Cardinals still the best in NL Central

Cardinals still the best in NL Central

JUPITER, Fla. -- You look at the St. Louis Cardinals doing their spring work, and what do you see? You see 95 victories. And you may be seeing a conservative estimate.

The Cardinals, after all, won 205 games over the last two years. They were the best regular season team in baseball in each of those seasons.

True, they have lost some very valuable people from last season. But they lost some very valuable people after the 2004 season, too, and they were not seriously damaged. This is the way it is in contemporary baseball. Unless you are the Yankees, financial considerations will prevent you from keeping everybody that you want to keep. The Cardinals are exceptional on the field, but in this regard, they are human.

Manager Tony La Russa always has the right answer when people ask him about the departures. "I felt last year just like I do now," La Russa said Thursday. "Look at who's left."

Before we look at the impressive group of Cardinals who are in that category, there is no shortage of departures for the rest of us to discuss. Gone from the bullpen are lefty Ray King, Julian Tavarez and Cal Eldred. Two-thirds of the starting outfield is gone, Reggie Sanders to free agency, Larry Walker to retirement. Sparkplug second baseman Mark Grudzielanek is also gone. And a longtime staple of the St. Louis rotation, Matt Morris, also left through free agency.

You can examine this from any number of vantage points. La Russa was asked Thursday if the upbeat nature of the Cards clubhouse would be diminished because some of players who left were known not only for their talent, but their personalities.

"The clubhouse just has to be honest," La Russa said. "You don't want guys faking personalities. Something like that was said last year when [Steve] Kline wasn't here anymore and we got through. The hits this winter certainly aren't any more severe than losing [Mike] Matheny, Woody Williams and [Edgar] Renteria and Kline. Look at who's left. We've got outstanding character guys still here even though we lost Reggie, who was terrific for us, Mark made an impression, Matt was one of our horses. But we have enough left and the guys who are coming in are going to fit in."

The reasons for the optimism are all over the Cardinals Spring Training complex.. The Cardinals still have four-fifths of an extremely effective starting rotation, led by Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter.

The bullpen still has proven closer Jason Isringhausen and the Cardinals have added veteran relief help in Braden Looper and lefty Ricardo Rincon.

The incomparable Albert Pujols anchors a lineup that should still score more than enough. Jim Edmonds is still highly productive, and the return of a healthy Scott Rolen at third makes this group even more imposing.

David Eckstein was invaluable at short and at the top of the lineup last season and the Cardinals will be fine at second base, too, if Junior Spivey stays healthy. Juan Encarnacion, a reliable run producer, will take over in right. Left field is technically up for grabs, but the Cardinals could not be too disappointed if So Taguchi, so valuable last season, sees considerable playing time there.

Yadier Molina, of the catching Molina brothers, gives the Cardinals one of the finest defensive catchers in the game. When La Russa was asked about Molina's early struggles at the plate last season, the manager responded that Molina could have gone "Oh for the season," and still been his starting catcher because of his defense.

All in all, this Cardinals team does not seem to be significantly less than its immediate predecessors. Apart from the talent, the thing you know for sure about the Cardinals is that the preparation will be done and everybody will have an oar in the water.

"I think we're one of the clubs that has a real chance to win," La Russa says. "I think it's exactly like the situation we've been in. We've been contending here for a number of years, because we take that early chance and we work really hard and really right and you get to the season and we're ready to compete.

"What you've got to be careful about -- and this is what you keep stressing to the guys -- is that it's not an automatic, just because we go out there and put some drills in. They have to make a commitment. At some point, you watch closely and you can tell. You can watch a guy taking ground balls and you can tell whether he's just putting time in or he's trying to get something out of it.

"We'll see. There's no guarantees with this club. But on paper, we have a real chance to win again."

Even in the National League Central, in which some other clubs have made obvious improvements, the Cardinals still look like the head of the class. In fact, you could look at all 30 clubs and once again make that same argument on behalf of the St. Louis team. There are no guarantees, but there can be a very reasonable expectation that the Cardinals will be right there again.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.