The Redbird Report 02/09

Two years removed from the 10th world championship in franchise history, the Cardinals find themselves in the odd position of also-rans, at least for now, in the National League Central Division.

Only three starting position players remain from the World Series team -- first baseman Albert Pujols, catcher Yadier Molina and left fielder Chris Duncan.

And there is no one from that rotation who will be on the Opening Day roster this season. Right-hander Chris Carpenter still is rehabbing from Tommy John elbow surgery and won't be back until summertime.

Left-hander Mark Mulder, who barely has pitched in the majors since his first shoulder surgery in 2006, isn't expected back until May.

Manager Tony La Russa, who is starting his 13th season with the club, quietly is confident his team will contend. But the team's fortunes largely will depend on whether a strong rotation can be cobbled.

The key is free agent right-hander Matt Clement, who hasn't pitched since August 2006 because of shoulder problems that required surgery. He has won in double figures five times in his career and would be a good fourth starter to follow returning right-handers Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper and Joel Pineiro.

The departures of shortstop David Eckstein, third baseman Scott Rolen and center fielder Jim Edmonds have left potentially sizable holes. But defense at short (Eckstein committed 20 errors) may be improved with slick-fielding Cesar Izturis.

At third base, newcomer Troy Glaus should provide more power as a cleanup man behind Pujols than Rolen did, although neither Glaus nor anyone else can match Rolen's defensive wizardry.

In center field, where Edmonds had ranged for eight seasons, converted pitcher Rick Ankiel is the most likely replacement, until 21-year-old Colby Rasmus, the prized jewel of the Cardinals' system, is ready.

WHERE, WHEN: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 against the New York Mets.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: 2B Adam Kennedy is coming off the worst year of his career at .219. He finished the season on the disabled list after knee surgery. Presumably healthy, Kennedy should be more comfortable in his second season back in the National League, although, if Kennedy struggles early, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa isn't likely to go too long with him with Aaron Miles in reserve.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: RHP Braden Looper won 12 games in his first year as a starter but must improve his nighttime record of 5-11 with a 6.75 ERA. A 4.94 overall ERA doesn't suggest he would win 12 games again.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: Tony La Russa has 2,375 wins (2,070 losses), ranking him third all-time in managerial victories. He is very much a hands-on manager, although he will let pitching coach Dave Duncan make many of the decisions in that category. La Russa is comfortable with his six-man coaching staff, which has been together for five years.

NOTES AND QUOTES

--RHP Chris Carpenter is hopeful that he will be able to rejoin the Cardinals rotation sooner than the July timetable generally associated with his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Carpenter underwent the procedure last July. "I'd love to be back the first week or two of June," he said.

--GM John Mozeliak, explaining the signing of 38-year-old OF Juan Gonzalez to a minor league contract: "There's not a great deal of risk involved ($750,000 if Gonzalez makes the club), but there is the potential for significant upside."

--SS Brendan Ryan, who is contending for a backup infielder's job, had a 16-game hitting streak for Class AAA Memphis last year, but it took nearly two months to compile as he bounced between Memphis and the big leagues.

--OFs Chris Duncan and Rick Ankiel have been working out at the Cardinals' camp well in advance of the Feb. 15 opening for batterymen.

--1B Albert Pujols and RHP Jason Isringhausen are the only active Cardinals to have played with the team as far back as 2002.

BY THE NUMBERS: 392 -- Managerial wins Tony La Russa needs to catch John McGraw, No. 2 on the list at 2,763.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's a good situation because Tony (La Russa) knows how to use his players." -- Former Cardinal Eduardo Perez, on the club's signing of OF Juan Gonzalez.


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