CARDINAL QUESTIONS Not since March 2000 have the St. Louis Cardinals seen a roster with as many new faces as their 2004 edition. Four years ago Darryl Kile, Fernando Vina, Mike Matheny, and Jim Edmonds donned Cardinal gear for the first time and transformed a team that had been Mark McGwire’s traveling sideshow into a club that would make the playoffs three straight seasons and reach a pair of National League Championship Series. Alas, that amalgam of high-priced talent wasn’t enough to get the Cards to the World Series. And despite all the changes for the upcoming campaign -- manager Tony LaRussa’s ninth in St. Louis -- the general consensus seems to be that the Cardinals are playing for third place. The Houston Astros’ off-season acquisition of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens has given the National League’s Central Division arguably six of the ten best pitchers in baseball. The Astros will follow the erstwhile Yankee tandem with Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, while Mark Prior and Kerry Wood will contend for the Cy Young in Chicago Cub uniforms. All of which means a Cardinal rotation of Matt Morris, Woody Williams, Jeff Suppan, Chris Carpenter, and Jason Marquis will hardly have teeth chattering among pennant aspirants. St. Louis will audition its new squad at AutoZone Park this Friday and Saturday, when the Cardinals face their top farm team, our Memphis Redbirds. As you acquaint yourself with all the new faces, here are a few storylines to follow: LaRussa’s last? The Cardinal skipper enters his ninth season in St. Louis with a contract that expires with the campaign’s final pitch. The vibe in and around Busch Stadium is that LaRussa -- forever unable to live up to Whitey Herzog’s standard in the eyes of many -- is prepared for a career shift. Having taken the Cards to the postseason in four of his eight years in St. Louis, LaRussa’s recent track record pales only when compared with those of Joe Torre and Bobby Cox. He won a division title in 1996 with a team inferior in talent to his 2004 model. The challenges mounted by Houston and Chicago should further energize the manager with the third-most wins in franchise history. Leading off . . . ? As much as Cardinal Nation wanted Fernando Vina to be that prototypical leadoff man, he really never was. Over his three full seasons in St. Louis, his walk totals were 36, 32, and 44 (you’d like to see close to 100 from your table-setter). His on-base percentage over those years: .380, .357, .333 (the standard being .400). With Vina now a Detroit Tiger, LaRussa’s first lineup question is the leadoff position. Newly acquired second baseman Marlon Anderson appeared to be the leading candidate at the opening of spring training, and former Redbird Kerry Robinson (a reserve outfielder the last three seasons) has been in the mix. But Tony Womack -- acquired in a deal with Boston March 21st -- appears ready to seize the slot, as long as he’s fully recovered from off-season arm surgery. Considering the lumber lower in the batting order, the leadoff man will be critical for this club. Who ya gonna call? Here are two words that should summarize the condition of last year’s Cardinal bullpen: Jeff Fassero. With the lobbin’ lefty comfortably out of town, late-inning St. Louis leads are already safer. The addition of Ray King (who came from Atlanta in the J.D. Drew trade) and Julian Tavarez will mean a pair of inning-eating middle-relief options LaRussa didn’t have a year ago. A healthy Jason Isringhausen to close on Opening Day is a dramatic upgrade from this time last season. Budgeting a contender? Back in February, St. Louis ownership made Albert Pujols the first $100 million player in 112 years of Cardinal baseball, a development that would send shockwaves considering Pujols has merely three years under his belt . . . were it not for the fact those three years were unlike the start of any career in the game’s history. With Pujols locked up for the next seven years, focus will shift toward keeping some of the high-priced talent around him in Cardinal uniforms. Shortstop Edgar Renteria (.330 and a second straight Gold Glove in 2003) is at the top of the priority list. Considering Scott Rolen is in the second year of a long-term deal, the likelihood of centerfielder Jim Edmonds reaching the final year of his contract (2007) with St. Louis appears less and less likely. The reality of economics -- at least outside the walls of Yankee Stadium -- tends to rear its ugly head as stars reach their market potential. If Renteria can be added to a Pujols/Rolen nucleus, the Cardinal lineup should be among the league’s best well beyond 2006 and the New Stadium Era in St. Louis.

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