Cardinals take a chance with Ponson

ST. LOUIS -- After agreeing Wednesday to a one-year contract
with the St. Louis Cardinals, Sidney Ponson said he's changed in
the three month since the Baltimore Orioles voided his contract and
released him.

Ponson went to an alcohol rehabilitation facility in September
and has been seeing a psychiatrist weekly.

"After my last problem, I sought help and didn't wait for
anybody to push me,'' Ponson said. "I just did it on my own. Since
the last time I had trouble I've been clean.''

Ponson's agreement with the Cardinals calls for a $1 million
base salary and allows him to earn an additional $1.5 million in
performance bonuses. Ponson, 7-11 with a 6.21 ERA last season, will
compete for a spot in the rotation.

"We signed him with that purpose in mind, based on his past
career,'' Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said. "It
provides more depth to our rotation, more depth to our pitching
staff, and that has been the priority of our offseason plan.''

Jocketty said the team did a "thorough background check'' of
Ponson and also met with the pitcher and his agent in Florida a few
weeks ago. Jocketty thinks Ponson is "sincere in wanting to turn
things around.''

"Everybody deserves a second chance and we're here to provide
that,'' Jocketty said. "That doesn't mean we're going to let
things slide, either.''

Jocketty said the contract includes language pertaining to
alcohol abuse but characterized it as "pretty common language.''

Ponson had a $7.5 million salary last year in the middle season
of a $22.5 million, three-year contract. He was arrested Aug. 25
and charged with driving under the influence and driving while
impaired. He served a five-day jail sentence last week for driving
while impaired, and the charge of driving under the influence was
dropped under a plea agreement.

"Sidney has made it very clear to us that he is committed to
turning both his life and his career around,'' Jocketty said.
"He's a tremendous talent who has made mistakes, but he's been
making huge strides in trying to return himself to a much better
quality of life.''

Baltimore released Ponson on Sept. 6 and the team voided his
contract, prompting a grievance from the players' association
seeking he be paid the remaining $11 million called for in the
Orioles' contract. The case is scheduled to be heard in March by
arbitrator Shyam Das.

If the 29-year-old right-hander wins the grievance, the players'
association probably would argue that he is owed the money from his
St. Louis contract in addition to the Baltimore deal. Management,
if Ponson prevails, likely would say that any money paid by the
Cardinals should be offset against the Orioles' contract.

Ponson, the opening day starter for the Orioles in 2004, will
compete for the rotation slot vacated when Matt Morris left to sign
with the San Francisco Giants. The Cardinals also have rookie
Anthony Reyes under consideration.

That surplus could enable the Cardinals to deal one of their
starters, perhaps arbitration-eligible Jason Marquis, for a corner
outfielder. They have openings in left and right field after Reggie
Sanders left as a free agent and Larry Walker retired.

For now, Jocketty said the Cardinals have a "big six.''

"I think the idea is to go to spring training and have a
competition and see,'' Jocketty said. "What it does provide is
some insurance if we feel Anthony is not ready.''

Ponson, a native of Aruba, has a career record of 76-91 with a
4.81 ERA. But he has 28 complete games since 1999, fourth-best
among active pitchers and was a 17-game winner in 2003.

Ponson was charged in January with driving under the influence
in Florida, and he spent 11 days in an Aruban jail after he hit a
judge during a Christmas Day fight at a beach in his home country.

In other news, the Cardinals agreed to minor league contracts
with first baseman/outfielder Brian Daubach and right-handed
pitcher John Riedling.

Daubach, who lives in nearby O'Fallon, Ill., appeared in 15
games last year for the New York Mets and batted .325 with 16
homers and 62 RBIs in 99 games at Triple-A Norfolk. Riedling made
29 relief appearances for the Marlins last season and was 4-1 with
a 7.16 ERA.

The Cardinals did not offer contracts to infielder Bo Hart and
Scott Seabol, catcher Mike Mahoney and pitcher Mike Lincoln prior
to Tuesday night's deadline. They also sent right-hander Rhett
Parrott outright to Triple-A Memphis.