FROM MY SEAT: First Impressions 

Let's open this week with an analogy. Say you've been invited to a dear old friend's house for dinner. Your friend lives in one of the swankiest parts of town and has one of the nicest party venues within a day's drive. Great crowds, perfect atmosphere. The kind of event for which you cross everything else off your calendar. Once seated for dinner, though, you discover the meal is worse than week-old rubber chicken. Confounding your entertainment dilemma, it turns out the meal was prepared 280 miles away. Do you stay for the company and creature comforts? Or is it time for emergency evacuation?

It looks as though 2006 will be one long baseball season at AutoZone Park, still the finest place to watch a game in all the minor leagues. But as for the meal, er, team served up by the St. Louis Cardinals . . . pass the salt. That said, the best Triple-A clubs are built with a healthy mix of veterans who have tasted some big-league action and prospects on the cusp of reaching The Show. So we'll take a look at the 2006 Redbirds in each category.

VETERANS

John Gall could actually wear either label. Having played three seasons in Memphis and made enough major-league impact to have been on the Cardinals' 2006 postseason roster, Gall is well beyond the teeth-cutting stage. Nonetheless, his future as a major leaguer is almost entirely ahead of him. Off to a blistering start this season (.387 through Sunday), Gall recently broke Stubby Clapp's Redbirds record for career hits (he already owns the RBI mark and is but four home runs behind Scott Seabol's standard). Leftfield in St. Louis seems to be calling for Gall's bat, as the position is currently a platoon between So Taguchi and John Rodriguez. If the Cardinals' new rightfielder, Juan Encarnacion, continues to struggle, look for Gall to get a promotion before Memorial Day.

Second-baseman Junior Spivey is the most perplexing Redbird veteran. Signed last winter to succeed Mark Grudzielanek in St. Louis, Spivey had a horrible spring (.147 batting average) and wound up as the opening-day leadoff batter for the Redbirds. This is a player who hit .301 and scored more than 100 runs for the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks. With Aaron Miles and Hector Luna contributing in St. Louis, Spivey has his work cut out for him to earn a return to the majors.

One veteran worth pulling for in Memphis is pitcher Alan Benes. Now in his third stint with the Redbirds, the 34-year-old Benes is clinging to his last chance at a bullpen role in the majors. As a rookie in 1996, the younger of the two Cardinal Benes brothers was among baseball's top pitching prospects, winning 13 games and starting against Atlanta in the NLCS. Ten years and a major shoulder surgery later, he finds himself auditioning for a supporting role, anywhere. Benes ranks fourth in Redbirds history with 16 wins.

PROSPECTS

Among Baseball America's top 10 prospects in the Cardinal system, only two were on the Redbirds' opening-day roster: pitcher Anthony Reyes and third-baseman Travis Hanson. Lefthanded reliever Tyler Johnson (14th) and slugger Chris Duncan (15th) round out the most promising quartet you'll see these days at AutoZone Park.

Reyes lost out to Sidney Ponson for the fifth spot in the Cardinals' starting rotation, due largely to some extra precaution on the part of the St. Louis brass. Having already witnessed the flameouts of highly touted prospects Rick Ankiel and Bud Smith, the Cardinals will likely take every step necessary to make sure Reyes graduates to the big leagues with as little damage (physical or mental) as possible. If any of the Cardinals' starters falters or comes up lame, though, Reyes will be on his way north.

Hanson was the Cardinals' 2005 minor-league player of the year, hitting .284 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs at Double-A Springfield. |He's struggled mightily at Triple A, hitting .155 through Sunday. He also has some work to do in the field (36 errors a year ago). With Scott Rolen entrenched at the hot corner in St. Louis, look for Hanson to get some time at second base once the Spivey experiment concludes.

As for Johnson and Duncan, each player had a taste of the majors last September (Duncan hit the last regular-season home run at the old Busch Stadium). Duncan's power from the left side makes him a commodity should the injury bug bite any of the Cardinals' sluggers. And Johnson offers his own power element (77 strikeouts in 59 Triple-A innings last year). Any 24-year-old southpaw who can punch hitters out has an excellent chance at making a living in the major leagues. Here's hoping Johnson offers Memphis fans a few precious morsels before he takes his dinner plate to that big party house under the Arch.

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