Among the most celebrated angles to the St. Louis Cardinals' surprising start in 2008 is the five-man outfield by committee manager Tony LaRussa has utilized. With Gold Glove centerfielder Jim Edmonds traded to San Diego (for current Memphis Redbird David Freese) and rightfielder Juan Encarnacion sidelined with a catastrophic eye injury suffered last summer when the veteran was struck by a foul ball, the Cardinals are fielding the youngest -- and most flexible -- outfield St. Louis has seen in years. And eighty percent of that outfield has connections to Memphis. (Brian Barton was acquired from Cleveland over the offseason.)
Here's a look at the players who chased flies at AutoZone Park before earning their current gig up the River a bit:
RICK ANKIEL -- Even with a late-season report connecting him to human growth hormone, Ankiel was the feel-good story of the Cardinals' system in 2007. Once a promising pitching prospect (he was the Minor League Player of the Year in 1999, when he won seven games for the Redbirds), Ankiel made it all the way back to the big-leagues as a slugging outfielder. In 102 games for Memphis, Ankiel cleared the wall 32 times and drove in 89 runs while batting .267. After his promotion to St. Louis in mid-August, Ankiel drilled 11 more homers and drove in 39 runs in just 47 games. He's looked comfortable in centerfield over the first month of this season (the position he roamed at AutoZone Park) and will probably get the most at-bats among the team's current quintet of outfielders. Through Sunday, he'd hit four homers and driven in 11 runs.
CHRIS DUNCAN -- The big son of Cardinal pitching coach Dave Duncan led the 2005 Redbirds with 21 home runs and 73 RBIs, but played almost the entire season at first base (a position occupied in St. Louis by one Albert Pujols). After hitting another seven dingers in 52 games for Memphis in 2006, Duncan was promoted to St. Louis, and was a major contributor -- from leftfield -- in the Cardinals' unexpected run to a World Series victory. Duncan's power numbers dropped off in 2007 (his 21 homers were one fewer than he had in 2006, and in almost 100 more at-bats). With Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds gone, Duncan has some heavy lifting to do in the St. Louis batting order, whether he's hitting just before or just after Mr. Pujols. Through Sunday, he'd only hit two home runs but had a solid on-base percentage of .397.
SKIP SCHUMAKER -- Over three seasons (2005-07), Schumaker played in 269 games as a Redbird, hitting .287 the first year, followed by an average of .306 in each of the next two campaigns. His speed and ability to work a count made him a rare commodity in the Cardinal system and, after brief stints in St. Louis the last three years, he's platooning with Ryan Ludwick in rightfield this season. He had a game-winning hit at division-rival Milwaukee on April 21st and then a walk-off base hit last Saturday against Houston. Schumaker's speed at the top of the batting order can't be overemphasized (he's scored 20 runs for the Cardinals through Sunday). David Eckstein led the 2007 Cards with a measly 10 stolen bases.
RYAN LUDWICK -- The 29-year-old Ludwick had the shortest stay in Memphis among this quartet, having played in 104 big-league games (for Texas and Cleveland) before suiting up with the Redbirds to open the 2007 season. In 29 games for Memphis, Ludwick hit .340 with eight homers and 36 RBIs and compiled a 14-game hitting streak. When Preston Wilson went down with an injury in St. Louis, Ludwick was the obvious promotion. He went on to hit 14 homers and drive in 52 runs over 120 games. Among Ludwick's chief values is his proficiency at any of the three outfield positions. He's hitting .323 and has driven in 14 runs (in only 62 at-bats) for St. Louis.
Well, I like talking about, reading about, and yes, writing about sports. I probably take it more seriously than I should, as I'm now feeding this cyber-monster a weekly column for the seventh year. But there are some sports expressions, some casual adjectives and references that I've come to loathe. When I become king, these verbal transgressions will be deleted, bleeped, or blacked out, depending on the medium in which they're presented. Life's too short to hear or read drivel like this any longer.
"It is what it is." (Or it's ugly cousin, Whatever happens, happens.) At what point did we decide that we could replace saying nothing with five words? The expression essentially means this: I/you/we can't change what has happened or, for that matter, what is going to happen, so we must accept the current condition as part of our existential dilemma. Or in other words: This sucks. Hardly ever used in a positive light, the expression is spoken into microphones as a dodge by athletes/coaches/owners unwilling to say anything of real opinion or decisiveness. It's a bailout, cowardly and vapid. The sad truth is that it's being uttered by sports personalities who come across as bright and otherwise clever. (I recently saw Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban -- a billionaire who made his money during the dot-com boom -- lean on this crutch) Every time I hear this, I long for the two most honest words in journalism: "No comment."
