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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Take 5: Why the Cards may not be as bad as feared

The overview on this baseball season hasn’t changed much in recent days. The Brewers remain the team to beat in the National League Central, with the sage Ted Simmons on their bench to settle things down.

The Cubs will make a big run at the playoffs, assuming that Lou Piniella locates a closer. (Kerry Wood could be the guy . . . or the brittle Wood could end up in a body cast after suffering multiple and simultaneous injuries.)

But the Cardinals keep generating hints that they might not be nearly as bad as the general public fears. Here are Five Positive Signs from the last several days:

1. Against all odds, the temporary rotation is shaping up.

Adam Wainwright appears prepared for the lead role leaving Jupiter. Free agent pick-up Kyle Lohse showed up ready to pitch, which was a pleasant surprise.

Most mid-camp additions would need a couple of extra weeks to get ready. Lohse already has impressed his new team.

Braden Looper just threw an encouraging 5 1/3 innings, relocating his sinking stuff while getting eight groundball outs. Prior to that, he got hammered.

Brad Thompson just threw well enough in tough conditions to provide insurance if Todd Wellemeyer or Anthony Reyes struggle. Odds are, one or both of those guys WILL struggle.

These six guys must hold the fort while Joel Pineiro, Matt Clement, Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter work back into pitching shape. Dave Duncan already is setting up his pitching rotation for the start of the season and the group looks more competent by the day.

2. Adam Kennedy can hit!

He was a black hole in the lineup last season, batting .219. He came to camp on a short leash, since the club re-signed reliable Aaron Miles and had slick-hitting Jarret Hoffpauir in the wings.

But Kennedy seems to have relocated the stroke he had throughout his time with the Angels. After a slow start this spring, he pushed his batting average up to .349.

With Cesar Izturis likely to open the season at shortstop -– and not add much offense as the No. 9 hitter -– the Cards absolutely need second base to be an impact offensive position this year.

3. Rick Ankiel is going crazy.

This team has many X-factors, but none is greater than this guy. Will Ankiel post solid, Ryan Ludwick-type numbers (.267, 14 homers, 52 RBIs in 303 at-bats) in his first full season as a big league outfielder?

Or will he add an impact bat to a lineup needing all the offense it can find? Chris Duncan’s spring struggle underscored this team’s need for another strong hitter.

Ankiel’s spring training performance (.397, three homers, nine RBIs) has raised expectations. Could he fill the clean-up role against righthanded pitching, allowing newcomer Troy Glaus to hit in the more comfortable No. 5 slot?

If so, that would be a team-changing development.

4. Ron Villone is viable.

This is notable, because would-be lefty specialist Tyler Johnson faces an uncertain ’08 season after developing shoulder trouble. And holdover Randy Flores didn’t dominate the lefty-lefty matchups last season.

In past springs, the Cards have seen an assortment of veteran lefties fail to impress Duncan. But Villone has posted a 1.17 ERA in six appearances, generating hope he could become a key bullpen component.

5. The organization finally has depth.

The demise of Scott Spiezio and the inevitable breakdown of Juan Gonzalez chilled the competition for roster spots. In past springs, these unfortunate developments would have been major concerns.

But this year the Cards will have plenty of help just a phone call away. Skip Schumaker earned the leadoff assignment with a brilliant spring, but Colby Rasmus will be the outfielder-in-waiting at Memphis.

Ludwick has done enough to keep his platoon outfielder role. Brian Barton used his speed to gain the inside track on the spare outfielder role. But if Joe Mather continues to trend upward at the Class AAA level, he, too, will press for a spot on the Cards roster.

If Brendan Ryan gets healthy, he will push Izturis -– whether Tony La Russa is excited by that prospect or not. Hoffpauir is stuck behind Kennedy, Miles and Ryan at second base, but he offers more depth than, say, Junior Spivey did a few years back.

And we can’t remember the last time the Cards had multiple pitching prospects on the cusp at one time:
Kyle McClellan, Chris Perez, Mike Parisi, Jason Motte, Mitchell Boggs, Clayton Mortensen, Jaime Garcia, Adam Ottavino . . . the list extends down to Class AA Springfield and includes pitchers of every description.

Veteran depth guys like Hugh Castellanos, Dewon Brazelton, Ron Flores and John Wasdin won’t get as much attention because the franchise has so many legitimate prospects. In fact, the club may have to let some usable veterans go just to keep all the kids busy.

Now THAT is a sign of real progress.

The Cards went through a lot of baling wire last season when injuries hit. When situations arise this season -– and they most certainly will -– the team will lean on home-grown prospects who excelled this spring.

Will the Cards contend this season? Probably not.

Will the Cards grow this season and become more solid as the year progresses? Probably so.

This may not be one of the most exciting Cards teams ever, but it could become one of the more interesting.

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