Edgar Renteria stood on the infield grass at the Cardinals' spring training stadium in Jupiter, Fla., his two earrings gleaming in the midday sun. A crouching photographer zoomed in for a closeup, snapped a half-dozen shots, then glanced down at his camera. "Got it?" Renteria asked. By the time the photographer looked up, Renteria was gone in a sea of red-shirted teammates. The 28-year-old shortstop has appeared in three All-Star Games, won two Gold Gloves and emerged as one of the game's best all-around players, yet he's easily missed on a team brimming with star power. "Edgar's arguably the best shortstop in the league," says G.M. Walt Jocketty, "but there are probably five better-known guys on this team alone." Renteria is O.K. with that.
Everything about him is low-key—he speaks in little more than a whisper, his idea of a good time is a quiet evening of dominoes—but Renteria looms large in the Cardinals' high-powered offense, which last year was second in the league in batting average and runs and tied for third in homers. First baseman Albert Pujols, centerfielder Jim Edmonds and third baseman Scott Rolen combined for 110 home runs in 2003, and new rightfielder Reggie Sanders, a free-agent pickup, averaged 29 homers over the past three seasons. Renteria is coming off a season in which he had a career-high .330 average (32 points better than Alex Rodriguez's) and a career-best .394 on-base percentage (58 points higher than Miguel Tejada's). His second Gold Glove gave him two more than Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra have won. "And he's getting better," says St. Louis special assistant Jim Leyland, who managed Renteria when they were with Florida.
Renteria was a baby-faced 22-year-old with chopsticks for legs when he stroked the 11th-inning single that won Game 7 of the 1997 World Series for the Marlins. The native of Colombia survived the initial fire sale of Florida players, then was dealt to St. Louis in December '98. Renteria ran out of gas during the second half of the 2001 season, when he was the subject of trade rumors, and finished with a career-low .260 average. That off-season he rededicated himself to the game and began a rigorous weight-training program (three hours of lifting a day, no hitting until February) that he still adheres to.
When Renteria arrived at spring training in 2002 his first words to third base coach Jose Oquendo were, "I want to win a Gold Glove." Oquendo taught him the importance of being more disciplined in his pregame preparation. "He would mindlessly go through drills in the past," says Oquendo, "but you could start to see him thinking through each grounder." Renteria won his first fielding award that year.
He is one of four Gold Glove winners on the team (along with Edmonds, Rolen and catcher Mike Matheny), and the Cardinals will need their exceptional defense to back up a dubious rotation. While the other NL Central contenders bolstered their staffs—the Cubs signed free agent Greg Maddux and the Astros landed Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens—the best Jocketty could do, working under payroll limitations, was to sign free agent Jeff Suppan (5.57 ERA in a two-month stint with Boston after being traded by the Pirates) and trade for Jason Marquis, who spent most of last year in the Braves' farm system. Counted on as the No. 3 starter, behind Matt Morris and Woody Williams, is Chris Carpenter, who hasn't pitched in the majors since injuring his shoulder in April 2002. "We expect big things from him," says Jocketty, who signed Carpenter, the Blue Jays' Opening Day pitcher two years ago, in December '02. "We need big things from him."
Last season Williams won 18 games, but the 37-year-old righthander averaged 110 pitches a start, and right-shoulder tendinitis may sideline him for the beginning of the season. Morris, who won 22 games in 2001 and 17 in '02—his first two full seasons in the majors—while logging more than 200 innings each year, looked worn down last season and missed more than a month with shoulder, ankle and hand injuries. Manager Tony La Russa has vowed to keep Morris's pitch counts at conservative levels early in the season.
"With the staffs that we'll be going up against in the division," says pitching coach Dave Duncan with a sigh, "there just won't be too much room for error."
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