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03/24/05 8:00 AM ET

Eckstein has some big shoes to fill

New acquisition to keep things clicking at shortstop, leadoff

JUPITER, Fla. -- Tony Womack's spot in the batting order. Edgar Renteria's position in the infield. Even Mike Matheny's uniform number. They've all been placed in the hands of the same man: new Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein.

After four years as the Anaheim Angels' leadoff man and shortstop, Eckstein switched red caps, not to mention leagues, and took over as the main man at those two spots for St. Louis. He'll be stepping in at short for one of the best and most popular Cardinals of recent vintage, the splendidly talented Renteria.

But in addition to trying to replace the man who won two Gold Gloves in a Cards uniform, Eckstein will be filling in for Womack, who scored 91 runs and posted a .349 on-base percentage at the top of the lineup in 2004. And he's one of the newcomers who the Cards hope will help fill the clubhouse void left when Renteria, Matheny and Woody Williams all departed as free agents.

It's a tall order for Eckstein, who ironically may be more famous for not being tall than for any of his accomplishments on the field. As MLB.com shines its annual spring spotlight on the Cardinals, we identify Eckstein as the Redbird for whom "the heat is on." St. Louis is counting on its new addition to keep its offense and defense rolling.

"You really don't try to compare yourself," Eckstein said soon after signing with the Cards. "I have to go out there and do what I know I can do. Edgar is a great player and has done great things here. But I've got to go out there and play my game. If I try to be like him, I'm not going to be successful."

Eckstein signed a three-year contract with the Cardinals after he was non-tendered by the Angels. Renteria was given a four-year pact in Boston to replace Orlando Cabrera, who took Eckstein's place in Southern California. Round and round we go.

Eckstein's offense will be important, without a doubt. He's batting in front of one of the most fearsome runs of sluggers in memory, as Larry Walker, Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds are expected to make up the 2-5 spots in the Cardinals lineup. So the more he's on base, the more the bashers can take advantage.

"The guys can absolutely swing," he said. "If you get on base, you've got a chance to score every time."

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But the fact is, St. Louis will score scads of runs even if Eckstein doesn't match or exceed his career .347 OBP. What he really needs to do is play defense. No pitching staff in the National League induced more groundball outs than St. Louis' last year, and that tendency will only be exaggerated with the addition of Mark Mulder.

The infield has to make plays in order for the Cards to win, and the Cardinals believe Eckstein is the player to do that. Conventional wisdom says that Eckstein's strengths and weaknesses are easily identifiable: he's a smart player with good hands who positions himself well, but he doesn't have great range or a great arm. Manager Tony La Russa doesn't even concede that much, however.

"He may not have a cannon, but my understanding is the ball gets to first base before the runner does," the manager said. "I don't concede anything defensively with Eckstein.

"Edgar was one type of shortstop. Dick Groat was different from Marty Marion. [Eckstein] is different. Our fans will appreciate him for what he is."

As a result, La Russa felt no need to give Eckstein the standard "be yourself" lecture.

"I don't think I said that to him," the manager said. "He's got some experience. He knows what he his. He knows how he plays best. He's had to play his best to survive. So that's what he needs to do for us."

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