Wow -- a big hand to all of you out there, because this was the best week of questions I've received since I started doing the mailbag. I had so many good regular questions to get to that I had to pass on all the where-are-they-nows this week. But I promise they'll resume, since fun ones keep rolling in.

As always, if you have a question, use the link below to submit it -- and please be sure to include your first name, last initial and hometown, and to use the word "mailbag" in the subject header.

I have been hearing from all the critics that due to the loss of Edgar Renteria, our defense is not going to be as good. However, I feel that the loss of Renteria will just give Rolen more room to go to his left (which he didn't always need to do in the past because Edgar was there). And with Eckstein's great positioning he can sit closer to the hole up the middle, thus giving the baseball nation an even better view of Rolen's abilities, and the Cardinals will still have a very good defense. I was wondering what you thought about this. I was also wondering what the current status is of Kerry Robinson? Is he still in San Diego? -- Will A., Columbia, Mo.

Last things first. I said no where-are-they-nows, but I guess I was lying. Kerry Robinson signed a minor league contract with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training with the Mets.

As for the defense, it's an interesting question. I have heard people say the same thing about Rolen, but I don't think he's going to get to many more balls than he already did. Maybe a few, but not enough to offset what may be a significant difference in range between Eckstein and Renteria. You're right about positioning, though. Eckstein is considered a master at it, and that will fit right in with the kind of preparation the Cards display in attacking hitters.

One other thing not to forget: Mark Grudzielanek should be quite an upgrade over Tony Womack defensively, helping to make up for some of what will likely be lost at shortstop.

Can you provide any updates on how Rick Ankiel is throwing right now and how he looks? -- Bob B., Oceanside, Calif.

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I'd be delighted to. As I wrote on Friday, he looked absolutely scintillating in his first time facing hitters. Ankiel's stuff is simply amazing. You'd have to see his curveball up close to really appreciate just how wicked it is.

His command was good but not great, but after all, it was just his first time facing hitters. And when he missed, he missed low, which is much better than missing high. Personally, I'm very optimistic about what Ankiel is going to be able to do this year.

I am a St. Louis native. However, I have spent the last four years living in Europe. I currently live in Slovenia. As you can imagine, it was quite a challenge to find somewhere that was playing American baseball for the playoff run last fall. God bless video, though. Turned into some late nights and early work days ...

I have a question regarding the guys' exercise regimens. With all this talk recently about steroids and all, I started to wonder what kind of workout programs these guys abide to during the offseason? I have friends who play on the PGA Tour and their workouts include a lot of Pilates and yoga-based, core-centered exercises. Not so new age, but seemingly more advanced than normal squats, bench presses, etc. ... Just wondering if you had any insight. Hope this gets on the site and that Slovenia opens a bar where they stay open all night for Cards games! Take it easy. -- Eric, Ljubljana, Slovenia.

OK, so as we've established, I'm a sucker for questions from outside the U.S., but this is a good one even if it had come from Jefferson City.

A lot of players work out in just that way. Core strengthening has become a big deal, and I know of players who do Pilates. For a lot of guys, it's more and more about flexibility and quickness than about pure strength. There's a guy named Mark Verstegen who runs the Athletes' Performance Institute, and he's very popular among ballplayers.

Good luck on finding a Cards bar in Slovenia.

How will John Mabry handle being third-string catcher, and if he's not needed there this year, what's the future for Mabry? -- Nick, St. Charles, Mo.

Nick is one of my most frequent e-mailers, so I'm glad to be able to get him in the mailbag.

I wouldn't really think of Mabry so much as the third-string catcher as I would the emergency catcher. He won't get any starts there. He's just working out so that in case of a bizarre game -- the kind of game where you pinch-hit for the starting catcher, and then the backup gets hurt -- the team is covered.

More broadly, I think Mabry's future looks a lot like his very recent past. He'll be an important asset off the bench for the 2005 Cards, as the only real power threat off the bench (unless John Gall or Scott Seabol makes the team) and a backup at all four corner positions.

When the Cardinals acquired Larry Walker, they had to finish the deal by the end of the season. Who was sent over in the deal to finish the trade? -- Robert T., Slater, Mo.

