Cards contenders despite so-so offseason

JUPITER, Fla. -- Excitement builds and emotions crest in the weeks before a ballpark's debut. Just don't expect St. Louis manager Tony La Russa to get all Dick Vermeil-ish over something as mundane as a change of workplace. You'd have better luck tapping La Russa's sentimental side by mentioning the plight of orphaned cats and dogs.

La Russa was hanging around the batting cage with reporters Thursday when talk turned to the Cardinals' transition to the new Busch Stadium. What's he going to miss most about the old Busch?

La Russa quickly mentioned the antiquated plumbing, which sprang into action with a belching, groaning sound more typically associated with space shuttle liftoffs.

"I should have taped that noise so I could pipe it into the new place," La Russa said. "Take it to Steven Spielberg and get him to put it on Dolby for me."

The Cardinals will christen the new Busch Stadium, with its wider concourses, improved sight lines, gourmet food offerings and state-of-the art bathroom fixtures, on April 10 when the Milwaukee Brewers visit St. Louis. The local fervor is predictably high. As of two weeks ago, the team had sold about 3.4 million of the roughly 3.5 million tickets available this season.

"It'll be a very fan-friendly ballpark," La Russa said. "But they won't be too friendly if we're getting beat."

Welcome to the home of the National League's best team, where tradition reigns, expectations are high, the manager's mood tends to hinge on the results of today's game, and the players are conditioned to go along for the ride.

The Cardinals have had a nice run since 2004. They're coming off consecutive 100-win seasons for the first time since they did it three straight years from 1942 to 1944. Last year, they produced a Most Valuable Player in Albert Pujols and a Cy Young Award winner in Chris Carpenter and ranked third in the league in runs scored and first in ERA. The Cardinals scored 171 more runs than they allowed, easily the biggest gap in the majors.

Although the Braves are always a factor and the Mets are attracting plenty of attention this spring, lots of front-office people think St. Louis is still the club to beat in the National League. Still, it has been a challenging winter for the Cardinals. Fans who looked forward to a big splash weren't happy when the offseason produced only a series of ripples. The Cardinals finished second to Toronto in a bid to sign A.J. Burnett, then spent their money on reclamation projects and players with injury histories and unfulfilled potential.

"I understood people's frustration," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "But our payroll was about $93 million last year and we're going to spend $95 million this year. That's plenty of money. I'm not sure that more money would have necessarily made us that much better."

The team's new acquisitions have been a mixed bag. Sidney Ponson, cut loose by Baltimore for well-documented bad behavior, beat out prospect Anthony Reyes for a spot in the rotation. Outfielder Juan Encarnacion, who signed a three-year, $15 million contract, just returned from the World Baseball Classic. The Cardinals think his 2005 numbers (.287, 16 homers, 76 RBI) will improve now that he has left spacious Dolphins Stadium for a more neutral offensive park.

Second base is more problematic. Junior Spivey hit .149 with an alarming 17 whiffs in his first 47 Grapefruit League at-bats, and the Cardinals have to determine whether he's actually that bad or simply is still kicking off the rust after missing 188 games with injuries the past two seasons.

Amid speculation linking the Cardinals to alternatives ranging from Alfonso Soriano to Tony Graffanino, Jocketty maintains that the solution resides somewhere in camp. The Cardinals have a week to decide whether the second-base job will go to Spivey, Hector Luna, Aaron Miles or some combination thereof.

The team also is monitoring left field, where Larry Bigbie's foot injury might lead to more playing time for So Taguchi.

For believers in the concept of team chemistry, this season figured to be a transitional period for the Cardinals. Larry Walker retired and spent the spring as a coach for Team Canada in the WBC. Reggie Sanders and Mark Grudzielanek are now in Kansas City, and Matt Morris signed a three-year deal with San Francisco.

The departed players had what third baseman Scott Rolen calls "big personalities," but the Cardinals have grown accustomed to a shifting clubhouse dynamic in recent years. Players from Woody Williams to Mike Matheny to ultra-chatty Steve Kline have come and gone, and the Cardinals have adapted.

"Last year, we joked around as a team and had people running around doing stuff," Rolen said. "The year before, Kline was running around doing stuff. Maybe this year nobody will be running around doing stuff. Maybe it'll be a more subdued, quiet clubhouse and we'll win 110 games. Who knows?"

The Cardinals' season ultimately could hinge on the performance of their second- and third-most productive hitters. First, there's Rolen, who played only 56 games last year after blowing out his left shoulder in a collision with Hee-Seop Choi.

Rolen received a positive report from Dr. Tim Kremchek before camp, but he knows he'll have to be diligent all season to avoid backsliding. His rehab program features a mix of stretching, strength training and periodic neck massages to work out the kinks.

In Florida, Rolen has been fine in the field and tentative at the plate. A scout observed that he's hitting a lot of balls to right field, predictable for a player recovering from two surgeries. Cardinals hitting coach Hal McRae recently told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he doesn't expect the real Scott Rolen to emerge until June. And Rolen seems to have no idea what's in store for him.

"I can hit. I can field. I can play," Rolen said. "I'm healthy in the sense that I'm not hurt, and that's all I'm going for ask for. I sat on the shelf doing nothing for most of last year, and this is a lot better than the alternative.

"A lot of people ask me, 'Is your power going to go down?' Hell, I don't know. I hope not. I hope it goes the other way."

The other source of concern is center fielder Jim Edmonds, who woke up one day in November with a mysterious numbness in his right, or non-throwing, forearm. Doctors initially surmised that Edmonds might have tennis elbow and now attribute the problem to inflammation around the nerve in his elbow. Edmonds had a cortisone shot earlier this winter, followed by two MRIs.

Edmonds thinks the problem might be the result of too many wrist curls in the weight room. Strangely enough, the injury doesn't affect his ability to hit a baseball. It's more an issue in day-to-day life. There was a point last winter when Edmonds had problems tying his shoes or lifting a plate of food. But he's learning to cope.

"It's getting a little too much attention right now, but that's how it is when you go to the doctor," Edmonds said. "If I can't feel my forearm for the rest of my life, I'll be OK. There are worse things than that."

The common refrain is that the NL Central talent gap has narrowed, but that remains to be seen. Unless Roger Clemens returns, the Astros might not be stronger. Until Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and Wade Miller actually appear in games, the Cubs haven't improved. And Milwaukee and Pittsburgh, bottom feeders on the rise, have combined for one .500 season in 13 years and finished an aggregate 52 games behind St. Louis in 2005.

How vulnerable can the Cardinals be? They have baseball's premier stat machine in Pujols; a first-rate rotation with Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Ponson; and a proven closer, Jason Isringhausen, backed up by new set-up man Braden Looper. Now all that's left is staying healthy and hoping the team's winning culture brings out the best in players like Ponson and Encarnacion, with their enigmatic reputations and spotty résumés.

"I heard a lot of criticism over what we did this winter, but it's not my money," Rolen said. "I don't own the club. I look around, and we still have a good team here. We just have a different mix now. We'll have to try and make it work."

They usually do. Even if the sinks and toilets are quieter in St. Louis this year, the Cardinals still should make their share of noise.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.