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COMEBACK STORIES abounded at Cardinals camp this spring. There was Matt Clement, a onetime All-Star with the Red Sox who missed last season because of a shoulder injury, bidding for a spot in the rotation. There was Mark Mulder, a former 20-game winner with the A's who made only three starts in 2007, throwing off the mound for the first time since having shoulder surgery in September. And, most improbably, there was 38-year-old nonroster invitee Juan Gonzalez, a two-time AL MVP with the Rangers who was out of baseball for the last three years, swatting a Johan Santana fastball over the leftfield wall.
If this is the most uplifting news that comes out of Jupiter, Fla., before the season starts, it doesn't augur well for a team that has already fallen precipitously since its stunning World Series win in 2006. Last year St. Louis, in plodding through its first losing season since 1999, was exposed as an aging franchise built around fragile stars. Two of them were traded over the winter (centerfielder Jim Edmonds, 37, and third baseman Scott Rolen, 32, who missed a combined 95 games last year) and two others are still hurting: Ace Chris Carpenter, recovering from Tommy John surgery, won't pitch until after the All-Star break, while first baseman Albert Pujols will play with a torn ligament, bone spurs, arthritis and swelling—all in his right elbow.
Despite this crumbling around the foundation—even with the departures of Edmonds and Rolen, the Cardinals remain among the oldest teams in the majors—new general manager John Mozeliak says, "We're absolutely trying to be competitive this year. You don't think about rebuilding when you have a $100 million payroll."
Pujols agrees, which is why, in the face of criticism, he opted to postpone elbow surgery until after this season. Playing with pain in '07, he had career lows in extra-base hits and home runs. But the 28-year-old first baseman is confident he'll bounce back, in part because, for the first time in four years, he and the Cardinals had the postseason off. The last time he had that much rest, Pujols says, "I came into the next season feeling really good, and look what happened." He had a then career-high 46 homers and the Cardinals reached the World Series.
Last year Pujols received little offensive support—St. Louis ranked last in the league in OPS out of the fourth and fifth spots in the order, and second to last out of the leadoff spot. But the only notable addition to a lineup that was also 13th in the NL in homers and 14th in slugging is third baseman Troy Glaus, who came from the Blue Jays in the Rolen trade. In Glaus the Cards obtained an established slugger, but one who turns 32 this summer, has undergone shoulder and foot surgery in the last four years and has a bad left knee from playing on the artificial turf in Toronto.
The starting staff inspires even less confidence. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is known for working magic—he conjured up good 2007 seasons out of journeymen Joel Piñeiro and Todd Wellemeyer—but his powers will be severely tested by a staff that is banking on the resurrections of Clement and Mulder (both of whom will be back sometime in May). Righthander Kyle Lohse, signed in mid-March, is durable but has never had an ERA under 4.00. Much is expected from Adam Wainwright, 26, but it's unclear how much of a load the former closer can carry coming off a big innings increase, from 75 in '06 to 202 last year. (The unofficial industry standard is that no pitcher should throw 30 or more innings than he did the previous season.)
St. Louis thinks Carpenter's return will provide the team with a shot in the arm in July—"When we add him," says Mozeliak, "it'll be like making a trade for a top starter." By then, however, the undermanned Cardinals will be too far out of contention for that comeback story to make any difference.
MANAGER TONY LA
RUSSA 13TH SEASON WITH ST. LOUIS
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]