March means spring. And spring means baseball. And in these parts, baseball means the St. Louis Cardinals. As the defending National League Central champions shake off the rust in Jupiter, Florida, this month, four primary issues have been stealing headlines and stirring debate within Cardinal Nation. Let’s take a look at all four.
• Who will man the hot corner? Joe Thurston and Mark DeRosa played the most innings at third base last season for St. Louis, and neither player is back. With Matt Holliday signed to a contract that pays him $16 million a year, the Cards’ new third baseman will come from the bargain rack. Could be David Freese, a standout two years ago in Memphis (26 home runs) who missed much of last season with an ankle injury before helping lead the Redbirds to the Pacific Coast League championship. Freese was arrested for DWI this winter and has since given cleaning up his personal life the same priority as winning the third-base gig for the Cardinals. Other options include Joe Mather (like Freese, injured most of last year after a fine 2008 season) and maybe Allen Craig (.322 and 26 homers in Memphis last season on his way to the franchise’s Minor League Player of the Year award). It’s unlikely all three of these prospects will make the big club, which means the Redbirds should land a solid, veteran bat in the middle of their lineup.
• Who is the fifth starter? If Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Kyle Lohse, and Brad Penny stay healthy, it’s going to be a good season at Busch Stadium. Each hurler has won at least 15 games at least once in his career. But unless Tony LaRussa turns into Earl Weaver before Opening Day, someone new will have to take the ball every fifth day. (Joel Pineiro and Todd Wellemeyer have moved on.) Former Cub Rich Hill was invited to Jupiter to earn a spot, having pitched fewer than 80 innings the last two seasons combined. Three young starters will also contend for the role, a spot in the Memphis rotation awaiting if they don’t make the cut. Blake Hawksworth went 5-4 for Memphis last season before going 4-0 with a 2.02 ERA in 40 innings for St. Louis. Mitchell Boggs went 6-4 as a Redbird, 2-3 as a Cardinal. The best stuff probably belongs to 23-year-old lefty Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals’ second-ranked prospect and another hero of the Redbirds’ PCL title run last fall.
• Who will come off the bench? Among reserves, the most at-bats for the 2009 Cardinals went to Rick Ankiel, Joe Thurston, Chris Duncan, and Khalil Greene. They’re all gone. (A member of the Cardinals’ system since 1998, Ankiel signed with Kansas City so he can play every day.) The only holdovers on the bench are catcher Jason LaRue and infielder Julio Lugo. Which makes the signing last weekend of former All-Star Felipe Lopez significant. Lopez can capably play second, short, and third, invaluable versatility under a manager like LaRussa who likes to keep his players fresh (and motivated) by moving parts and positions within his lineup. Along with Freese, Mather, and Craig, infielder Tyler Greene and outfielder Jon Jay (both Memphis Redbirds in ’09) will compete for roster spots with the big club. With starting shortstop Brendan Ryan rehabbing from wrist surgery, the musical chairs on the Cardinal bench have become especially hot. As with the rotation slot, those players who don’t fit LaRussa’s needs will be on their way to AutoZone Park . . . and with a chip on their shoulder.
• Who’s that behind the batting cage? The hiring of Mark McGwire as hitting coach is dubious at best, a public-relations tsunami at worst. And it’s starting to look like the latter. (When your own brother publishes a book disparaging your use of steroids, it may be time to reevaluate a career in the public eye.) The return of McGwire to Busch Stadium is sure to have its warm elements. It’s been only 12 years since he made St. Louis the center of the baseball universe with his juiced assault of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record. Fans will get their number-25 jerseys out of the attic and make the former slugger feel a part of the family again. But for the 81 games the Cardinals must play away from home? For a team suiting up the game’s most fearsome slugger — three-time MVP Albert Pujols — adding a confessed steroid user to the clubhouse is a bit like asking a recovering alcoholic to lead tours at Anheuser-Busch. Here’s hoping — somehow — the baseball played on the field will be the story of the upcoming Cardinal season. * * * * * * * *
• One of the more underrated annual events on the Mid-South sports calendar is the Gulf South Conference basketball tournament, to be held this week (March 4-7) at the DeSoto Civic Center in Southaven. (Both the men's and women's tournaments will be held.) The top-ranked men’s team in Division II — Arkansas Tech — will be favored, with another top-10 squad (Valdosta State) in the field. A pair of top-10 teams (Delta State and Arkansas Tech) will be vying for the women's title. Check it out.