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02/09/05 10:00 AM ET

Cards gear up for title run

Spring Training will mostly be about fine-tuning

ST. LOUIS -- Who needs intrigue? The Cardinals have the rare chance to enjoy a nice, boring spring this year. Soap opera Spring Training can make for some good reading, but it's not necessarily conducive to winning ballgames.

The Redbirds go into camp with fewer questions than in perhaps any other spring since general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa took over before the 1996 season. There's a little bit to be set: who will be the third and fourth right-handers in the bullpen, who makes up the back of the bench and how a couple of lineup spots are ordered, but no starting jobs are on the line.

It actually might be a bit too settled for La Russa, who relishes competition, but Jocketty likes the look of his team in the days before pitchers and catchers report.

"It's a little different club," Jocketty said. "I like the starting rotation. I like the depth and the quality of our starting rotation. It may be as good as it's been since I've been here.

"Overall I think our club will be very solid offensively and defensively, and we're going to pitch really good. We'll go into camp strong. I think we'll be healthy. We've got some guys recovering from surgeries, but I think the prognosis on everyone is very good."

Despite winning the franchise's first pennant since 1987, the St. Louis braintrust did not play the ensuing offseason conservatively. Gone are three of the four up-the-middle starters from 2004, as well as two key relievers and one of the team's most reliable starters from recent years.

Inevitable questions about chemistry and character have followed, with many fans and observers wondering whether the clubhouse will survive the subtraction of acknowledged leaders like Edgar Renteria, Mike Matheny and Woody Williams. Jocketty acknowledges that the departed players were clubhouse pillars, but takes issue with the notion that leadership will be in short supply.

"We'll see how it turns out," he said, "but I think change is healthy. I think it's good to bring in some new people. I think that's been part of Atlanta's success. They turn over a certain percentage of their roster every year."

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With the turnover, naturally some questions follow, but they're more questions about how things will work out down the road. Most of the players who have been brought in have secure jobs -- jobs like everyday shortstop and leadoff man, No. 1 starter and primary second baseman.

There is the matter of a batting order, though. New addition David Eckstein is penciled in as the leadoff man, while the 3-4-5 spots will probably remain intact with Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds. New starting catcher Yadier Molina will almost certainly bat eighth. That leaves some openings, though.

New second baseman Mark Grudzielanek could bat sixth or seventh, or he could conceivably slot in as the No. 2 hitter. Reggie Sanders will likely find himself hitting sixth or seventh. Larry Walker is currently second by default, but it wouldn't be shocking to see him put in a spot that would bring him more chances to drive in runs.

"I don't think today you decide that Walker is two and Albert is three and Scott's four," La Russa said in mid-January. "We go down there. I know that these guys are team-oriented, and if you tell Albert he's hitting fourth, then he's hitting fourth. If you tell Scotty he's going to five, Jim three, Walker three, we just go down there and see how it looks."

So don't be surprised to see some experimentation in the lineup this spring. You'll also see plenty of at-bats for some candidates to back up the starting middle infielders. Abraham Nunez, Hector Luna, Bo Hart, Wilton Guerrero and Scott Seabol all could be fighting for one utility spot.


The St. Louis bench is deep in outfielders, and the backup catcher is set, but there's a need for perhaps one more left-handed hitter and maybe a right-handed power threat.

And speaking of right-handed power, the Cards are down one or two right-handed power arms compared to October. Al Reyes will hope to fill the spot vacated when Kiko Calero was traded to Oakland, and Mike Lincoln will try to regain the form that made him a trusted setup man early in 2004.

If neither of them proves to be the answer to complement Jason Isringhausen and Julian Tavarez, Jocketty will find himself going shopping to reinforce a unit that was a concern in 2003 and a major asset in 2004.

Finally, a little intrigue. But only a little.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.