"This pitcher must throw strikes." For the love of Grover Alexander, when has a pitcher ever taken the mound and not needed to "throw strikes"? It's the most fundamental, basic requirement for winning baseball games. When you hear an announcer emphasize this "key to the game," he's telling you he can't think of a variable beyond Pitching 101 that might affect the contest's outcome. Therefore, you should enjoy the rest of the game with your television on mute. Now, "The pitcher must throw his curveball for strikes" is a slight but significant variation of the expression. And considering the plethora of big-league hurlers who wouldn't throw a breaking ball on a three-ball count with Mario Mendoza himself at the plate, this is a skill worth highlighting.
"This team is going to play physical." A style of play must have an alternative for it to be considered, well, a style. This boilerplate passage tends to creep up on Saturday and Sunday mornings in the fall, when former football players "break down" the upcoming games on gridirons coast to coast. I've been waiting and waiting for an analyst to suggest a team should NOT play physical. "The Titans, Bill, really need to back off this game, and use a finesse system. When it comes to hitting their opponent, this is not a game the Titans should tackle with more muscle than required." Every football game ever played, even when played poorly, was "physical." Body-to-body, muscle-on-muscle. Chess and poker: games that you dont need to "play physical."
"Unbelievable shot! Unbelievable performance! Unbelievable win!" Unbelievable blather. This over-abused adjective is especially troublesome, as it is most often uttered by the professionals -- commentators and analysts -- who are paid to make feats of athletic greatness BELIEVABLE for those of us without a 40-inch vertical leap or 4.3 forty. Sports fans tune in and pay for those expensive seats with their fingers crossed that they'll see something they haven't seen before. When it happens -- when Tiger wins that 19th major or A-Rod passes Bonds -- don't diminish the moment by placing it beyond our realm of comprehension. "Amazing! Astounding! Astonishing! Superhuman!" But no, not "unbelievable."
A few observations after the first weekend at home for this year's Memphis Redbirds:
The most talked-about player in the St. Louis Cardinals' system is Redbird centerfielder Colby Rasmus. After hitting .275 with 29 homers last season at Double-A Springfield, the 21-year-old Rasmus is targeted for the top of the Cardinals' batting order, possibly sometime in 2008. As far as his comportment and swing are concerned, Rasmus appears to be legit. Batting from the left side, he's similar to the Phillies' Chase Utley, in that there's no wasted motion, with a smooth cut that will gain power as Rasmus gains strength and experience. No position in recent Cardinal history has been as rich as centerfield, with three All-Stars -- Willie McGee, Ray Lankford, and Jim Edmonds -- manning the spot for most of the last quarter-century. The next decade appears to be in decent hands with Colby Rasmus.
The Redbirds will almost certainly score more runs than they did a year ago, when they were near the bottom of the Pacific Coast League in hitting. In addition to Rasmus, a full year from second-baseman Jarrett Hoffpauir, outfielder Joe Mather (currently injured), and big Josh Phelps at first base should produce more crooked numbers on the scoreboard. But the added offense may come at the expense of the club's defense. I counted at least three players on Opening Night -- Phelps, shortstop Brian Barden, and rightfielder Nick Stavinoha -- who are in the lineup with little consideration for their glove work.
If the rehabbing duo of Mark Mulder and Chris Carpenter are able to return to the St. Louis starting rotation this season, the Cardinals will find themselves with that rarest of commodities: a surplus of pitching. And with the need for another bat in the Cardinal lineup -- a corner outfielder would be nice -- that pitching may become the franchise's chief trade bait. All of which will make the Memphis starting rotation a compelling story, as young arms like Mike Parisi (24), Mitchell Boggs (24), and Blake Hawksworth (25) could find themselves either part of a big trade package, or promoted to St. Louis to fill the void from a current starter moved for a big hitter.
It's hard to understand the Cardinals' philosophy in having catcher Bryan Anderson -- the third-ranked prospect in their system, according to Baseball America -- start the season at Double-A Springfield. Anderson finished fourth in the Texas League a year ago with a .298 batting average and, despite some defensive shortcomings, has a big-league future. That can't be said for the trio of backstops on the Memphis roster: Mark Johnson, Gabe Johnson, and Matt Pagnozzi. With Yadier Molina entrenched behind the plate in St. Louis, Anderson's development is another trade chip the Cardinals can use to their benefit. But less so, the more he's hitting Double-A pitching.
The Redbirds' record for saves in a single season is 26, by Gene Stechschulte in the 2000 championship season. Look for big Chris Perez to shatter that figure this year. The 23-year-old righty saved 27 games at Double-A Springfield last season (then another eight after a promotion to Memphis). Perez picked up three saves in the Redbirds' first 11 games.
When I walked into AutoZone Park last Friday night, the red carpet treatment -- literally, from the front gate to the concourse -- was less impressive than the aroma of the stadium's newest concession: German roasted nuts. With your choice of pecans, almonds, or cashews, these are the sweetest ballpark treats since Cracker first met Jack. I overheard fans in the second deck wondering, "Where are the cinnamon buns?" Don't take your seat until you have a warm bag of this nutty goodness in your hands. And yes, they're worth the steep price ($7).