Whenever the gurus at the Eastcoast Sports Promotion Network or their competitors at Sports snobs Illustrated (we know more than all you rubes) start rubbing their oracles about how dismal the St. Louis Cardinals will be this year (one imbecile predicted them to have the worst record in the NL, below Pittsburgh and San Francisco!), my heart fills with hope.
You see, St. Louis is a proud franchise with a tradition of success and excellence. Those other bottom feeders, like the previous teams mentioned, plus Tampa, Baltimore and Kansas City, haven't even had winning seasons since Reagan was napping in the Oval Office. The Cardinals are just two seasons removed from winning the World Series.
Sure, this is a rebuilding year, but I don't see anything but good news ahead from this point. One of the prime criticisms of the "experts" is the loss of veterans such as Jim Edmonds (old, slow, can't hit), David Eckstein (can't hit or get on base), Scott Rolen (bitter and broken-down), Juan Encarnacion (can't hit or catch fly balls), Kip Wells (corpse) and Walt Jocketty (last great trade: Larry Walker, four years ago).
In their place, we have a group of young players with all the potential in the world for breakout seasons. Yes, the outfield is still a defensive adventure, especially wherever Chris Duncan is involved. But Rick Ankiel is fast, and you can't teach fast. He'll learn and improve. Add his bat, Duncan's power and Skip Schumaker's emerging skill as a lead-off hitter, and it's a stronger offensive outfield than last season's.
The infield corners are solid. Troy Glaus will outshine Scott Rolen both offensively and defensively simply by showing up every day to play and avoiding the disabled list, where Rolen's name might as well be written with a Sharpie marker. And as long as Albert Pujols shredded elbow doesn't explode in a shower of blood, bone and ligament tissue, he'll continue to be Phat Albert. Don't underestimate his leadership and competitiveness; Albert hates to lose and won't accept anything else from his teammates but maximum effort.
Yes, the middle infield stinks, but I expect Cesar Izturis to either produce or sit down in favor of Brendan Ryan. Adam Kennedy will either regain his Anaheim-era skills or give way to Aaron Miles. We could still see a trade for a better shortstop—think Anthony Reyes—before summer is half over. And don't forget that we still have the best defensive catcher in baseball with Yadi Molina. If he can even hit .250, he's a huge asset.
Okay, the pitching staff. We've got Wainwright, Looper and Lohse. Those are three quality starters. The four and five slots are Brad Thompson and Todd Wellemeyer. Before the All-Star break, it is conceivable that those spots will feature Mark Mulder and Matt Clement. If that happens (and yes, it's a big if), we still have Joel Pinero looking for a spot after his rehab. Assuming the staff takes shape (of course it's a huge assumption), this takes the pressure off Chris Carpenter to return too soon from Tommy John surgery. We still have a solid bullpen, and we still have a healthy Izzy to close games.
Either way you look at it, our pitching is better up and down than last year, plus we have prospects in Memphis who could fill a slot. Last year was a pitching disaster; it's unlikely this year will be as bad. Finally, the front office all has something to prove. Tony LaRussa loves overachieving in the face of low expectations, and his competitive drive will be akin to Lou Brown's from "Major League," who was in favor of "wasting sportwriters' time" and serving them all a big s*** sandwich. I expect TLR shares those sentiment. New GM John Mozeliak wants to prove he was the right choice to follow the successful tenure of Walt Jocketty. Even lead owner Bill DeWitt wants to show St. Louis fans that he still wants to win. (Aside: It's stupid for fans to criticize Cardinals ownership as "cheap"; they have a $100 million payroll, for Pete's sake. Be grateful you don't root for the Florida Marlins.)
Last night's opener was all rolling the Cardinals' way, with a 5-1 lead in the third, two RBI for Rick Ankiel, a homer for Albert and a promising start for Adam Wainwright. Too bad none of it counted after the rains came. But it was a portent, I believe, of sunnier days ahead for Cardinal Nation. And if that's not enough to make you happy, consider this...the experts anointed 2008 World Champion Chicago Cubs lost their home opener to Milwaukee. Happy 100th Anniversary, small bears!
p.s. My good friend Tuck posted this excellent cartoon about the aforementioned "chosen ones" way back in February. You can view the cartoon by clicking HERE.