Cardinals Season in Preview
New-look defense, rotation join familiar strengths in 2005
How do you top 105 wins and a National League pennant? There's only one way: repeat as division champions and win the World Series. That's the task that awaits the defending NL champion Cardinals as they embark on the final season in the current Busch Stadium.
Tweaks to the bullpen, defense and rotation will make for a different look for the Redbirds, but the core strengths are similar. St. Louis will score tons of runs, play at least decent defense and should get plenty of innings from its rotation.
Injuries, or the lack thereof, may be the determining factor for the Cards, who remained remarkably healthy for most of 2004. A well-over-30 outfield and a rotation with several health questions will need to stay on the field in order to have a repeat performance. If the Cardinals stay out of the training room, it should be another banner season.
1. David Eckstein, SS
Eckstein replaces the surprising Tony Womack, who came from out of nowhere to have a strong season. He may not quite have Womack's speed, but he should get on base just as often as Womack did.
2. Larry Walker, RF
A full season from the former MVP and batting champion makes the NL's most prolific lineup from 2004 even more dangerous. The key is keeping him in the lineup as often as possible.
3. Albert Pujols, 1B
What's left to say about Pujols? He's one of the two best right-handed hitters on the planet, and the leading candidate to win MVP honors in a season where Barry Bonds figures to miss significant time.
4. Scott Rolen, 3B
Rolen may not match his career-year numbers from 2004, but he remains the game's best all-around third baseman. His combination of power and patience makes him a threat at all times.
5. Jim Edmonds, CF
Edmonds can be streaky, with the ability to carry a team when he's hot. He has massive power, a slew of Gold Gloves and gets on base at an outstanding clip.
6. Mark Grudzielanek, 2B
Grudzielanek takes Womack's position on the diamond, but essentially replaces Edgar Renteria in the lineup. He'll be counted on to smack line-drive singles and doubles, driving in the big boppers from scoring position.
7. Reggie Sanders, LF
If Sanders' pattern holds up, he'll follow a less-than-spectacular year with a powerful bounce-back campaign. He strikes out a bit too much, but he still brings power and speed to the bottom half of the order.
8. Yadier Molina
Molina, like predecessor Mike Matheny, is a defense-first catcher, but he holds his own at the plate. He's still developing offensively, with better command of the strike zone the more he plays.
1. Chris Carpenter, RHP
The de facto ace of a deep staff in 2004, Carpenter looks even stronger going into the '05 season. To get 200-plus innings from him would be a major asset.
2. Jason Marquis, RHP
Marquis enjoyed a breakout season in '04, thanks to a whole new approach. He may be that rare pitcher who can succeed as a starter despite throwing 60-80 percent fastballs.
3. Mark Mulder, LHP
The Cards paid a heavy price to get Mulder from Oakland, believing he was the missing piece from a team that came four wins short of a world title. They're counting on him repeating the form that made him the AL's All-Star starter last year.
4. Jeff Suppan, RHP
As steady as it gets, Suppan thrived in big games in the '04 playoffs, closing out the Division Series and League Championship Series. He's a smart pitcher who relies on location but has underrated stuff.
5. Matt Morris, RHP
Morris is recovering from shoulder surgery and is expected to make his debut on April 19. If he can regain his 2002-03 form, never mind his Cy Young candidate level from 2001, a quality rotation becomes a formidable one.
The back of the bullpen returns intact from a unit that was one of baseball's best in 2004.
Jason Isringhausen falls short of the elite closers like Eric Gagne and Brad Lidge in the ninth, but he's near the top of the next tier. He throws hard with a cutter and a power curveball, and tinkers at times with as many as five pitches. Isringhausen keeps the ball in the park, even if he doesn't always throw strikes.
Julian Tavarez and Ray King form a durable and effective setup combination, combining to pitch 163 times and allowing exactly three homers total. But the departures of Kiko Calero and Steve Kline will be felt, and it's not certain that anyone on the roster will be able to fill the voids left by those two. Someone needs to emerge as the second lefty, and another power right-handed arm in the middle innings would be nice as well.
Morris remains right on track. He'll start April 7 and 13 at Class A Palm Beach before getting the ball on the 19th against Pittsburgh. He will still probably be handled somewhat gently at first, but if his shoulder is fully sorted out, it will be a boon.
Reliever Mike Lincoln remains delayed indefinitely as he tries to recover from Tommy John surgery. No timetable is clear for his return to pitching.
It was a pretty uneventful spring for the Cards. Abraham Nunez established himself early as the leader to be the utility infielder, while Hector Luna pulled forward later in camp to earn another spot on the bench.
Middle relief remained unsettled all the way into the end of March, and it's still something of a question as to how effective the St. Louis bullpen will be. No one ever really seized control of the battle for a roster spot.
For the most part, spring was all about staying healthy and getting work in and, for the most part, the Redbirds accomplished that. A few minor injuries showed themselves, but no one was lost in the spring, and that's a victory in itself.
Will the defense be good enough?
The Cardinals were one of baseball's best defensive teams in 2004, making their groundball-heavy pitching staff all the more effective. The middle infield has been replaced, while the rotation has been made even more grounder-oriented. Every ball that skids by an infielder means an out turned into a hit.
Eckstein will likely be a step down from Edgar Renteria, but not a huge one. The range difference between the two has been overstated, though Eckstein's arm is definitely not as strong as Renteria's.
On the other side, Grudzielanek is probably an upgrade, defensively, over Womack. Without a doubt, Grudzielanek should be a more effective thrower than Womack was, helping to turn more double plays. No team will rely more on its infield defense than St. Louis will, so they'd both better be good.
ON THE RECORD
"I have enough respect for the game and the competition that if enough bad things happen to us, we could be just pretty good. I think pretty good to real good, that's the range." -- Manager Tony La Russa
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.