COMEBACK STORIESabounded at Cardinals camp this spring. There was Matt Clement, a onetimeAll-Star with the Red Sox who missed last season because of a shoulder injury,bidding for a spot in the rotation. There was Mark Mulder, a former 20-gamewinner with the A's who made only three starts in 2007, throwing off the moundfor the first time since having shoulder surgery in September. And, mostimprobably, there was 38-year-old nonroster invitee Juan Gonzalez, a two-timeAL MVP with the Rangers who was out of baseball for the last three years,swatting a Johan Santana fastball over the leftfield wall.
If this is themost uplifting news that comes out of Jupiter, Fla., before the season starts,it doesn't augur well for a team that has already fallen precipitously sinceits stunning World Series win in 2006. Last year St. Louis, in plodding throughits first losing season since 1999, was exposed as an aging franchise builtaround fragile stars. Two of them were traded over the winter (centerfielderJim Edmonds, 37, and third baseman Scott Rolen, 32, who missed a combined 95games last year) and two others are still hurting: Ace Chris Carpenter,recovering from Tommy John surgery, won't pitch until after the All-Star break,while first baseman Albert Pujols will play with a torn ligament, bone spurs,arthritis and swelling—all in his right elbow.
Despite thiscrumbling around the foundation—even with the departures of Edmonds and Rolen,the Cardinals remain among the oldest teams in the majors—new general managerJohn Mozeliak says, "We're absolutely trying to be competitive this year.You don't think about rebuilding when you have a $100 million payroll."
Pujols agrees,which is why, in the face of criticism, he opted to postpone elbow surgeryuntil after this season. Playing with pain in '07, he had career lows inextra-base hits and home runs. But the 28-year-old first baseman is confidenthe'll bounce back, in part because, for the first time in four years, he andthe Cardinals had the postseason off. The last time he had that much rest,Pujols says, "I came into the next season feeling really good, and lookwhat happened." He had a then career-high 46 homers and the Cardinalsreached the World Series.
Last year Pujolsreceived little offensive support—St. Louis ranked last in the league in OPSout of the fourth and fifth spots in the order, and second to last out of theleadoff spot. But the only notable addition to a lineup that was also 13th inthe NL in homers and 14th in slugging is third baseman Troy Glaus, who camefrom the Blue Jays in the Rolen trade. In Glaus the Cards obtained anestablished slugger, but one who turns 32 this summer, has undergone shoulderand foot surgery in the last four years and has a bad left knee from playing onthe artificial turf in Toronto.
The starting staffinspires even less confidence. Pitching coach Dave Duncan is known for workingmagic—he conjured up good 2007 seasons out of journeymen Joel Pi√±eiro and ToddWellemeyer—but his powers will be severely tested by a staff that is banking onthe resurrections of Clement and Mulder (both of whom will be back sometime inMay). Righthander Kyle Lohse, signed in mid-March, is durable but has never hadan ERA under 4.00. Much is expected from Adam Wainwright, 26, but it's unclearhow much of a load the former closer can carry coming off a big inningsincrease, from 75 in '06 to 202 last year. (The unofficial industry standard isthat no pitcher should throw 30 or more innings than he did the previousseason.)
St. Louis thinksCarpenter's return will provide the team with a shot in the arm inJuly—"When we add him," says Mozeliak, "it'll be like making atrade for a top starter." By then, however, the undermanned Cardinals willbe too far out of contention for that comeback story to make anydifference.
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER TONY LARUSSA 13TH SEASON WITH ST. LOUIS
New acquisitionB-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 62)
a modest proposal...
The Cardinalspicked up the $8 million option on Jason Isringhausen's contract during theoff-season, but with St. Louis looking as though it won't be able to keep upwith the Cubs, Reds and Brewers, trading the still-effective veteran closer(only 42 hits allowed in 651/3 innings last season) sooner rather than later isthe right move. Fret not, St. Louis fans—Chris Perez (left) is on the way. Thebig righthander out of the University of Miami, whom the Cards took with afirst-round supplemental pick in 2006, is just about ready for the majors. Hethrows a mid-90s fastball and uses a terrific slider as his out pitch. PECOTApegs the 22-year-old Perez for 70 strikeouts in 57 innings, the second-bestrate in the majors. He should be closing out St. Louis wins before footballseason starts.
Percentage of baserunners caught stealing by Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, the highest careermark among active backstops (minimum: 50 games). Molina, 25, nailed 23 of 46runners last season—the second time in his four-year career that he threw out50% or more. Most impressively, over the last six seasons no other major leaguecatcher has thrown out half of the players who tried to steal on him in any oneyear.
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SEPT. 28, 1987
AH-ZEE! AH-ZEE!The man can scarcely step on the artificial turf of Busch Stadium before thechant begins. Other players get standing ovations for great plays; Smith getscivic demonstrations. Then again, his great plays are really great. And theyhave to be, because Smith is no home run hitter; he's a glove guy who hascaptured a whole city. St. Louis has always been what's called "a goodbaseball town," but Smith has made it a better one.
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DAVID E. KLUTHO
WINGING IT Former closer Wainwright made a successful jump to starter in '07, but will his arm hold up after that huge spike in innings?
SCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE (PEREZ)
TONY TOMSIC (COVER)