Bench bucks

Monday, February 19, 2007

JUPITER, Fla. -- Winning the World Series was a bit like winning the lottery for St. Louis Cardinals utility player Aaron Miles.

The backup infielder basically doubled his salary with the winner's share of $362,173, the most ever for a championship team. He had a $350,000, one-year deal in 2006.

"The guys with fewer than three years' experience, it's an unbelievable package of money," said Miles, who used his newfound wealth to purchase a home in the San Francisco area in the offseason. "I feel like that show 'Deal or no Deal.' I'll take it."

Miles' contributions to the Cardinals' first championship in 24 years also paid off with a $1 million, one-year deal for this season. He made 90 starts at second base and showed versatility when filling in at shortstop for 29 games when David Eckstein was sidelined with a pulled side muscle in August.

Without his contributions, manager Tony La Russa said, the Cardinals probably wouldn't have survived a late-season tailspin.

"Give him a lot of credit," La Russa said. "It went down to the last day, and if we'd have mugged some of those games where he was the winning shortstop, it wouldn't have happened. It all comes with being a competitor."

Miles, who batted .263 with two homers and 30 RBIs, will be the primary backup behind Eckstein and new second baseman Adam Kennedy this season. He would prefer to start, but Miles, 29, can't complain because for the first time in his career he has a feeling of security.

"It was a lot more relaxing when I went home. I wasn't thinking about where I was going to be so much," Miles said. "The work is the same -- I still work my butt off -- but I'm not calling my agent every day saying, 'What do you think? What do you think?'"

That feeling pretty much goes for the rest of the five-man bench. Utility man Scott Spiezio got a two-year, $4.5 million contract, backup catcher Gary Bennett signed for Wilson ($1 million) and So Taguchi ($1.025 million) also got nice deals considering they're extra players.

That fills out the bench -- unless, as La Russa mused on Friday, the Cardinals decide to go with 11 pitchers instead of 12. At the least it leaves catcher-outfielder Eli Marrero and infielder Jolbert Cabrera, both of whom have minor league contracts, with uphill battles to make the club. The same goes for outfielders Skip Schumaker and John Rodriguez.

"There's not a lot of spots for those guys, and it's going to make for good spring training games, because we've got guys playing for something," La Russa said.

Miles did that last season.

"I had to fight for my spot, so it was a little scary," he said. "I feel like I belong here now."


* Marrero, who at one time was the Cardinals' catcher of the future, is back after being part of J.D. Drew trade with the Braves in 2003. He played more outfield with St. Louis in his last few years with the team, but La Russa said his best shot to re-emerge is behind the plate. "You might be a little rusty," Marrero said. "But a little work and it'll come back."

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