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the cards have now emphatically lost series to all three of the teams they beat 7 months ago in the playoffs; they're a combined 1-8 against san diego, new york, and detroit. the only real surprise this weekend was that the cards almost won a game; they even mounted a comeback from way down, or "played a hard 9" as the saying used to go. "hard 9" has a lot different connotation this season. . . . toss in their 0-4 record vs marquis and suppan, and the cards are now 1-12 in what i'm calling "revenge games." in those 13 games they've been outscored 27 to 79 --- a 52-run deficit, an average margin of defeat of 4 runs per game. rick hummel says the cards really are this terrible, and it's hard to disagree with him. over their last 162 regular-season games, the cardinals are 74-88 and have been outscored 723 to 813. they're well on their way to their fourth consecutive losing month and their fifth out of the last six. you could say they've been unlucky with injuries; you could say they've just gotten old; you could say they're suffering from a collective championship hangover; you could say they've misjudged and/or mismanaged their personnel.

a good case can be made for any and all of the above. i'm still mulling the other popular argument, the most prevalent one --- "the owners are cheap" --- and as much as i'd like to sign on to that, i can't. i'll sum up my reason in two words: scott rolen. here's a big-name free agent the cardinals did open their wallets for --- signed him to an 8-year, $90 million deal that began in 2003. he was that free-agent class's equivalent of carlos lee or alfonso soriano --- indeed, was a much better buy than either one of those players, insofar as rolen was younger (he was 28 years old when the contract began; lee and soriano are both 31), a better hitter, and an infinitely better fielder. every cardinal fan was thrilled to have rolen then . . . . but look now. halfway through the deal, rolen appears to be washed up and a lot of fans hate his guts. the deal still has three and a half loonnnnng years to run, and the cards still owe mr rolen more than $40m in compensation.

two or three years from now (maybe sooner), the astro fans will be bitching like that about carlos lee, and the cubs will be bitching that way about soriano. and if the cards had signed either one of them, it would be us bitching a few years from now --- just as we bitch about rolen today, and as we bitched about tino martinez for nearly the entirety of his sojourn in st louis. did the cardinals make mistakes in the off-season? absolutely. but they were mistakes of judgment and talent evaluation, rather than sheer miserliness. more than that, really --- the mistake has been the cards' long-standing neglect of player development. when they have a hole to fill, their only recourse is the free-agent market --- and the free-agent market is generally populated with older players who are past their prime. the cards might have made a run at dave dellucci this off-season; he's hitting .236 and has an ops of .637. brian giles --- who i wanted the cards to go after last year --- has an ops of .694. dave roberts, who i suggested might be a viable alternative to edmonds, has an ops of .654. another guy i liked, frank catalanotto, batted .140 in april and then went onto the dl.

every one of those players would have cost the cardinals a first- or second-round draft pick. the cards chose to keep the picks --- and two or three years from now, some of those picks will be knocking on the door of the big leagues and ready to step in to regular jobs, while carlos lee and fonzie soriano may very well be where scott rolen and jim edmonds and brian giles et al are today. when you restock your roster year after year with players aged 30 and older, sooner or later the team's gonna end up where the cards are --- old, broken down, and lazy. the cardinals are trying to break that cycle, and --- painful though it may be in the short term --- it's the only way they can stay competitive in the long run.

the draft takes place soon, june 7-8, and espn2 will carry the early rounds live. mark your calendars.

as for this sorry season: the cards' last chance to keep our interest begins tomorrow. more than half of their next 28 games are against last-place clubs --- they play kansas city, colorado, washington, and cincinnati 16 times. if they can muster the pride and the skill to win 11 or 12 of those easy games and break even in the rest, they'd go 17-11 or 18-10 over the next month --- which would leave them within a game or three of .500. that brings us to june 22, the beginning of summer. although the schedule appears to stiffen a bit after that, they'll be at home most of the way until the all-star break; a dreamer might dare to hope that the cards can reach the intermission with a 43-43 record. and then? carpenter returns in mid-august; mulder arrives at some point; maybe a hitter shakes free for cheap on the trade market.

i don't believe any of this is going to happen; not for a moment. but it's not even memorial day, and i'm not quite ready to turn my back on this season --- however much the team might deserve it. how remote are the chances of a renaissance? let me frame it like this. after 41 games, the cardinal pitchers are slugging nearly as well as the center and rightfielders --- the respective slugging averages are .258, .270, and .274 --- and are not far behind the 2bmen and shortstops, who are at .285 and .292. if we look at isolated power (ie, slugging average minus batting average), the pitchers (at .091) are better than all four of those positions, plus the catchers. position by position, the pitchers are the 4th most potent power source on the team.

that's the punchless bunch we're all hoping will catch fire, everybody; let's go cards. they'd have to play .600 ball the rest of the year (fat chance of that) just to end up with 88 wins --- which might or might not be enough to win the division. to get to 90 wins (a more likely division-winning number), they'll have to go 74-47 from here on out --- a .612 clip. for other cardinal teams, that might not have seemed an impossible challenge; far from it. but for this one?

i doubt they have it in them.