The Cardinals may be one of the hardest teams to figure out this season. With first baseman and reigning National League MVP Albert Pujols in the lineup, they always have to be considered a threat to contend. They also have a good rotation, especially since Chris Carpenter flashed his 2005 Cy Young form in his first start of the season, though he exited his second outing with what will hopefully be a minor injury. The Cardinals also have holes and question marks in the lineup, however, along with a bullpen that could easily undermine much of the rotation’s good work.
It’s no wonder then that a major league scout, who saw a lot of the Cardinals during spring training, hedged his bets about as far as one can hedge them when asked how he thought they would fare in 2009. “Sometimes, I look at them and think they can win 90 games, then I’ll look at them again and see a team that could lose 90,” said the scout. “I hate to be so wishy-washy, but I don’t know what to make of them. They could be really good or they could be really bad.”
The Cardinals have come out of the gate at 6-3, but their field manager, Tony La Russa, also isn’t sure what to expect from his team over the long haul. “I think we have a chance to be very good, but we also have some questions to answer,” said La Russa. “We’re kind of an unfinished puzzle at this point. We have a lot of pieces, and now we have to see how they fit together.”
It seems that the Cardinals are always in a state of flux, and that is again the case this season for the team that had one of the most publicized conversions of recent years, when Rick Ankiel went from being a left-handed pitching phenom who lost his ability to throw strikes to a 30-homer outfielder. This year’s grand experiment has been to move Skip Schumaker from the outfield to second base to take the place of Adam Kennedy, who was released on the eve of spring training. Schumaker hadn’t played infield since high school, but the Cardinals are committed to starting him against right-handers to ease the logjam in the outfield.
Schumaker said he’s encouraged by his progress in the field, and while he’s still trying to get comfortable, Pujols was effusive in his praise. “He’s made pretty amazing strides in a couple of months,” Pujols said. “I think it won’t be long before he’s an above-average defensive second baseman.”
Rookie Jason Motte was converted from catcher to pitcher three years ago at the short-season level of the minor leagues, and he began the season as the Cardinals’ closer. He stayed in that role for only one game, and he was relegated to middle relief after blowing a save and taking the loss in the opener against the Pirates. “I still think he can be a good major league closer,” La Russa said. “He just needs to get away from it for a little while.”
Instead, La Russa will mix and match his closers, as he does with the rest of his bullpen, and as he’s been doing with his starting lineup during the early days of the season. Just nine games in, La Russa has used at least three different players in each spot of the batting order except the third, where Pujols is a fixture.
La Russa’s detractors insist that he likes having an unstable lineup because it gives the impression he’s getting the most out of his hitters by constantly juggling them in the order, but he denies that is the case, and says he’s only trying to find the best fit possible for the personnel on hand. “I’m like any other manager, in that I’d ideally like to have the same eight guys playing every day and hitting in the same spots of the order,” said La Russa. “That makes it a lot easier for everybody, but you don’t find many clubs like that anymore. The most important thing you do as a manager each day is determine who’s in the lineup. We don’t have a lot of guys set in cement, so the lineup is going to have a lot of different looks.”
The starting pitching appeared set until Carpenter left Tuesday night’s game against the Diamondbacks at Phoenix with a strained rib cage. After being limited to four starts in the past two years combined because of elbow problems, Carpenter held the Pirates to one run and one hit in seven innings of his first start last Thursday. While Carpenter’s immediate status is in doubt, he could certainly provide a boost to a rotation that includes Adam Wainwright, Kyle Lohse, Todd Wellemeyer, and Joel Pineiro. “We have a chance to win every night because of our starting pitching,” said Pujols. “That’s why I think we can be really good this year. It always starts with your rotation.”
Then again, it ends with the bullpen, and the Cardinals are still trying to get that straightened out as La Russa went with veteran left-hander Denny Reyes in the second save opportunity of the season. It was Reyes’ first save since 1999. “I think we’ll be a very interesting team,” La Russa said. “There a lot of things that could happen, a lot of variables, and I think that makes it interesting.”
With the caveat that it is extremely early in the season, the Padres‘ start still has to raise a few eyebrows, since they were universally expected to be among the worst teams in the major leagues after owner John Moores went into cost-cutting mode over the winter. “We’re going to play hard,” Padres closer Heath Bell, who has taken over for all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune. “We don’t have a bunch of stars. We don’t have a Jimmy Rollins or a David Wright. We’re just a bunch of sandlot players playing hard.”
Right-hander Chris Young had been adamant throughout spring training that the Padres shouldn’t write off the season because the payroll and expectations were low. He was also critical of Moores slashing the budget in the wake of his divorce proceedings, but Young likes what he sees so far. “I know a lot of people out there don’t have high expectations for us, and it’s a long season,” he said. “We’ll temper the excitement, but it is good for us to get some confidence, to really believe in ourselves, to know that if we play the right way that we are a good team and we can go out and win.”
Understanding that early-season stats need to be taken with fistfuls of salt, the Padres are fifth in the majors in runs allowed with 3.3 per game, and seventh in defensive efficiency with a .716 mark. “The defense has been awesome,” said Young. “They make the routine plays and the great plays, and that’s huge. In [Petco Park], you have to win with pitching and defense. We’re going to have a lot of tight games. The better the defense, the better the chance we’ll have to win. These guys have been unbelievable.”
It was Willits who was recalled from Triple-A Salt Lake to take Adenhart’s spot on the Angels’ roster last weekend. The two became friends last season while playing in Salt Lake. “I don’t feel like I’m replacing Nick,” Willits told Mike DiGiovanna of the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t think anyone is going to replace him. But I remember telling my wife that I hope it’s not me that gets called up because of how hard this is. I know the organization has to move on, but we not only lost a teammate, we lost a friend, and the world lost a pretty good guy with a bright future ahead of him. It’s very, very difficult. He was a good friend and a great guy.”
Angels manager Mike Scioscia can empathize with Willits, but also understands the cold realities of professional sports. “It’s a tough situation,” Scioscia said. “Reggie got the call now, but there are a lot of moves that are made all season long. Nobody wants to get the call to the big leagues under these circumstances, but Reggie is here, he has a role to play, and that’s what it is.”
Hitting 300 home runs in a career isn’t quite what it used to be, but the White Sox‘s Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko reached that milestone in remarkable fashion on Monday, connecting for back-to-back shots off of the Tigers‘ Zach Miner at Comerica Park. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in history that teammates reached a century milestone of 300 or more homers in the same game. “It’s even more amazing that it was back-to-back,” said Konerko. “I’m thinking 10, 20 years from now, we’ll be able to say that, and that will be cool. I’m proud of it, and I’m sure Jermaine is as well.”