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MANAGER TONY LA RUSSA 12th season with Cardinals
STAYING TRUE to their state's motto, the Cardinals showed us in October, when they stormed through the playoffs and won the World Series despite their worst regular season in seven years. But this wasn't your average 83-win team. This was--and still is--a club with a superb nucleus, starting with the best player in baseball, first baseman Albert Pujols; arguably the best starting pitcher in the National League, righthander Chris Carpenter; plus the brilliant combination of manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan. What's more, it appears to be an especially dedicated group. "We're starting from zero," says Pujols of the Cards' putting their stunning postseason behind them. "The last thing we want to do is to come in with an attitude."
Truth is, after Carpenter, the rotation is virtually starting from zero. Not since the Marlins conducted a fire sale after winning the 1997 World Series has a defending champion entered the season with so much turnover. St. Louis lost three starters--NLCS MVP Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver and Jason Marquis--who took more lucrative free-agent deals elsewhere. St. Louis did re-sign lefthander Mark Mulder, but he isn't expected back from rotator cuff surgery until the second half of the season.
La Russa and Duncan, though, have a long, distinguished history with mound reclamation projects (look no further than Carpenter and '06 World Series hero Adam Wainwright), and that is just one reason to believe that the Cardinals will win their fourth straight Central crown. In fact, the trio of Wainwright, who has been overpowering this spring; Anthony Reyes, the surprise hero of Game 1 of the World Series; and bargain free-agent pickup Kip Wells is a younger, more overpowering group than the soft-tossing trio it replaces. And the scarcity of candidates for the fifth spot--most likely to be filled by Braden Looper, who hadn't started a game since he was in Class A in 1997--is, for now, an overrated concern (box, opposite).
Though he's hunting for trade possibilities (starting pitchers Jon Lieber, Brad Penny and Missouri native Mark Buehrle are names worth keeping an eye on), St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty says he doesn't feel pressured to pull off a major deal. "We feel confident that Dave Duncan and the rest of the staff will end up with a very strong rotation," says Jocketty, who quietly has put together the National League's model franchise without breaking the bank--or coming close. "We just decided we weren't going to go crazy with the market because we thought we had alternatives."
Jocketty's restraint this winter--his most notable free-agent signing was second baseman Adam Kennedy, 31, who brings steady hands but a declining bat--gives him some flexibility to fill any holes later in the season. Barring injury, the infield, one of the National League's best defensively, is set. The outfield, however, is more of an adventure, especially with eight-time Gold Glove centerfielder Jim Edmonds still recovering from off-season shoulder and toe surgeries. La Russa will have to employ a mix-and-match system involving erratic Juan Encarnacion, power hitting Chris Duncan, strikeout glutton Preston Wilson and So Taguchi and Scott Spiezio, both of whom had their big moments in the '06 postseason but are utilitymen. The summer, though, could be interesting if Rick Ankiel, the former pitching phenom trying to make it back to the majors on the strength of his hitting, works his way into the outfield mix. Ankiel, who hit 21 homers in 85 games in the minors in '05, will start the season at Triple A, but he's a story worth following.
La Russa and Duncan might be facing their toughest assignment in years, but they still have Pujols, more power arms in the rotation than they did a year ago and a defense that spares the pitching staff excess wear and tear. Looks like another October's in the Cards. --J.H.
The Cardinals are auditioning retreads such as Braden Looper (left) and Josh Hancock for the fifth starter's role. They might consider a simpler solution: going to a four-man rotation for the first two months of the season rather than the first two weeks. St. Louis starters are well-equipped to make the transition because pitching coach Dave Duncan teaches his cadets to pitch to contact and take advantage of the team's outstanding defense. Cardinals pitchers required just 3.69 pitches per plate appearance last season, the second fewest in the majors behind the Rockies. That efficiency, coupled with a favorable early-season schedule-- St. Louis won't go more than 10 games without an off day until after Memorial Day--should be enough to hold down the fort for the first third of the season.