FROM MY SEAT: Learning the Hard Way 

BY FRANK MURTAUGH | JULY 2, 2007

With the baseball season halfway behind us, the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals -- the reigning world champions, remember ­ -- have taught their legion of fans some valuable lessons. For a brief and honest review, read on.

  • Starting pitching counts. Yeah, this belongs in the category of “fire is hot.” But no development has impacted the Cardinals’ title defense like the defection of sixty percent of last year’s rotation (Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Jeff Weaver). Forced to move three relief pitchers -- Braden Looper, Brad Thompson, and Todd Wellemeyer -- into his rotation, manager Tony LaRussa has not only been crossing his fingers for merely five innings from his starters, but he’s had to lean on a bullpen heavy on imports (i.e., Russ Springer and Ryan Franklin) that has, to its credit, managed to keep St. Louis within shouting distance of the National League Central Division lead. Suppan (now with Milwaukee), Marquis (Cubs), and Weaver (Seattle) won’t make you forget Bob Gibson, but they’re inning-eaters, the 21st-century version of a baseball team’s backbone. When you add the prolonged absence of surgically repaired ace Chris Carpenter and number-two starter Mark Mulder, the Cards are fortunate to have any feathers left on their wings.

  • Albert Pujols is human. Exactly three men in baseball history have put together six consecutive seasons with a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig (heard of them?), and Albert Pujols. El Hombre is going to have difficulty extending his streak as his batting average (.307 through Sunday) and runs (47) are on track for career lows. That said, he remains the best hitter on the Cardinal team. But Pujols hasn’t won many games by himself, a lesson for those who build the lineup around him. Which brings us to . . .

  • Walt Jocketty is human, too. Let’s try -- try, people! -- to forget the deal that sent Dan Haren (an American League All-Star and a leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award) to Oakland for Mulder before the 2005 season. The much-celebrated Cardinal general manager made two “big” moves over the last offseason, and they have turned into certifiable busts: pitcher Kip Wells (3-11, 6.30 ERA) and second baseman Adam Kennedy (.209). Carpenter’s injury and Wells’ struggles have forced Adam Wainwright into the role of “ace” in only his second big-league season. A hero as the Cardinals’ closer last October, Wainwright would be a fine number-three or -four starter at this stage of his career. As for Kennedy, the former Memphis Redbird star has been outplayed by Aaron Miles, a career utility infielder. And with two years remaining on his contract -- Wells was signed to a one-year deal -- Kennedy may prove to be the bigger thorn in Jocketty’s side.

  • Rolen out, Buehrle in. Gold Glove aside, third basemen who hit 4 home runs in 67 games can be found on the bargain rack in the free agency market. Scott Rolen has become a dragging weight on the Good Ship Cardinal -- one with more than $30 million owed him over the next three seasons -- so if there’s a team out there who might consider the former(?) slugger an asset, Jocketty should spring at the deal. On the buyer’s side of the ledger, Mark Buehrle has long expressed an interest in pitching for St. Louis, the club he cheered as a boy in St. Charles, Missouri. And that was while he was winning a World Series, churning out six straight 200-inning seasons, and throwing a no-hitter for the White Sox. With the South Siders out of contention in the American League Central and Buehrle a free agent at year’s end, this big lefty will be ripe for the picking.

  • The future is 2008, and no later. Centerfielder Colby Rasmus is the best non-pitching prospect the Cardinals have seen since Pujols stormed through the system in 2000. Still at Double-A Springfield, Rasmus seems to be targeted for Memphis in 2008 and St. Louis in 2009. Why the delay? With Rasmus turning 21 next month -- and knocking Double-A pitching around -- why not let him cut his Triple-A teeth this season? Jim Edmonds is under contract for one more season -- 2009 -- which would seem to present a perfect passing-of-the-torch scenario for the Cardinals. Unable to play 150 games anymore, Edmonds could show a rookie Rasmus what it takes to patrol center at Busch Stadium. It’s time we see Rasmus in a Memphis uniform.

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