Cardinals Spring Training quick hits

Cardinals Spring Training quick hits

2005 record
100-62, NL Central champions

Projected batting order
1. SS David Eckstein:
  .294 BA, .363 OBP, .395 SLG, 8 HR, 61 RBI in 2005
2. LF So Taguchi:
  .288 BA, .322 OBP, .412 SLG, 8 HR, 53 RBI in 2005
3. 1B Albert Pujols:
  .330 BA, .430 OBP, .609 SLG, 41 HR, 117 RBI in 2005
4. CF Jim Edmonds:
  .263 BA, .385 OBP, .533 SLG, 29 HR, 89 RBI in 2005
5. 3B Scott Rolen:
  .235 BA, .323 OBP, .383 SLG, 5 HR, 28 RBI in 2005
6. RF Juan Encarnacion:
  .287 BA, .349 OBP, .447 SLG, 16 HR, 76 RBI in 2005
7. 2B Junior Spivey:
  .232 BA, .315 OBP, .378 SLG, 7 HR, 24 RBI in 2005
8. C Yadier Molina:
  .252 BA, .295 OBP, .358 SLG, 8 HR, 49 RBI in 2005

Projected rotation
1. Chris Carpenter, 21-5, 2.83 ERA in 2005
2. Mark Mulder, 16-8, 3.64 ERA in 2005
3. Jeff Suppan, 16-10, 3.57 ERA in 2005
4. Jason Marquis, 13-14, 4.13 ERA in 2005
5. Sidney Ponson, 7-11, 6.21 ERA in 2005

Projected bullpen
Closer: Jason Isringhausen, 39/43 saves, 2.14 ERA in 2005
RH setup man: Braden Looper, 3.94 ERA in 2005
LH setup man: Ricardo Rincon, 4.34 ERA in 2005

The new guys
Gary Bennett: Signed as a free agent to replace catcher Einar Diaz, Bennett won't be an offensive force. But he figures to earn the trust of Cardinals pitchers and the coaching staff, meaning a few extra off-days for Yadier Molina.

Larry Bigbie: The centerpiece of the trade that sent Ray King to Colorado, Bigbie is a solid defensive outfielder who's still somewhat unproven offensively. But his potential is intriguing -- Bigbie has shown an ability to get on base and occasional power.

Deivi Cruz: The Cardinals hope Cruz turns into a right-handed Abraham Nunez, a play-everywhere utility infielder with the bat to play frequently. One asset Cruz has is that he's flashed some power for a middle infielder, though he doesn't hit for a high average or draw many walks. He signed as a free agent.

Encarnacion: The biggest-name free agent to come to St. Louis this winter, Encarnacion signed a three-year deal after enjoying one of the best seasons of his career in Florida. He's never been a high OBP guy, but he has a little speed and a reputation as a good defensive outfielder. The Cardinals are banking that Encarnacion, who turns 30 in the spring, is just coming into his prime.

Looper: The replacement for Julian Tavarez is Looper, who signed as a free agent from the Mets. He has closing experience, which appeals to St. Louis, and he's well known as a groundball-getter. Looper is recovering from shoulder surgery but expects to be fully ready for the start of spring.

Juan Mateo: Two years after finding a player they liked in the Rule 5 Draft with Hector Luna, the Cardinals dipped into those waters again. Mateo throws in the low-90s with a slider and a changeup. He'll be given a chance to make the bullpen, despite having spent last year in "A" ball.

Aaron Miles: Presenting just the kind of player Cardinal Nation loves. Acquired with Bigbie in the King trade, Miles is a dirty-uniform scrapper. Where he fits on the team, however, is unclear. It's a four-way battle for at most three jobs between Miles, Cruz, Spivey and Luna. Miles' advantage is his left-handedness, but he's not as versatile as Cruz or Luna, or as established as Spivey.

Jeff Nelson: Signed to a Minor League deal with a non-roster invitation to Spring Training, Nelson can still get right-handed hitters out. He's not a given to make the team, but his chances are good. The Cardinals are hoping he can fill the role vacated when Al Reyes blew out his elbow.

