Cardinals Opening Day outlook

Cardinals Opening Day outlook

If pitching is indeed the name of the game, then Spring Training 2006 was a rousing success for the Cardinals. The questions in their bullpen and starting rotation were answered satisfactorily, and in both cases manager Tony La Russa found more useful pitchers than he had places to put them.

On the position-player side of the ledger, though, questions remain unanswered. No one seized the vacant jobs at second base and in left field, and auditions at those two positions may continue into the first weeks of the season.

Still, the core remains as strong as any in the National League, with the 2005 MVP and Cy Young winner both on the roster. St. Louis remains the team to beat in the NL Central and a favorite to return to the World Series for the second time in three years.

BATTING ORDER
1. David Eckstein, SS:
Coming off one of the best seasons of his career, Eckstein will try to spark the offense once again. He works deep counts, gets on base, runs the bases with aplomb and is a quality defensive shortstop.

2. Juan Encarnacion, RF:
Not the perfect fit in the two spot because he doesn't get on base very often, Encarnacion does provide an extra-base threat with speed near the top of the order. The Cards hope he will benefit from hitting in front of Albert Pujols.

3. Albert Pujols, 1B:
The reigning MVP, the best right-handed hitter on the planet, what else is there to say? Pujols does it all, and he even added stolen bases and improved defense in 2005.

4. Jim Edmonds, CF:
Edmonds went through a down year by his standards in 2005, but even when he's not as his best he's extremely dangerous. The eight-time Gold Glover draws walks, hit home runs and can carry a team when he's hot.

5. Scott Rolen, 3B:
No question is more important to the Cardinals than how Rolen will perform in 2006. He needs to approximate at least his 2002-2003 level of offense in order for the Cards to have the kind of offense they envision.

6. So Taguchi/John Rodriguez, LF:
Righty/lefty, defense/offense, slap-hitter/power threat -- manager Tony La Russa can use his left field spot to get whatever he values most on that particular day. Left field will see plenty of guys getting at-bats as the year goes on.

7. Yadier Molina, C:
The man with the solid-platinum cannon of a throwing arm, Molina should develop offensively in his second full season in the big leagues. It wouldn't be shocking if he came into a little more power this year.

8. Junior Spivey, 2B:
It was an extremely tough spring for Spivey, but he's still only a few years removed from being an All-Star and one of the better all-around second basemen in the game. He'll share time with Aaron Miles.

ROTATION
1. Chris Carpenter, RHP:
The Cy Young winner was absolutely dominant, racking up strikeouts and groundballs with equal acuity. He features a power sinker, a filthy cutter, a curveball and a changeup, and has outstanding command to go with great stuff.

2. Mark Mulder, LHP:
Mulder enjoyed a fine year in 2005, yet felt he scuffled to get his mechanics right for most of the year. A smoothed out delivery could mean a few more strikeouts, and fewer runs allowed.

3. Jeff Suppan, RHP:
The quietest 16-game winner in baseball, two years running. Suppan throws a wide variety of pitches for strikes, living and dying -- but mostly living -- with location, smarts and underrated stuff.

4. Jason Marquis, RHP:
His sinker is a dynamic pitch, giving him the ability to get out of nearly any jam with one pitch. Marquis complements it at various times with a changeup, curveball and cutter, but the sinker is the bread-and-butter.

5. Sidney Ponson, RHP:
Dave Duncan's latest reclamation project looks like a rousing success so far. Ponson has long been a National League pitcher trapped in the AL, a hurler who pitches to contact and relies on his defense -- that's a good formula with St. Louis.

BULLPEN
The back of the bullpen remains the same as it's been the past four years, with Jason Isringhausen closing out games. Isringhausen doesn't have the raw power he did at the beginning of the decade, but he's become a more savvy pitcher with a wider array of pitches.

Behind him there's been significant turnover. Braden Looper takes over as the setup man for Julian Tavarez, and Ricardo Rincon inherits lefty-lefty duty from Ray King. A pair of holdovers will pitch in the middle, as Brad Thompson and Randy Flores hope to follow up very strong 2005 campaigns.

The last two spots will be filled by Josh Hancock, who was released by the Reds, and rookie Adam Wainwright. It will be intriguing to see how Wainwright fares; he pitched exceptionally well in Spring Training, and has the potential to be the strikeout threat that the Cardinals lost when Al Reyes underwent elbow surgery.

OPENING DELAYED
Larry Bigbie has a stress fracture in his left heel and is expected to be out for at least the first week or two of the regular season, but it could be longer than that.

BURNING QUESTION:
How much dropoff will there be on offense?

Scott Rolen feels fine, and if he's healthy, he ought to be able to approximate his 2002-2003 level of production. That would be a boost for a team that lost Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, but whether it will be enough remains to be seen.

Mark Grudzielanek wasn't an All-Star, but he was an offensive contributor at second base, and no one has stepped forward and shown that he will fill Grudzielanek's shoes offensively -- or defensively for that matter. Walker has been replaced by Encarnacion, an undeniable downgrade offensively.

Then there's left field, where Sanders and a cast of several put up fine production in '05. So Taguchi has established his level of offense, and it's useful but not spectacular. Someone needs to emerge as an offensive threat at that position, whether it be Bigbie, John Gall, John Rodriguez or Chris Duncan.

ON THE RECORD:
"Pitching is obviously the most important part. That's what we pay a lot of attention to. We've got a very strong, very deep rotation, and I think we're going to have a strong bullpen. Our offense will take care of itself, especially with Rolen back." -- General manager Walt Jocketty

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