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  • Bernie: Cardinals are hungrier this year

    Enjoy.

    One good thing: The Cardinals are hungrier this year
    Bernie Miklasz
    02/28/2004


    This is the time of the year when we're supposed to take an optimistic view of the local baseball nine. Spring training makes all baseball fans a little dreamy and dewy-eyed.

    But seeing what the Cubs and Astros did for home improvements during the offseason, it's difficult to initiate a pep rally for the Cardinals. It seems that just about everyone outside the Cardinal clubhouse has picked St. Louis to finish third in the NL Central.

    Manager Tony La Russa is at his best when he's combative, and so you'll be pleased to know that he's stewing over the preseason predictions. "You've already written us off and written me off," La Russa said Thursday when I asked him about his team's underdog status during a live interview on KMOX.

    Not really. With their October 2003 surprise, the Florida Marlins made a mockery of spring-training forecasts. Anaheim pulled off a similar rebellion in winning the 2002 World Series. It's bad enough to have sportswriters cast votes on Hall of Fames and awards, but we surely don't determine who wins the games.

    I'll give this much to the Cardinals: General manager Walt Jocketty improved the team's bullpen and overall pitching depth. Even with that vast empty space in left field, and the potential hole at the leadoff spot, the offense should be robust. And the Cardinals play the best defense in the division.

    Another check mark: La Russa altered the clubhouse blend for this season. I think the underdog attitude will make for a good personality. The Cardinals weren't as resilient as they should have been late last season. I offered that opinion at the time, and was chastised by La Russa, various Cardinals, and team mouthpieces. But the truth usually emerges.

    "We have to be tougher," third baseman Scott Rolen said late last month. "Last year I think down the stretch we got beat up a little bit. Nobody wants to admit it, but I think the truth is maybe our heads hung a little bit from time to time. We got the wind knocked out of us. I think we need to be a little tougher for the long run."

    The added hunger can only aid the cause. And La Russa is certainly fired up. Earlier in camp he told a reporter, "If I don't prove to these players that they have a chance, I won't get to the All-Star break. I only exaggerate slightly. I don't care what my contract is. I'm excited about getting started and seeing what we have and what we can do. I don't have to psyche myself up."

    All of that spunk - and all of these Cardinal pluses - could be wiped out by a single negative. And the question, the concern, over starting pitching won't go away. Have the Cardinals properly armed themselves for a long, hot summer?

    The Astros and Cubs loaded up. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte joined Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller to give the Astros a killer rotation. The Astros are so deep that Jeriome Robertson, who won 15 games as a rookie last year, may not crack the starting five. Greg Maddux and the Cubs reunited. Imagine having to go to Chicago and encounter Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and either Maddux or Carlos Zambrano in a crucial three-game series.

    The Cardinals have more overall pitching than they did in 2003. But do they have enough top-end starting pitching to match the anticipated low-run gems crafted by the diamond cutters in Houston and Chicago? Pitching still matters more than any element in baseball. Of the last 18 teams to qualify for the World Series, 16 ranked among the top four in their league in fewest runs allowed. And starting pitching controls much of a staff's direction.

    Compared to the Cubs and Astros, the Cardinals have a deficit in this area. At least that's how it is going into the season. I did a quick check of the amount of regular-season games won at the major-league level by the top six starting pitchers on these respective staffs. The projected Astros starters won 87 games last season. The projected Cubs starters won 77. The Cardinals sixpack of Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Dan Haren won 45 big-league games in 2003.

    Now, things can change. There are potential hazards, such as injuries. Clemens and Maddux are a year older and vulnerable to running low on gas. There's increasing pressure on Wood and Prior, who folded in the NL Championship Series last October. Oswalt is coming off an injury-plagued season. Miller wasn't impressive for much of last year.

    But if the Cubs and Astros break down, or disappoint, the Cardinals still must have the necessary qualities to take advantage. Meaning that they'll have to receive some surprise performances. Maybe this will be the year that Morris goes wire-to-wire and wins 24 games. Maybe Carpenter turns in an amazing comeback season. Maybe the young Marquis (or Haren) get their minds and arms in synch and have a breakout season. But already there are concerns; Williams has a tender shoulder, a carry-over from a heavy workload in 2003.

    The Cardinals, in time, should narrow the gap in this NL Central arms build-up. The organization is gathering, and cultivating, an exciting supply of young starters. The list of legitimate prospects includes Marquis, Haren, Adam Wainwright, Blake Hawksworth, Chris Narveson, Rhett Parrott. But that next-generation nucleus isn't quite ready.

    And so it's up to the reinvigorated 2004 Cardinals and their fiery manager to trash the predictions by shocking the Cubs and the Astros. To beat the skeptics, the Cardinals first must conquer the likes of Wood, Prior, Maddux, Zambrano, Clemens, Pettitte, Oswalt and Miller. Games will be decided on the field, not the press box.

  • #2
    But if the Cubs and Astros break down, or disappoint, the Cardinals still must have the necessary qualities to take advantage. Meaning that they'll have to receive some surprise performances. Maybe this will be the year that Morris goes wire-to-wire and wins 24 games. Maybe Carpenter turns in an amazing comeback season. Maybe the young Marquis (or Haren) get their minds and arms in synch and have a breakout season.
    That's a big but and lots of maybes.

    Comment


    • #3
      The Florida Marlins/Anaheim Angels point is a good one.

      We have a chance to win this division.

      Not the best chance, but a legit one.
      Goulet!

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