Cardinals quick hits

Cardinals quick hits

Team strength: The Cardinals have scored runs in bunches over the past two years, but the amazing run begins and ends with starting pitching. St. Louis looks to have depth and quality in the rotation again, with four-fifths of last year's group returning and a healthy competition for the fifth spot.

Achilles heel: It's not entirely fair to put the bullpen in this category, but it's the unit with the most questions. The group has been remade dramatically following the losses of Julian Tavarez, Ray King, Al Reyes and Cal Eldred. A lot rides on the surgically repaired shoulder of Braden Looper.

Top newcomer: Right-hander Sidney Ponson has looked good for the most part early in camp, though his 6.21 ERA from last year doesn't exactly scream "marquee addition." Still, Ponson is three years removed from an outstanding season in which he pitched 216 innings with an ERA below 3.80. If he can come close to that, he's a serious bargain and a nice fit at the back of the rotation.

Ready to make The Leap: Anthony Reyes has great stuff, good command and impressive poise. All he needs are innings. Reyes could start the season in the rotation, the bullpen or at Triple-A Memphis, but by season's end, you can expect him to be a significant factor.

On the hot seat: No single player's performance will have a greater bearing on the success of the 2006 Cardinals than Scott Rolen. If Rolen, who is recuperating from major shoulder surgery, can regain even his pre-2005 All-Star and Gold Glove form, the Cards will score plenty of runs and play their usual quality defense. If not, the offense could have more trouble scoring runs than Redbird fans are used to.

You can bank on: Albert Pujols. Here's a little exercise to show how consistently productive the MVP has been. The following are his worst single-season marks in the various major offensive categories: batting average, .314; on-base, .394; slugging, .561; home runs, 34; RBIs, 117; runs, 112. That's Pujols at his worst. You can go from there.

spring training 2006
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Litmus test: Is it a one-man offense? Or is it another "band of sluggers?" We know Pujols is going to hit. The question is how much support he'll get. If Rolen is healthy and right, if Jim Edmonds returns to form, if David Eckstein repeats his 2005, if Juan Encarnacion takes the leap forward that the Cards think he will. ... If even most of those "ifs" bear out, St. Louis will have the kind of offense that should be more immune to late-October fades. If not, the season may end too early again.

Games you don't want to miss:

Brewers, April 10-12: New Busch Stadium opens for business.

Cubs, April 21-23: Chicago makes its first visit to the new digs.

Astros, May 29-31: Summer starts with a rematch of the past two NLCS.

Braves, July 17-19: Perennial playoff team provides early second-half test.

Astros, Sept. 11-13: Odds are, this will have great bearing on the division race.

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