With pitchers and catchers reporting, it's finally time to start talking about what's going to happen on the field rather than dealing w/ all the BS off the field - and, make no mistake, this offseason there was A LOT of Cardinal BS off the field. But spring is in the air (at least in Florida), there are lots of Cardinals wearing offensive-lineman or tight-end numbers, and, as of now, the Cardinals are tied for first place. I say that now I'm looking forward to seeing the games; we'll see if I still feel that way in August.
In any case, what should we be looking for as we try and follow the Cards' spring? Games begin next Wednesday (the 27th) against St. Louis U. and then the Cards play their first true Grapefruit League game against the vaunted Mets the next day. So what should we be watching for?
First, as most if not all of you know, stats mean very little. Someone will break out and have a lot of homers but they'll be hitting against some pitchers who wear #74 or something on the backs of their uniforms and so it won't mean a lot. Just b/c someone other than Pujols, Ankiel, Duncan, or Glaus leads the team in homers this spring doesn't mean he's the next great thing. PA's are parceled out judiciously and the level of competition isn't equal among all hitters. The bottom line is that a good spring by someone like Jarrett Hoffpauir or Joe Mather doesn't mean that they aren't headed for Memphis.
That said, there are some competitions we should be watching closely. But we'll do that AFTER we pay attention to #2 - Albert's elbow.
The p-d has a story up today about Albert's strained elbow ligament. He's going to be treated gingerly this spring and this story will be one to watch all season long. From the p-d, "Pujols, in consultation with team doctors, decided to try a nonsurgical approach." Needless to say, our hopes of watching halfway entertaining games after the All-Star break is dependent on Albert's elbow NOT blowing out. I'll be honest here - I don't have the foggiest idea what to make of this whole story. I'm not a doctor and don't understand the severity of this but I do know that if it blows out, we'll lose Albert for a long damned time! Surgery was an option this offseason and they decided to go the other route. I hope it works. I won't say "I told you so" if it doesn't b/c I didn't but, let's be honest - the team's chances of competing in 2009 may depend on this elbow. So this isn't just the story of the spring, it's the story of the summer and early fall as well. I'll be nervous every time he airs one out to Glaus or Molina.
The next thing to keep your eyes on is the middle infield situation. We've got about a hundred guys in camp who all have shots to play for the Cards in '08. The starters appear to be Adam Kennedy and Cesar Izturis but I don't think it's at all clear that these guys will play well enough to even start the year, much less end the year, as the starters. Still, they've gotta be the favorites. We all know by now that Kennedy stunk up the joint last year and then became Tony's first choice to replace Scott Rolen in the doghouse by failing to show for the winter warm-up. If he stinks again this year, will the Cards decide to keep him around? He's one player who needs to have a good spring if he wants to hold off the other players who are lurking.
Izturis was signed to be the Cards starting SS among much consternation in Cardinal nation. It's not like there were several better options and he can possibly make a halfway decent platoon w/ Brendan Ryan but there's also a pretty good chance that, despite the fact that he just turned 28, his "best" days may be behind him. How much of an opportunity will Ryan get to compete for the job in the spring? How much work will Aaron Miles get at SS? This could be telling b/c he was beyond horrendous defensively last year at short and this could tell us what Tony's plans are for VEB's favorite middle infielder this season.
The Cards also have D'Angelo Jimenez in on a minor-league contract and Jarrett Hoffpauir as part of the 40-man roster. Jimenez isn't great, but it's not like The Wizard is his competition at SS or Tommy Herr at 2B either! I really like Hoffpauir, as I've indicated before, and think he could have a future at the keystone so it'll be interesting to see if he gets any PA's at all against real pitchers (and, of course, how he does against them!). A lot of bodies lurking on either side of second base this spring, none of whom are all that good. It'll be worth watching to see who gets the PA's and when. Will Tony stick w/ Izturis even if he isn't hitting? What about Kennedy? Is Ryan the second option at SS or is it Miles or even Jimenez? We could really get a pretty decent idea if Ryan will ever get a chance to play in St. Louis by watching this cast of thousands.
In the OF, we all know who to keep an eye on - it's Colby Rasmus of course. He's the CF of the future. The only question is - Is the future March 31 or sometime later? He'll only begin the season with the team if he earns it this spring so he's definitely one to watch. We'll get a sense of what Tony's thoughts are re: Rasmus toward the end of the spring as he's putting his everyday roster together.
The CF situation will help to determine RF as well. Presumably, if Rasmus makes it, Ankiel begins the year as the RF. If he doesn't, Ankiel in all likelihood becomes the opening day CF. Who, then plays RF? Can Joe Mather earn a spot w/ a great spring? What about Rule V draftee Brian Barton? He should get every chance to make the team or else he has to be returned to the Indians. Might Ryan Ludwick become a quasi-everyday player? Duncan and Ankiel figure to be the regulars at 2 of the 3 spots. Who the third is depends on Rasmus and Tony's willingness to turn the keys over to the 21 year old. If Rasmus turns out not to be ready, that figures to open a spot for Mather or Barton. Are Skip Schumaker's days numbered? With all the lefties in the OF, he should be behind both Barton and Mather but we'll just have to wait and see how this plays out.
In the rotation, Anthony Reyes inexplicably has one more shot to earn a spot until Mulder returns from the DL. I can't believe he's still with us (through trade or assassination by LaRussa) but he is and he's not a good candidate for the pen. Therefore, it's the rotation or bust (and by "bust" I mean "bus trips" from Memphis to New Orleans!). Maybe it'll finally work out. It's not like we have great options like Sidney Ponson from which to choose! But we do have Todd Wellemeyer - a guy w/ a good arm who's probably a better fit for the pen but who'll likely be the de-facto 5th starter if Reyes falters. Watching how LaRussa uses Reyes and Wellemeyer will give us a good idea what he's thinking as this is one area where stats may not tell us everything. Watch when they pitch and which batters they're pitching to. On the other hand, it's possible that Blake Hawksworth, Mike Parisi, or Mitch Boggs pitches well enough to take the spot if Reyes doesn't earn it. There have even been whispers of Tyler Johnson getting a shot to start! And don't forget Brad Thompson. Again, it's not like they've got Ponson-like competition!
The pen figures to be interesting as well. Watch to see how people like Chris Perez and Jason Motte are used. Might Parisi or Boggs earn some time in the pen? Is Josh Kinney healthy and when will he be ready? Mark Worrell and Kyle McClellan will be in camp trying to earn spots in the pen as well. It's likely someone will surprise and take one of the (warning - hyperbole alert!) 17 or so roster spots that Tony decides to use on the pen this summer.
I'm not sure there were this many interesting young players in camp last spring - at least not w/ real shots to play. If nothing else, the Cards have started to get younger. That youth should add something exciting, at least from our vantage point, to the spring.