The players were pitchers Jason Burch, Chris Narveson and Luis Martinez. Burch was a reliever at Class A Peoria, Narveson a Double-A lefty and Martinez a Triple-A right-hander.

I am just wondering about left-handed relievers in the bullpen. How many do we have and how good are they looking? -- Kenny B., England

Hello across the pond!

The left side of the bullpen looks pretty much set, barring something surprising. Ray King will again be the main guy, and Ankiel will be there. Ankiel may start in the early going, but once Matt Morris returns, he'll be relieving again.

The third spot is the only one that appears to be at all up in the air, but manager Tony La Russa has said that he expects Mike Myers to make the team. If Myers really looks like he's not right, that could open a door for Carmen Cali, Bill Pulsipher or Randy Flores.

Cali has shown some impressive flashes. He throws very hard and has good stuff. He just needs to throw strikes consistently. I wouldn't be shocked to see him get another callup during the season this year, and I think long-term he's going to be a pretty effective Major League reliever.

I also like Flores a lot. He just is in the wrong organization. The Cards don't really need a left-handed swingman with Ankiel around, and Flores isn't the typical lefty specialist. He could really help out somewhere, and I hope if he doesn't get a chance in St. Louis that it happens somewhere else.

I know it's a little early to talk about this, but next year we have almost our entire rotation to sign. Morris, Chris Carpenter and Jeff Suppan can be free agents, and we possibly might re-sign Mark Mulder to a long-term deal. We can't possibly afford to re-sign all of these players without a significant bump in payroll. So is there a chance some of these guys will be traded during the season? Is there a chance that if Ankiel shows that he can stick in the Majors, and a minor league pitcher like Wainwright shows that it's time for a callup, that we could see two of our starters leaving town during the season? Or will we just let some of our pitchers walk so that we have them during the postseason? -- Travis K.,  St. Louis

I think you may be a little too worried, Travis. It's true that Carpenter and Morris can be free agents after the year, and Suppan will be if the team doesn't pick up his option. But if Suppan has another good year, his option will look very reasonable. Neither Jason Marquis, Ankiel nor Mulder is actually signed for 2006, but none is eligible for free agency.

And to answer the next part of the question, I'd be absolutely shocked if the Cards trade two starters before the year is out. The only way I really see that happening is if they somehow fall out of contention. If they're in it, they won't tear the team down.

If the Cardinals have 12 pitchers on their roster, who are the utility players to back up the other eight players? For instance, who backs up third base, second base, shortstop and first base? Also, if a player gets injured and is on the disabled list, what happens next? Does a player from Memphis take his place? Does the called-up player have to play a certain amount of games or if the player being called up doesn't perform well, can he be replaced with another player until the starting player can return? -- Phil H., Louisville, Ky.

There's lots to work with here.

First of all, the bench. And first of first of all, it's not for certain that they'll carry 12 pitchers just yet. Pitching coach Dave Duncan told me recently that if Morris begins the year on the DL, they're likely to go with 11 pitchers at first.

But let's start with the assumption that it's a 12-man staff. That leaves five bench spots in addition to the eight starting position players. One goes to the backup catcher, which will almost certainly be Einar Diaz. So Taguchi and Roger Cedeno seem to be fairly safe bets to make it as backup outfielders, and Mabry will be the main guy coming off the bench at first base, third base and sometimes the outfield corners.

That leaves one spot for a middle infielder, and that's one of the few completely wide-open competitions this spring. Bo Hart, Hector Luna, Abraham Nunez, Wilton Guerrero and Seabol are all in the mix.

If the pitching staff is 11 men, that leaves room for one more bench player, and I suspect it would be a right-handed bat. My guess is that it would be Gall or Seabol, in addition to whoever made it as the utility/middle infielder.

And as for the callup question...

When someone is injured, you usually see a callup from the minors, but not always. Sometimes another player is activated from the DL, and on very rare occasions you see a free agent signed to take the spot. There is no minimum for how long a player has to stay in the Majors. Sometimes you'll see a player called up for Game 1 of a doubleheader, then optioned back out before Game 2.

The reverse is not true, though. If a player is sent down to the minors, he has to stay there 10 days, unless there is an injury necessitating his recall or the minor league season ends.

To anyone who made it this far, thanks for reading. And keep those great questions coming!