Ponson: The most intriguing position battle in camp will be the fifth-starter derby between Ponson and Anthony Reyes. Ponson signed as a free agent after the Orioles cut him loose, and the Cardinals are hoping he can regain the form that made him a coveted free agent just two years ago.

Rincon: Rincon signed as a free agent after pitching in Oakland, and he'll be counted on to take some of the innings formerly handled by King. He probably won't be as effective against right-handed hitters as King, but if he shuts down lefties, it will be good enough for Tony La Russa and Dave Duncan.

Spivey: Most recently of the Nationals, Spivey is trying to return to the level of play that got him an All-Star nod in 2002. If he's fully recovered from a shoulder injury sustained in 2004, Spivey is the clear favorite at second base.

Prospects to watch
Rick Ankiel: His experience as a pitcher means he's not a conventional prospect, and he's definitely not rookie-eligible. But he's a developing hitter who crushed the ball in Double-A last year, and he may yet have a future as an outfielder. Ankiel-as-outfielder may have seemed like a novelty this year, but after his eruption in the Texas League, it will be a different story in the spring of '06.

Reyes: Undeniably the team's top prospect, Reyes looked like the favorite for the fifth starter job until Ponson signed. Now he'll have to fight for it. But his stuff and composure make him well-suited for the job, and his command isn't shabby. If not in April, Reyes will be an impact starter one day soon.

Adam Wainwright: It hasn't been that long since Wainwright was considered a more elite prospect than Reyes. And it's not as though his performance has been lousy. He ranked among the Pacific Coast League leaders in strikeouts last year, and is probably ready for at least a bullpen job now.

Returning from injury
Randy Flores: His elbow surgery shortly after the season was considered minor, and Flores isn't expected to be restricted in Spring Training.

Looper: Looper's shoulder operation was a little more serious than Flores', but he reports that he's right on schedule with his offseason throwing plan. He should be ready to go.

Rolen: This is the big one. Rolen missed almost the entire second half of the season thanks to surgery necessitated by a collision on the base paths. He's progressing well, but he won't be going at full speed in the spring. Rolen is focusing strictly on Opening Day, and if that means a limited spring, so be it. His health is the single most important issue facing the Cards in 2006.

  MLB.com POLL
Who should be the fifth starter?
Sidney Ponson
Anthony Reyes

On the rebound
Edmonds: By any possible reasonable standard, Edmonds had an excellent season in 2005. By his own standards, though, it was a down year for the Gold Glover. Edmonds hit for his lowest average since 1999, tied for his lowest OBP since coming to St. Louis for the 2000 season and posted his lowest slugging percentage since '99. Still great, still an All-Star -- but these are the expectations Edmonds has created for himself.

Ponson: It was a bad year on the field and off for Ponson, who put up an ERA north of 6.00, was released by the Orioles and spent two different stints in jail. With a move to the National League and a change of scenery, there's little doubt that '06 will be better -- the question is, how much better?

Rolen: Even before he was hurt, Rolen wasn't playing up to his normal level. After he returned from the injury, his offensive production was a far cry from his All-Star ability. He's a critical bat in the lineup and equally essential on defense.

Spivey: A shoulder injury knocked Spivey out for much of 2004, and he never quite seemed right in 2005. A showing like the ones he managed in 2001 and 2002 would be a huge boost.

Long gone
Diaz: Diaz was let go after a fairly forgettable season. Bennett takes his place.

Cal Eldred: Eldred pitched fewer than 150 games and 175 innings, total, over his three years in St. Louis, but his clubhouse impact was significant. The veteran was one of the most respected men on the team, winning the Darryl Kile Award for 2005. Eldred retired following the '05 season.

Mark Grudzielanek: Last year's bargain second baseman was a find indeed. Grudzielanek put up a solid year with the bat but was a revelation in the field, teaming with Eckstein to help the Cards set a franchise record for double plays in a season. The club campaigned for him to receive what would have been his first Gold Glove, but Grudzielanek came up short. He left as a free agent to join the Royals.

