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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home-grown approach serves Cardinals well

Home-grown approach serves Cardinals well
By Jeff Gordon
Tuesday, Apr. 28 2009
So much has gone wrong for the Cardinals in 2009.

The team opened the season without an established closer after whiffing on free
agent reliever Brian Fuentes, who took less guaranteed money to pitch in

Ace starting pitcher Chris Carpenter made a compelling comeback from assorted
arm and shoulder injuries, only to tear his oblique muscle swinging a bat.
Since the team allowed reliable Braden Looper to depart as a free agent, this
was especially painful.

After letting valuable infielder Aaron Miles leave as a free agent, the Cards
waived second baseman Adam Kennedy and ate the last $4 million on his contract.
Skip Schumaker moved in from center field to take his place, despite having
zero professional infield experience.

Third baseman Troy Glaus aggravated his shoulder injury between seasons, then
suffered a major setback in his rehab. Would-be replacement Joe Mather didn’t
hit a lick during spring training.

Another possible replacement, David Freese, suffered a foot injury during an
offseason car wreck. He missed a bunch of spring training, then struggled
during his first look at big-league pitching.

Reliable set-up man Russ Springer left as a free agent. Would-be replacement
Josh Kinney suddenly lost command of his pitches.

Outfielder Rick Ankiel battled the Mendoza Line for much of April and didn’t
hit his first homer until the 23rd. He resorted to growing a tremendous
mustache to break the slump.

Todd Wellemeyer, a 13-game winner last season, won just one of his first four
starts this season while posting a 6.14 earned-run average. He seemed to forget
all Dave Duncan taught him.

Middle reliever Brad Thompson started badly. So did soft-tossing replacement
P.J. Walters. Lefty Trever Miller had a crummy start, too, and newcomer Blaine
Boyer proved ineffective.

Given all that, you might have expected the Cards to start the season 6-14.

Instead, the Cards are 14-6. How could this be?

Credit manager Tony La Russa, of course, for mixing and matching his lineup and
bullpen until his found roles that worked for everybody. Circumstances gave him
much to do this spring and that’s just how The Skipper likes it.

(Bobby Cox likes rolling out the same guys every game, but that has never been
Tony’s thing. He loves deploying journeymen like Brian Barden and Joe Thurston,
hungry players who hustle and play multiple positions. He loves moving pieces
on the chess board.)

But the real story has been the organizational strength the Cards have
developed over several years. That strength is buying the injured Cards time to
heal and general manager John Mozeliak time to explore all his options.

On sports talk radio and in the Internet forums, fans pound “Mo” for his
relative inactivity in the face of adversity. He made some good moves last year
when injuries decimated the team, but mostly he relied on players within the

The Cards faded late last year, but not before speeding the development of
several home-grown players.

Now you are seeing the payoff. Schumaker and Kyle McClellan, two breakout
players from last season, are playing big roles. Ankiel and Chris Duncan, back
from surgical repairs, are bracketing Albert Pujols in the lineup.

Rookie Colby Rasmus has to be the best fourth outfielder in the majors. Chris
Perez and Jason Motte are strengthening the bullpen. Brendan Ryan has matured
into a useful infielder. Mitchell Boggs is filling a hole in the starting

The plan is working. An assortment of bad breaks put this plan to a severe test
this spring; so far, it has held.

Going forward, Mozeliak will have to deal from this strength when the right
opportunities arise. This team still needs another veteran starting pitcher,
preferably a lefty, to complete the rotation. The bullpen will need another arm
if something better doesn’t surface from Memphis soon.

But the accumulated depth has given Mozeliak the luxury of dealing on his own
terms instead of scrambling after help. Fans may keep doubting this approach,
but so far in '09, nobody can argue with the results.

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