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
”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
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
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.”