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The St. Louis Cardinals have played 378 games since they acquired Mark McGwire from Oakland on July 31,1997 In that time McGwire has hit 159 home runs—the greatest burst of home run hitting in the history of the game. And here's what the Cardinals have to show for it: a losing record. They are 180-198 with Big Mac.
McGwire turns 37 on the final day of this season. With that in mind, St. Louis decided it couldn't wait to see if pitchers Alan Benes and Matt Morris make it back from major injuries and if Juan Acevedo, Manny Aybar, Rick Croushore, Jose Jimenez and Darren Oliver would grow into the nucleus of a championship staff. All of them are 29 or younger. All of them, with the exception of Morris and Benes, who are still rehabbing their arms, are gone. "I can see how people would think there's urgency here because we traded away young pitching," general manager Walt Jocketty says. "People think we're trying not to waste Mark's best years. But we don't look at it that way. We were trying to win the last couple of years, too. It just didn't work out."
Only five teams received fewer innings last season from their starting pitchers than the Cardinals did. So Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa remade their staff by dusting off the blueprint that worked with the 1988 Oakland Athletics: take a bunch of veterans whose careers have hit a wall and put them in the hands of Mr. Fix-it, pitching coach Dave Duncan. The Cardinals are taking fliers on Darryl Kile, Pat Hentgen and Andy Benes. Each won at least 18 games in 1996 or 1997, but they are a combined 71-78 over the past two years.
Each presents a challenge. Kile sank from a 19-game winner for Houston to 21-30 in two years with Colorado, where the altitude at Coors Field took the bite off his curveball and the usual monsoon of longballs and bloop hits eroded his aggressiveness. He took his troubles on the road, too, going 3-10 with a 5.89 ERA. Though scouts detected a marked drop-off in his stuff, Cardinals special instructor Jim Leyland, Kile's manager in Colorado, says, "His stuff is fine. He just tried to be too fine and got into bad habits. One thing about him: He never made excuses about Coors Field."
Hentgen had a legitimate excuse last season. His arm was so weakened by tendinitis in his shoulder that he was trying to get by with an 84-mph fastball. After posting a 5.79 ERA before the All-Star break, a more fit Hentgen had a 3.79 ERA afterward.
Andy Benes turned in his usual workmanlike season for Arizona (13-12, 4.81 ERA), but the Diamondbacks contributed to his reputation as a big-game liability by not letting him near the mound in their Division Series against the Mets. Benes has a career 6.44 postseason ERA without winning any of his six starts.
Though Kent Bottenfield was the team's best starter last year and rookie Rick Ankiel has the best arm, the Cardinals' season is likely to turn on how Kile, Hentgen and Andy Benes bounce back and whether closer David Veres, another ex-Rockie, can prosper much closer to sea level. The Cardinals traded for Veres in large part on Leyland's recommendation; he told Jocketty that Veres has a wicked split-fingered fastball but threw it infrequently in Denver because the dry air made it difficult for him to grip the ball. The numbers bear this out: a 740 ERA at home and a 2.52 ERA on the road.
Even the St. Louis lineup is dotted with reclamation projects. Rightfielder Eric Davis was slowly coming back from shoulder surgery in spring training; leftfielder Ray Lankford, whose home runs dropped from 31 to 15, is looking for renewed power after off-season knee surgery; newly acquired second baseman Fernando Vi�a, a 1998 All-Star, played only 37 games last year because of injuries; and can't-miss phenom J.D. Drew missed, hitting just .242 and sometimes playing the outfield like a man searching for his car in the vast parking lot of a mall. "He was making mistakes that made us say, 'He didn't do that in college,' " Jocketty said. "But in fairness I think we were guilty of putting too much pressure on him by expecting so much out of him." St. Louis is betting heavily not only that Drew will hit enough to stick this time but also that he can adequately patrol centerfield now that Lankford wants to remain in left.
La Russa began spring training by citing the '88 A's as a source of inspiration for his current club. McGwire, a member of that Oakland team, nodded and said, "Yes, I see a lot of similarities. For all the attention Jose [Canseco] and I got as the Bash Brothers, that team won because we got solid pitching almost every night. You would think by now people would realize that home runs may get a lot of attention, but they don't win championships."
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]