King: Durable and usually very popular with fans, King endured a difficult year in '05. After not appearing in the postseason and making his frustration public, King was dealt to Colorado for Bigbie and Miles.

John Mabry: Mabry's third stint in St. Louis was another fine one, as he came off the bench effectively for two years. But the Cubs came calling early in the offseason with a guaranteed deal, so Mabry will see the St. Louis-Chicago rivalry from the other side in '06.

Matt Morris: Once the ace of the staff, Morris' last couple of years in St. Louis didn't live up to his previous standards. Nonetheless, he was the dean of the team, wearing the "birds on the bat" for nine years before heading to San Francisco as a free agent. Morris' rotation spot will be up for grabs between Ponson and Reyes.

Abraham Nunez: Undoubtedly the biggest pleasant surprise of 2005, Nunez went from an NRI utility infielder in March to the everyday third baseman for most of the second half. A fine defender and an outstanding teammate, Nunez enjoyed a career year with the bat as well. When Philadelphia gave him two years, he left as a free agent.

Al Reyes: The end of the season brought a brutal break for Reyes, who blew out his elbow after putting up the best year of his career. He underwent Tommy John surgery and will miss most of 2006.

Reggie Sanders: Another pillar of the clubhouse, Sanders also showed that he could still perform in 2005. Before a collision sidelined him for two months, Sanders was threatening to put up a 30-30 year. The Cardinals chose not to offer him arbitration, so Sanders headed for Kansas City.

Tavarez: Usually effective and always colorful, Tavarez was permitted to depart as a free agent after two strong seasons setting up Isringhausen. He'll be pitching in the late innings for Boston this year.

Larry Walker: Walker battled injuries for just about his entire career, but few years were as trying as 2005 -- when he had multiple injections in his neck just so he would be able to take the field. Following the NL Championship Series, Walker announced his retirement. He may not make the Hall of Fame, but it will only be because his body betrayed him. Walker was one of the most complete players the game has seen.

2005 hitting leaders (min. 200 at-bats)
Avg.: Pujols, .330
OBP: Pujols, .430
SLG: Pujols, .609
Runs: Pujols, 129
RBIs: Pujols, 117
Hits: Pujols, 195
2B: Pujols, 38
3B: Eckstein, 7
HR: Pujols, 41
SB: Pujols, 16
2005 pitching leaders (min. 30 IP/10 dec.)
IP: Carpenter, 241 2/3
W: Carpenter, 21
L: Marquis, 14
Win %: Carpenter, 21-5, .808
S: Isringhausen, 39
ERA: Isringhausen, 2.14
K: Carpenter, 213
K/9: Al Reyes, 9.62
WHIP: Al Reyes, 0.93

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who is the fifth starter?
There will be a competition, and if either Reyes or Ponson clearly outpitches the other fellow, he'll be the winner. But one thing you know if you've watched Cardinals camp before is this: players who have options remaining lose all ties. So if Ponson and Reyes both pitch well, or if neither dazzles, Ponson is the likely winner, and Reyes may head back to Triple-A Memphis for some more seasoning.

2. Will the new bullpen be able to replicate the performance of the past two years?
This will definitely be an area to watch this spring, but remember that bullpen turnover was a concern last March as well. Isringhausen remains a quality ninth-inning man, and if Looper is healthy, he makes a fine replacement for Tavarez. The question will come on the left side, and we'll start to see in the spring whether Rincon still has enough left to be a top-flight setup man.

3. How will the last two lineup spots be filled?
In left field, Taguchi is a slight favorite over John Rodriguez and Bigbie, but nothing will be handed to him. Rodriguez is especially intriguing, and don't rule out the fact that St. Louis could really use a left-handed bat in left field. A healthy Spivey is the favorite at second base, but is he healthy? Everyone will get plenty of at-bats and chances to impress from the start.

The bottom line
Spring Training for the Cardinals last year was more about getting in shape than setting the roster. This season, there are several compelling position battles and plenty of chances for contenders to show what they've got. Rolen has to get healthy, Pujols has to stay healthy and the Cardinals need to settle on who's going to hit around them.

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