Retooled rotation looks promising
David Eckstein had barely found a spot in his home for his World Series Most Valuable Player trophy when he laid claim to another title: America's "little buddy."
The diminutive St. Louis shortstop, who is to major league baseball what Pembroke Welsh Corgis are to the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, parlayed his boundless energy, lovable demeanor and .364 World Series batting average into a joyous winter romp.
Rather than resent Eckstein, his fellow Cardinals are reveling in his insta-fame. They just wonder when he'll get the call to appear on "Dancing with the Stars."
"I love it," said St. Louis infielder Aaron Miles, who is listed at 5-foot-8. "Anytime the little man gets some attention, it bodes well for me."
"He can try to pull anything off, and people will appreciate him and like him," added third baseman Scott Rolen, who refers to Eckstein as "The Little Engine That Could."
At the risk of straining that children's book metaphor to the breaking point, St. Louis' 5-7, 175-pound catalyst embodies the team mind-set this spring. As the Cardinals prepare to begin defense of their title Sunday night against the New York Mets at Busch Stadium, they might be the only ones spouting the mantra, "We think we can."
St. Louis' big October -- marked by postseason wins over the Padres, the Mets and the Tigers -- capped one of the most improbable runs ever to a title. The Cardinals' 83 victories were the fewest ever for a World Series winner. They won 25 of their last 61 regular-season games, survived a seven-game losing streak in September and posted a 39-42 record in the National League Central to join the 1974 Pirates and the 1996 Rangers as the only clubs to win a division with a sub-.500 intradivision record.
The offseason has been noteworthy more for general manager Walt Jocketty's ability to exercise restraint than for bold maneuvers. While the Cubs were going wild on free agents and Houston was signing outfielder Carlos Lee to a nine-figure contract, St. Louis allowed starters Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver to leave town for deals worth a total of $71 million.
Now it's time to reload. Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper will help fill the innings void by moving from the bullpen to the rotation. Young Anthony Reyes gets his shot, and free agent Kip Wells becomes the latest pitcher to enroll at the Dave Duncan Career Reclamation Academy. Sometime after the All-Star break, the Cardinals expect Mark Mulder to return from shoulder surgery and make a contribution.
Toss in health concerns for outfielders Jim Edmonds and Juan Encarnacion, and you have a team with its share of questions. Lots of people expect the Cardinals to win the Central because it's such a flawed division from top to bottom, but it's more endorsement by default than conviction in what St. Louis has to offer.
Not that the St. Louis players care. With the exception of a spring thaw in the cold war between Tony La Russa and Rolen and the manager's embarrassing arrest for driving under the influence, the Cardinals stayed beneath the national radar in Florida.
"I've never been a world champion, so I don't know how we're supposed to be treated," Rolen said. "If that's the case [that expectations are low], it's nothing we can worry about."
Some things are a given in St. Louis. Chris Carpenter is still around to anchor the rotation, and the Cardinals expect the usual monster production from franchise player Albert Pujols, who will soon share his workout tips with the world as Muscle & Fitness magazine's May cover boy. No one seems too flustered by the fact that Pujols was outslugged by outfielder Skip Schumaker .563 to .426 in the Grapefruit League.
At the back end of the bullpen, Jason Isringhausen returns from a hip injury to stake his claim on the closer's job. The Cardinals think they have enough depth to overcome the loss of promising young righty Josh Kinney to Tommy John surgery.
The core element of the Cardinals' winning formula never changes. Duncan, St. Louis' pitching coach, has a fondness for sinking, two-seam fastballs, and the pitchers have confidence in working below the knees because the infield is so reliable. Pujols and Rolen won Gold Glove awards at the corners in 2006, and Eckstein and new double-play partner Adam Kennedy are already in sync from their four seasons together with the Angels.
Two years ago, the Cardinals turned more double plays than any team in the majors. Last season they ranked fourth in the National League with 170.
"They really get guys to believe in pounding the bottom of the strike zone here," Looper said. "They preach, 'Down, down, down.' Other than Roger Clemens throwing that four-seamer off the split, there aren't very many guys in this game who have been successful pitching up."
While spring training numbers can deceive, the rotation's performance in Florida was encouraging. Wainwright posted an ERA of 0.98 in the Grapefruit League. Wells was right behind him at 1.16, and Looper checked in at 2.18. St. Louis' five starters combined to walk 28 batters in 119 innings.
Looper, who last started a game with Prince William of the Class A Carolina League in 1997, relied almost exclusively on his sinker and slider in the bullpen. Now he'll dust off his four-seam fastball and a changeup, while mixing in a cutter that he spent lots of time tinkering with in the spring.
When Duncan approached Looper about pitching as a starter in 2007, it was with the conviction that Looper wasn't simply dropping in on a lark.
"Dunc sat me down and said, 'Look, this isn't a situation where we want you to come fill in,' " Looper said. "He told me, 'I think this can be a huge move for your career and a big component in helping this team win.' As a player you're like, 'Wow, OK.' "
No matter how meaningful the games are, La Russa likes to do things his way. During a 3-0 Grapefruit League win over the Dodgers this week, the Cardinals' manager called for a hit-and-run with slow-footed catcher Yadier Molina on first base and Carpenter, an .095 career hitter, at the plate.
Naturally, Molina took off for second base and Carpenter singled to right field. It's just another trick for La Russa to pull out of his grab bag when he really needs it.
Following the season-opening series with New York, the Cardinals play 26 of 28 games within the Central Division, so they have a chance to assert themselves right out of the chute. But that won't preclude them from having a little fun in the interim.
After an off day Monday, they will receive their World Series rings during a ceremony Tuesday night. While David Eckstein highlights air on the Busch Stadium scoreboard, the Cardinals will reflect on Wainwright's Series-ending strikeout of Brandon Inge and everything magical that preceded it.
"Everybody I know keeps asking me, 'Where's the ring? Where's the ring?' " Miles said. "To be honest, I haven't thought about that a whole lot. The memories I have of that time frame in my life will always be the most amazing thing. Going through the experience of what we did was all the reward we really needed."
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