A TIME TO HEAL
If nothing else can be said about the 2002 Cardinals, this much is safe: it was a club familiar with pain. From the emotional trauma of losing broadcaster and team patriarch Jack Buck, to the tragically premature death of pitching ace Darryl Kile, to the more mundane injuries suffered by Woody Williams, Garrett Stephenson, and Scott Rolen, this was a team riding shotgun with a disturbingly ugly demon. To the credit of manager Tony LaRussa and his staff, heartache only bonded the team into a unit, one that may have played better after Kiles death than its collective talents would normally allow.
In getting a very unsentimental tail-whipping by the San Francisco Giants in the NLCS, the Cardinals (as with all playoff losers) are left with more questions for 2003 than answers. Has Tino Martinez (with two years and $14 million left on his contract) run out of base hits and value? After Matt Morris, who on earth will fill next seasons starting rotation? Will a full season of Scott Rolen hitting behind Albert Pujols call to mind the Bash Brothers? And where the heck is Rick Ankiel when you need him?
In assessing the season ahead (though oh, so far, it seems), remember the National League Central is currently the weakest division in baseball. Its there for the taking if St. Louis wants it. But to reach the Fall Classic will clearly take something extra. Here are five reasons the future looks rather bright in Cardinal Nation:
¥ Read my lips: Albert Pujols. Maybe not the best player in the game today, but absolutely the best player under the age of 25 (Pujols turns 23 in January). The first player in baseball history to bat .300, with 30 homers, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs in each of his first two seasons, Pujols is already being measured for a statue alongside the likes of Musial, Gibson, and Brock outside Busch Stadium. As long as this guy stays healthy and the Cardinals can lock him up with a long-term deal, winning is in the forecast. Look for Pujols to eventually settle down at first base in St. Louis.
¥ Left-side leather (and lumber). With Edgar Renteria at shortstop and Scott Rolen at third, St. Louis has the best such duo in the National League, maybe all of baseball. (We hear you Oakland.) Each is only 27 years old and appears to still be improving. If Renteria matches his 2002 RBI total of 83 on a regular basis, the Cardinals are simply running out of holes in their lineup. Rolens the kind of fielder that has called to mind sacred hot-corner names, like Robinson and Schmidt. Take care of that shoulder, Scotty.
¥ Pitching coach Dave Duncan. If theres no other reason to sign manager Tony LaRussa to a lifetime deal, his right-hand man Duncan is enough. Major League Baseball should create an assistant coachs award just for the labor Duncan put in this season, weaving 97 wins out of a pitching staff that required 26 arms and 14 starters to survive the six-month season. Imagine if the guy were given a healthy staff (and a grounded Ankiel). There will likely be at least two new starters in the rotation for 2002, maybe as many as four, so Duncans wisdom will be at an all-time premium. Criticize LaRussas management of his bullpen all you want . . . just leave this pitching shaman alone.
¥ J.D. Drew is expendable. You read that right. Some still see a young Mickey Mantle. Others see a more injury-prone version of Felix Jose. More than likely, Drews future falls somewhere in between. The kid shows signs of surpassing ability, like the game in Houston where he caught a ball over the rightfield fence and threw out a runner at the plate . . . in the same inning. At other times, he looks like playing baseball is strictly business, and an uncomfortable one at that. Wheres the fire J.D.? The St. Louis brass is going to have to find pitching this offseason. (Bless the innings Andy Benes, Chuck Finley, and Jason Simontacchi gave this club in the aftermath of Kiles death, but this trio is simply not a long-term fix on the Busch Stadium mound.) If Walt Jocketty and Tony LaRussa can convince themselves to take the risk, perhaps a trade of Drew for the right arm (or arms) may make the difference in 2003. As for rightfield, Eli Marrero is champing at the bit (his 18 homers matched Drews 2002 total, and his 66 RBIs were 10 more than J.D. compiled).
¥ Time is on their side. By the 2003 All-Star break, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, and Randy Johnson will all be at least 36 years old. These five dominant hurlers have shaped recent National League history . . . and theyre over the curve, all five of them. It will be interesting to see how the Braves and Diamondbacks adjust to their workhorses requiring a lighter load. The best young pitching in the National League may well reside in Chicago and, hey, theyre still the Cubs. If Jocketty can find the right supporting cast behind Matt Morris, St. Louis is destined to become the senior circuits lead dog.