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1 St. Louis Cardinals
Daniel G. Habib
April 03, 2006
A title could be in the cards if Scott Rolen can shoulder the load
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April 03, 2006

1 St. Louis Cardinals

A title could be in the cards if Scott Rolen can shoulder the load

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PITCHER PVR W L K WHIP ERA
RH Chris Carpenter 3 21 5 213 1.06 2.83
LH Mark Mulder 20 16 8 111 1.38 3.64
RH Jason Marquis 88 13 14 100 1.33 4.13
RH Jeff Suppan 31 16 10 114 1.38 3.57
RH Sidney Ponson
[New acquisition]
208 7 11 68 1.73 6.21

Scott Rolen has not been fully healthy in almost a year, since he barreled into Hee Seop Choi, the Los Angeles Dodgers' outsized first baseman, in a baserunning collision last May at Busch Stadium. For Rolen, who collects Gold Gloves and All-Star Game appearances the way some people collect stamps, the collision was only the start of bad things to come. It triggered a series of physical problems in his left shoulder that required two surgeries and cost him most of a season in the prime of his career. The Cardinals are plainspoken about the significance of his return. "There isn't anything more important," manager Tony La Russa said during the winter. "You're talking about a guy who's a potential Hall of Famer, so if he plays like he's played his whole career, it's a terrific boost for our club."

Rolen's injury-a torn labrum-affected the same part of his body that was badly hurt in a previous collision, with the Diamondbacks' Alex Cintron during the 2002 playoffs. After colliding with Choi, Rolen underwent shoulder surgery in mid-May and attempted to rejoin the Cardinals in June. He hit only .207 with no home runs in 87 at bats, though, and went on the DL on July 22. He was informed that he'd need a second operation to reattach the labrum, one that would have to be followed by an aggressive, six-month rehabilitation. So incapacitated that at times he even had difficulty putting on his shirt, Rolen had the second operation in August and was sidelined for the rest of season. His .235 batting average, .323 on-base percentage, .383 slugging and five home runs were all career lows.

Although his replacements, primarily Abraham Nu´┐Żez, hit for average and played respectable defense in his stead, Rolen was sorely missed. Cardinals third basemen finished last season with a .368 slugging percentage and eight home runs, 15th and 16th in the National League, respectively. A power shortage at a corner infield position is difficult to overcome, and Rolen's absence was magnified in October. Despite a second consecutive NL Central title and a major league-best 100-win season, St. Louis was once again snuffed out in the postseason after slumping at the plate, this time while hitting a piddling .209 with three homers in 187 at bats during a six-game loss to the Astros in the NLCS.

So Rolen's shoulder has, necessarily, attracted great scrutiny this spring, with everyone so far sounding optimistic. "He's ahead of schedule," La Russa says. "He likes the way he feels, and he's free and easy. You look at the whole game with him because he's a complete player; that's one of his great qualities. So it's defense, offense, baserunning."

Rolen, who turns 31 on April 4, has not spared the shoulder, either at bat or in the field. During his first spring training game he dived for a ground ball and landed hard on the shoulder, without incident. But his ability to hit the ball hard-particularly to the left side-will tell the story of how well he has recovered. For the righthanded-hitting Rolen, his left shoulder absorbs the force of a power stroke to leftfield. "The at bats," he says, "are going to be the biggest thing: how I respond from at bat to at bat."

Whether or not Rolen comes back fully, St. Louis remains a prohibitive favorite to defend its division title. It has the game's best righthanded hitter in first baseman Albert Pujols, the league MVP in 2005, and it possesses a deep, at times overpowering, rotation. The Cardinals must find a replacement for Matt Morris, who signed with the Giants as a free agent after winning a total of 79 games the past five seasons, but the combination of Sidney Ponson-a 29-year-old retread who can eat innings, especially now that he has the benefit of a potent offense behind him-and prospects Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright should get the job done. Winning the World Series, however, the only achievement that has eluded this club so far, will require everyone, including Rolen, at full strength.

IN FACT

Albert Pujols is the first player to lead the majors in runs for three straight seasons since the Reds' Pete Rose did it in 1974, '75 and '76. No one has pulled off the feat four years in a row.

CONSIDER THIS
a modest proposal

With an assortment of midlevel players battling for the second-base job, Hector Luna (right) stands out as the one who could make a difference as an every-day player. A Rule 5 pick from the Indians in 2003, Luna has made solid contributions off the Cardinals' bench the past two seasons, peaking last year when he batted .285 with a .344 on-base percentage and a .409 slugging average. At 26, Luna is entering his prime-he's the only one of the club's second-base options at that stage-and he's the most athletically gifted of the group. His defense has been average but figures to improve with regular playing time.

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