WAITING FOR SPRING ItÕs been a rather compelling hot stove season, hasnÕt it? The Yankee wooing of Randy Johnson, speculation over Scott BorasÕs army of clients (including Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, and J.D. Drew), and a new steroids firestorm to boot. Despite all the variables, there hasnÕt been all that much dramatically different from winters past. Given the chance, major league baseball owners will overspend, and overspend with vigor ($53 million for 33-year-old Pedro Martinez?!).

What has been unique is the turnaround within the clubhouse of the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals. Rarely does a pennant winner part company with three regulars (catcher Mike Matheny, shortstop Edgar Renteria, second-baseman Tony Womack) and a starting pitcher (Woody Williams) before Christmas. You have to go back to 1990, when the Cardinals bid adieu to Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton, and Vince Coleman to see such significant change on a St. Louis roster. And itÕs this change, combined with one returnee, where I have been surprised this offseason.

Cardinal Nation has been spoiled in recent years by star players taking less than their market value to stay in a St. Louis uniform. It started with Mark McGwire in 1997 (when he signed a contract extension before even testing the free agent waters), then continued with Jim Edmonds in 2000 and Scott Rolen in 2002. General manager Walt JockettyÕs most attractive selling point has been Cardinals baseball and all it encompasses. For the aforementioned three, the fans, the city, and the history of the franchise were worth an extra three or four million elsewhere. Not so, we learned in December, for Renteria, BostonÕs newly signed All-Star shortstop.

As reports would have it, the Cardinals upped their offer to Renteria Ñ a two-time Gold Glover and unofficial team captain Ñ to $36 million over four years, or $1 million per year less than the world champs were offering. Six years in a Cardinal uniform and four trips to the playoffs apparently werenÕt enough to match that extra $4 million by RenteriaÕs calculation. The Red Sox win again. (First they beat you up, then they steal your bike.)

Contrast RenteriaÕs departure with what transpired a week earlier. Longtime Cardinal hurler Matt Morris Ñ himself a free agent Ñ agreed to return to St. Louis . . . and a $10 million pay cut. MorrisÕ story is telling, in that you have a former All-Star who has been the ace of a staff for going on five years basically admit he performed below expectations last season (despite winning 15 games) and sign a one-year Òtest contractÓ to prove he can be a frontline stopper again. But consider those numbers, and remember the modern professional athlete: Morris went from a $12.5 million paycheck in 2004 to $2.5 million in 2005. He did so to stay with the team that drafted him, that stuck with him through reconstructive elbow surgery, and that suffered his decline last season. As surprising as RenteriaÕs exit may be, it doesnÕt approximate MorrisÕ astonishing commitment to the Cardinals for 2005. And if he goes out and wins 20 games? The Cardinals should pay him $12.5 Ñ and more Ñ for 2006 and beyond. ItÕs called earning your keep.

As for who will be behind Morris when he takes the mound at Busch, the operative word seems to be Òscrappy.Ó Replacing Renteria will be David Eckstein, the 5Õ6Ó former Angels shortstop who will remind fans in these parts of one Stubby Clapp (with a little more bat speed, perhaps). EcksteinÕs partner at second base will be former Cub(!) Mark Grudzielanek, a solid hitter over his years with Montreal and Los Angeles, and the kind of player who takes on value by not losing games. With a batting order that still features Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, and Larry Walker, thatÕs all that will be asked of some Cardinals in 2005.

Free agent signings and losses aside, itÕs a trade that will determine the ultimate ceiling for this yearÕs St. Louis club. Repeat after me: ItÕs all about Mark Mulder. The acquisition of the big lefty from Oakland Ñ in exchange for former Redbirds Dan Haren and Kiko Calero and a catching prospect Ñ gives Tony LaRussa a certifiable ace, behind whom he can line up Morris, Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis, and Chris Carpenter. Despite a decline over the latter weeks of 2004, Mulder appears to be among the gameÕs ten or twelve most talented starting pitchers, and heÕs but 27 years old. If pitching coach Dave Duncan can get 18 wins from Kent Bottenfield, imagine what could happen with Mulder wearing red?

ItÕs enough to warm these winter nights.

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