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Rotation questions, departures create questions for Cards
St. Louis pitchers and catchers report today in Jupiter, Fla.
ST. LOUIS -- It's been a while since expectations were this muted for the St. Louis Cardinals entering spring training.
Those remaining from the franchise's time at the top have lost none of their confidence, however. Despite the rebuilding vibe, or perhaps out of habit after five postseason appearances, two 100-win seasons and a World Series championship this decade, nobody is conceding anything.
Pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter, Fla., today.
"People right now are looking at other clubs and liking them better than ours," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I look at our club and see some real possibilities.
"We've got a finer line, but we've got a real shot if we go about it right."
Many of the big names have left since a dud 78-win season followed up the franchise's first title in 24 years. Jim Edmonds was traded to the Padres for a Class A prospect, and 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein left for a free-agent deal with the Blue Jays, both deemed expendable due to ongoing injury issues along with age in the case of Edmonds.
Scott Rolen joins Eckstein in Toronto after La Russa's hard line in a continuing feud with the seven-time Gold Glove third baseman led to a trade for Troy Glaus. Juan Encarnacion has a serious eye injury after getting struck by a foul ball late last season, and prospects for resuming his career are uncertain.
The rotation has a lot of ifs, too. Mark Mulder may return in May after missing most of last season due to shoulder injuries, and Chris Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young winner, hopes to be ready in June after elbow reconstruction. Budget free agent pickup Matt Clement missed last season after shoulder surgery.
"I think we'll get them both back at some point," La Russa said of Mulder and Carpenter. "You hope for the best, prepare for the worst.
"All the teams in our division have talented position players. Who pitches? It's been true for 100 years."
In mid-February, there's a starting four of Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Joel Pineiro and Clement, with Todd Wellemeyer, Brad Thompson and Anthony Reyes, hoping to bounce back from a 2-14 disaster, vying for the fifth spot. There's also competition for one starting outfield job and both middle infield positions, and a bit of uncertainty with Albert Pujols.
The team's star disclosed last month his right elbow bothered him much of last season and could require reconstructive surgery at some point.
The first full-squad workout is Tuesday, with the spring schedule starting Feb. 28 with a home game against the Mets. On Feb. 27, the Cardinals will play a tuneup against Saint Louis University.
"I'm not sure if I'm going to be the fifth guy, the fourth guy or the third guy," said Ryan Ludwick, who had 14 homers and 52 RBIs in a platoon role last year. "I don't know what the deal is.
"I just know I'm preparing mentally and physically and whatever happens, happens."
Oh yeah, there's no clear-cut leadoff hitter either. A darkhorse candidate is 21-year-old outfielder Colby Rasmus, who's been billed as Edmonds' successor since the team picked him in the first round of the draft in 2005.
Rasmus is trying to make the jump from Class AA Springfield, while trying not to put any pressure on himself.
"I'm just trying to go out there and keep getting better, and let the Cardinals make those big decisions," Rasmus said. "I think I'll be ready, but you never can tell."
Glaus has the big bat, when healthy, that Rolen lacked in recent seasons due to recurring shoulder woes. Glaus probably will bat cleanup, providing protection for Pujols.
Chris Duncan, recovered from hernia surgery in September, brings power numbers to left field and Ankiel, the former pitcher building off a successful career rebirth, enters spring as the likely starting center fielder.
Cesar Izturis, who got a one-year free agent deal, enters spring as the man to beat as Eckstein's successor at shortstop. But he wasn't the regular the last two seasons, and Aaron Miles and Brendan Ryan also could contend.
La Russa is hopeful Adam Kennedy, who slumped through last season after getting a three-year free-agent deal, will return to form at second base. Kennedy batted only .219 with 18 RBIs and fell into platoon duty before undergoing season-ending knee surgery in August, but is a career .275 hitter.
"I'm fired up," La Russa said. "I think we're being underestimated some. You still have to play the games."