Here in southern Illinois we just had our coldest spell of the
winter. Saturday’s low of nine degrees
couldn’t faze me, though. Forget
the groundhog. Pay no attention to
that snow on the ground and the crackling sidewalk salt underfoot. The Cardinals have begun their annual
pre-migration gathering in sunny Jupiter, Florida.
There they will flex their wings, reacquaint themselves with old friends,
and learn who their new teammates are.
Next month, a few will make a peculiar and potentially ill-advised detour
to participate in the World Baseball Classic. During that period of time, we will hold
our collective breaths and hope that there are no injuries occur in this
tortured collision between Bud Selig and the United Nations. God bless So Taguchi, who declined an
invitation to participate with the Japanese team. Taguchi correctly reasoned that his
March would be best served with the team that pays him and with the best
baseball fans in the nation who have ardently supported him.
In a few weeks our Cardinals will migrate north to a new
nest. There will be quite a few
familiar faces, but they will all wear the birds-on-bat on that’s good enough
for me. I like the team that is
taking the field in Jupiter. I like
it because it is a team with some question marks – dare I say some mystery.
Who should we start with?
How about the reconstructed Scott Rolen. Will his brittle left shoulder hold up
under the pressure of a long season?
Will it give the best third baseman in the game the freedom of motion to
swing a bat with 2004 authority.
Guys named Pujols and Edmonds are praying that it will.
Who will start at second base?
Junior Spivey seems to have the upperhand, although he has yet to field a
ground ball for the Cardinals. Is
the versatile Hector Luna slated to be 2006’s Abraham Nunez, of greater value as
a multi-faceted reserve than a starter?
Will we see Aaron Miles or Deivi Cruz at second in St. Louis or Memphis?
This is shaping up as a real dogfight.
Perhaps the greatest unknowns are in the outfield. Jim Edmonds should be coming in with
fire in his eyes as he approaches his potential walk year. The beat and battered Edmonds, still spectacular
on defense, slipped significantly at the plate in 2006. He attributes the slippage to the
development of poor habits ostensibly in trying to satisfy batting coach Hal
McRae, but Jimmy Ballgame is no spring chicken and he has hurled much abuse on
his aging body.
Will we see the Larry Bigbie of world-beating potential emerge, or will
this be another platoon year in left field? My favorite to watch will be for John Rodriguez to continue his torrid hitting.
Rodriguez was a tantalizing talent after his mid-season call-up, seeming
to have successfully run the major league-making gauntlet of handling breaking
pitches after he teed off on fastballs.
His winter ball performance (.346 batting average in 78 at-bats with seven home runs) continues to
tantalize. If J-Rod can hit
.280-.290 consistently, he would provide a tremendous lift to the middle order
out of the six or seven spot in the batting order. Rodriguez might be the missing link that
ties this offense together from top to bottom.
The bullpen is a work in progress.
One thing is crystal clear.
Braden Looper, argued in several corners as the worst off-season signing
in baseball, must prove his detractors wrong. Remember, though, that Walt Jocketty,
human though he is, has an uncanny knack for seeing solid performers where
others see wreckage. If Looper can
effectively set up closer Jason Isringhausen, he will be a worthwhile
addition. If he fails to live up to
the Cardinal hype, he will remind us of Tino’s gone by.
This bullpen picture still isn’t complete. They lack that long reliever that good
guy Cal Eldred filled so capably and I would hate to see Anthony Reyes used in
that role. With the logjams at
second and the outfield, the Cardinals may take the trade route to fill gaps in
Unlike last year, the 2006 Cardinals are a bit of a mystery to me, a
delightfully unknown quantity that has the potential for either a World Series
victory or a second place finish in the National League Central. Last year the question was how high
would they go. There was a
presumption of good things. This
team, with a few breaks, could win 100 games but it will take a couple of
breakout performances and a bullpen that performs at least as well as last
year. All that said, it’s going to
be quite a ride in 2006. See you at