Cardinals look for bounceback year

Albert Pujols is six months away from free agency and 20-game

winner Adam Wainwright is out for the year. It’s not yet opening

day and already the St. Louis Cardinals are scrambling.

Pujols didn’t get his landmark contract by the start of spring

training, so talks are off until after the season. Whenever the

three-time NL MVP slumps, there will be whispers that he’s

distracted.

”There’s been something with Albert every year he’s played,”

manager Tony La Russa said, noting elbow woes in recent seasons

that didn’t slow down Pujols. ”There’s always been something.

Amazing strength, character, mind. He knows what he’s got to do and

he’s doing it.”

Wainwright was one of the major leagues’ best pitchers the last

two seasons, totaling 39 wins. Just like Pujols, he appears

irreplaceable.

It’s former setup man Kyle McClellan’s job to lessen the blow.

McClellan inherits Wainwright’s spot in the rotation and has been

nearly spotless this spring with an 0.78 ERA in five starts.

”This is big for me. I had to come in and do this, I had to

come in and have a good spring and show that I can do it,”

McClellan said. ”Yeah, it’s fun. You always have a chip on your

shoulder for people that question whether you can do it.”

Going into Thursday’s opener at home against San Diego, there

are plenty other questions surrounding a franchise that’s missed

the postseason three of the past four years.

Ryan Theriot is on the move, a regular shortstop again after

getting shifted to second base by the Cubs and Dodgers. Third

baseman David Freese is coming off surgery to both ankles.

The Cardinals are also gambling that 35-year-old Lance Berkman

can become a regular outfielder again for the first time since 2004

and regain his batting stroke to bolster the middle of the

lineup.

Berkman is coming off his worst major league season while

battling knee woes, and considered retirement before taking a

one-year deal with the Cardinals in hopes of restarting his career.

He understands the skepticism, but he’s counting on right field

being easier on his legs.

”I’ve got almost 1,000 games in the outfield,” Berkman said.

”I am an outfielder, I came up an outfielder, I’ve played a full

year of center field in the big leagues.”

La Russa has Berkman batting fifth behind Pujols and Matt

Holliday, also coming off a .300-100 RBI year in an order that

could lessen pressure on Colby Rasmus and Freese, likely slotted to

bat second and sixth. La Russa said he’ll be happy if Berkman can

make the routine plays and hit the cutoff man while staying healthy

enough to play in two-thirds of the games.

The manager insists he won’t sweat it when runners occasionally

take that extra base and challenge Berkman’s arm.

”There are a lot of guys around that you get extra bases on,”

La Russa said. ”And how many guys get thrown out at the plate? If

you look at 162 games, for all the guys that tried to throw guys

out at the plate, you throw 10 of them out and you get 50 guys take

extra bases because they miss the cutoff man.”

Chris Carpenter (16-9, 3.22) moves back to the top of a rotation

the Cardinals had believed was second to none. Jake Westbrook’s

strong showing after coming from Cleveland on the trade deadline

merited a two-year contract and lefty Jaime Garcia (13-7) was third

in NL rookie of the year balloting, although he’s struggled this

spring with a 7.94 ERA.

La Russa noted the Twins lost closer Joe Nathan last year and

still won the AL Central.

”It’s really a tough break, but that’s part of the season,” La

Russa said. ”Somebody’s going to get an opportunity and you

concentrate on what you have, not what you don’t have.”

A bounceback season from Kyle Lohse would improve the picture at

the bottom of rotation. Lohse won 15 games in 2008 but totaled 10

wins the last two seasons while dogged by a forearm injury that

left the right-hander serving up too many fat pitches, eventually

requiring surgery last May.

”Yeah, I’ve been getting paid a lot the last couple years and

haven’t been healthy,” Lohse said. ”But I can’t do anything about

that. My job is to get ready for this year.”

The Cardinals anticipate a steadier hand at shortstop, where

Theriot replaces Brendan Ryan.

”It’s weird, just being on that side of the infield makes you a

little more comfortable. I guess that’s because I’ve played there

since I was a little kid,” Theriot said. ”I can still play short.

It’s definitely a fun spot for me.”

Rasmus enters his third year as the starting center fielder,

having survived a few clashes with La Russa last year. Both manager

and player insist the relationship is strong.

”All that stuff don’t matter,” Rasmus said. ”We’re all grown

men. Water under the bridge.”

It’s anticipated that the affable Berkman will mean a clubhouse

upgrade along with his contributions on the field. And Holliday

figures to have a more relaxed start after pressing to justify his

seven-year, $120 million contract at the start of 2010, although

his first half was good enough to make the NL All-Star team.

”I think there’s a comfort level obviously when you know your

teammates and you know your setup in spring training and some of

those things,” Holliday said. ”I’m substantially more comfortable

going into this year.”