Cards bank on rejuvenated offense
Power surge could be key to team's playoff hopes
JUPITER, Fla. -- Power is a dirty word to Cardinals manager Tony La Russa and hitting coach Hal McRae. They prefer euphemisms like "hard contact," fearing that by talking about extra-base thunder, they will cause their players to start thinking long ball.
Both men acknowledge, however, that the club suffered in 2007, when the power was sapped out of the Cardinals offense. And it appears that that missing dimension could return in '08.
"We know we need it," McRae said, "but we don't talk power."
The 2008 Cardinals will boast a 30-homer threat at all four corner positions, and even by a conservative estimate they have to figure to exceed their power production from 2007. A team that ranked in the bottom half of the league in runs scored, home runs and slugging percentage ought to do a better job of getting pitchers' attention this time around.
"We definitely didn't have it last year," La Russa said. "There were a lot of games where we were not a good offensive club."
The Redbirds hit 141 home runs in '07, ranking 13th in the National League. Their .405 slugging percentage was 14th in the league. Not coincidentally, the Cards scored 4.48 runs per game, No. 11 in the circuit. Every year since 2004, the Cardinals' team slugging percentage and runs per game have fallen off. In 2004, they led the NL in both categories -- and not coincidentally, won 105 games.
They may not get to the top, but the Cardinals need to climb the power ladder in a big way in '08.
The thunder should start quickly, from the No. 2 spot in the order -- where Chris Duncan is expected to hit often. Duncan has slugged .528 in his big league career, and he's averaged a home run every 15 at-bats. But a sports hernia all but erased his production in the second half last season.
Duncan was hitting .288/.380/.547 (average/on-base/slugging) at the All-Star break last season, before the injury ruined his season. McRae believes that's a true indication of the hitter that Duncan should be, rather than his final line of .259/.354/.480.
Following Duncan is Albert Pujols, who saw his power output drop in '07 as he dealt with a slew of physical problems. His 32 dingers -- still not bad -- were the lowest total of his career. Pujols, hitting in the No. 3 spot, will likely come closer to his career average of 40 per season. Pujols has topped 40 in four of the past five seasons.
In the cleanup spot many days will be Rick Ankiel, whose power and production were a huge boost to a flagging Cardinals team when he arrived last August. Ankiel went deep 11 times in 172 at-bats in his first season as a full-time outfielder.
And new addition Troy Glaus, who will typically hit fifth against right-handers and fourth against lefties, has topped 35 long balls in four different seasons. Like Pujols and Duncan, he was slowed by injuries in 2007, but he's shown no ill effects of his plantar fasciitis in '08.
"To be productive offensively, that's exactly what we need," McRae said. "I don't think we can do it any other way. If they are swinging the bats well, that makes your leadoff guy better. That makes your seventh and eighth guys better. It's the thing that's needed for everything to work correctly.
"You start with the core. If the core is good, the apple is good. If the core is rotten, you've got a bad apple. You start with the core and then you build out from the core."
COL: LHP Jeff Francis (17-9, 4.22 ERA in 2007)
Francis is one of four left-handers to win at least 13 games in each of the last three seasons, and has established himself as a threat to win 20. Not to be underrated is Francis' success against the Cardinals, and in St. Louis. He pitched six shutout innings while winning his only start at old Busch Stadium, and he is 1-1 with a 3.92 ERA in three starts in the new one. He is 4-1 overall with a 2.28 ERA in six starts against the Cards in his career.
STL: RHP Adam Wainwright (14-12, 3.70 ERA in 2007)
If Wainwright can pitch a full season like he did in the second half in 2007, he'll be a Cy Young contender. He believes he can. After a slow start in '07, Wainwright posted a 2.71 ERA with 77 strikeouts, 30 walks and only four homers allowed in 99 2/3 innings after the All-Star break. He has four pitches that he's willing to use in any situation, and he's a top-flight competitor to boot.
Bits and pieces
At 26, Wainwright is the youngest pitcher to start Opening Day for St. Louis since Joe Magrane, who was 25 when he got the assignment in 1990. ... This will be the third time the Cardinals and Rockies have opened the season against each other. St. Louis won at old Busch Stadium in 2002, and Colorado won at Coors Field in 2001. ... Glaus is the only member of the Cardinals' active roster with a home run against Francis, and he's hit two. Glaus is 3-for-12 (.250) with four walks against Francis. ... Aaron Miles is 4-for-10 with two doubles against his old teammate. ... The Cardinals' .350 on-base percentage against left-handers was tied for fifth-best in the NL in 2007, but their .401 slugging percentage against lefties was 15th. ... In seven career Opening Days, Pujols has hit .391 with a .531 on-base percentage and a .783 slugging percentage, two home runs, 10 RBIs and eight runs scored.
FSN Midwest HD
Wednesday: Cardinals (RHP Todd Wellemeyer, 3-3, 4.54) vs. Rockies (RHP Aaron Cook, 8-7, 4.12), 7:15 p.m. CT
Thursday: Cardinals (RHP Brad Thompson, 8-6, 4.73) vs. Rockies (RHP Ubaldo Jimenez, 4-4, 4.28), 12:15 p.m. CT
Friday: Cardinals (RHP Braden Looper, 12-12, 4.94) vs. Nationals (Jason Bergmann, 6-6, 4.45), 7:15 p.m. CT
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.