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."
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
replacements, primarily Abraham Nu�ez, 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.
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
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.
a modest proposal
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.