. 24 he was 17-4 and a Cy Young front-runner; in seven starts thereafter Mulder was 0-4 with an 8.31 ERA and a big reason why the A's missed the postseason for the first time in five years.
Mulder is quick to refute the suggestion that he was pitching hurt. "I wasn't injured at all," he says. "There wasn't anything wrong with me. Looking back, maybe the reason for the struggles was fatigue. I was exhausted at the end of the season. Maybe all those innings in Oakland caught up to me. When you're tired like that, your mechanics change."
At the top of the Cardinals' rotation Mulder joins Chris Carpenter, who was voted last year's NL comeback player of the year after rebounding from arm troubles that limited him to 13 starts in 2002 and sidelined him for all of '03. Carpenter made 28 starts, won 15 of them and got stronger as the season went on, consistently throwing in the mid-90s and regaining the sharpness in his knee-buckling curve. He sat out the postseason because of nerve damage in his right biceps, but he says that he's been throwing better this spring than at any point last season. "I really feel great," he says, "like I'm just now putting my injuries behind me."
St. Louis's starters will again enjoy plenty of run support: The meat of the offense -- which led the league in runs, hits and slugging percentage -- returns mostly intact. All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria, who signed with the Red Sox in December, is the most notable loss, but the Cardinals think they landed a capable replacement in David Eckstein, a 5'7", 165-pound nuisance to American League pitchers as a member of the Angels. In a lineup rife with sluggers -- Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen were the only trio in the majors to each hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs -- Eckstein, a quintessential contact hitter (first among AL hitters in lowest percentage of swings that missed) who's solid defensively (.988 fielding percentage, tops among AL shortstops), knows his role: "Do everything in my power to get on base," says the 30-year-old Eckstein, who signed a three-year, $10.25 million contract in December. "If I do that, someone in this lineup will find a way to get me home."
"He gives this lineup a little different look," says Jocketty. "We think he's tailor-made for the National League with his ability to do the small things, like moving runners over and bunting. The offense should be strong with him at the top of the order."
The Cardinals are loaded again, but are they better? Their new ace knows who the key will be. "You look at how close this team came to winning a championship last year, and it's exciting," says Mulder. "Maybe I can help put us over the top." -- Albert Chen