February 2007

Various and sundry

The lineups for today’s Grapefruit League opener are up, and the two teams are taking pretty different tacks. The Cards have as close to an Opening Day lineup as they’re able to field at this point, with three guys hurt:

Eckstein SS, Duncan LF, Pujols 1B, Rolen 3B, Wilson RF, Rodriguez DH, Molina C, Taguchi CF, Miles 2B

The Marlins, on the other hand, have two likely Opening Day starters in their lineup. Apparently they used their starters — no kidding — extensively against the University of Miami yesterday, rather than against the Cardinals today. There is one name that may be very familiar to Cards fans in the FLA lineup, though:

Amezaga 2B, Andino SS, Boone 3B, Jacobs 1B, Hermida DH…
wait for it…
Gall LF,
De Aza RF, Treanor C, Reed CF

One other unrelated note:

Bird Land’s Derrick Goold and I went out for dinner last night. We intended to go to The Grape, a new restaurant in Palm Beach Gardens. However, when we got there, it was overrun by beautiful people and TV media types. We asked someone there, a gentleman with The Grape’s corporate organization, and he told us they were hosting a private party for the PGA (which is in town this weekend for the Honda Classic).
But what made it notable was one of their investors decided to drop in. A fellow who goes by the name of Usher. Or Ursher, if you ask Ludacris. He came down to lend his name and some publicity to the event.
His voice, however, did not make my booty go smack. Just for the record.

-M.

Live from Jupiter, it's Monday afternoon!

So they’re playing ball, even if the opponent is a not-very-well-known college team based in Boca Raton, Fla. I come to you live from the press box at Roger Dean Stadium, where it’s the third inning of the Cardinals-Owls tilt. The Redbirds jumped to an early lead when Travis Hanson hit a bouncing double down the first-base line and scored on Ryan Ludwick’s single. Troy Cate looked solid in two innings, putting up a 2 1 0 0 0 2 line, and has been relieved by Kelvin Jimenez.

They’ll play a professional opponent on Wednesday, of course, when RDS hosts its first "Fins and Feathers" game of the year. But in the meantime, any kind of competition is nice to see.

Earlier this afternoon, the Cards regulars played a "coaches game" that was a little more entertaining than usual. Yours truly called a Rick Ankiel homer — literally, I said, "Ricky goes deep here," and the next pitch was gone. The benchies team — featuring Yadier Molina, Chris Duncan, John Rodriguez, Skip Schumaker and Scott Spiezio, among others — beat the starters team, 7-6. The starters squad included all of the starting infielders, Preston Wilson, Ankiel, So Taguchi and Gary Bennett.

Rodriguez made the play of the game, a beautiful diving stop in right field off an Ankiel drive. The benchies team turned some nice double plays, both Miles-Cabrera-Marrero and Cabrera-Miles-Marrero. Ankiel made one very nice play but also muffed a couple of balls, and Chris Duncan got turned around once on a fly ball. On the offensive side, Albert Pujols and Taguchi hit home runs as well as Ankiel.

-M.

Nothing by accident

I’ve said it more than once — nothing is accidental in Cardinals camp. Hitting groups, fielding groups, pitching groups, it’s all by design.

That doesn’t bode well for John Rodriguez. I’m a Rodriguez backer, because I like his bat a lot. I think he’s someone who could do very good things with 400 at-bats or so. He may not be a Gold Glover, but in my opinion, his offense is enough to justify more regular playing time than he’s gotten. With that said, things don’t appear to be set up much in his favor.

At the risk of reading too much into things, here’s how the hitting groups were set up today. The first group of outfielders to hit live on Field 3 featured Preston Wilson, So Taguchi, Chris Duncan, Skip Schumaker and Rick Ankiel. The second had Rodriguez, Colby Rasmus, Miguel Negron, Tagg Bozied, Ryan Ludwick and Cody Haerther.

By no means does that mean Rodriguez won’t make the team. He could certainly hit his way on, and his two seasons of production help his case. But it’s clear that even if he’s not at a disadvantage, he doesn’t come in with any advantage.

For what it’s worth, at the end of the workout today, as everyone was headed in towards the clubhouse, Rodriguez and Duncan were still taking balls in the outfield, working with Larry Walker on fielding and throwing.

-M.

(no music on right now; I’m watching the race. Was listening to Tanya Donnelly’s outstanding "This Hungry Life" earlier today, though, and I highly recommend it.)

TLR unplugged

It seems that Tony La Russa has been waiting for just the right time to give his statement on the negotiations with Jeff Weaver. Seattle reporter Larry Stone was in town today, and asked about the new Mariner. TLR was ready to comment. Herewith, his response. The first question was simply whether TLR was surprised that Weaver ended up signing the deal he did.

"I would not have been surprised if, as his agent was saying, he had three years and all this money. He even said he had four years. If he had taken a deal that he couldn’t refuse, but to take a one-year deal, yeah, I’m surprised. But in the end, I’m not positive, I can speculate as to what Scott (Boras) was telling him about what we were saying and it certainly wasn’t helpful. But in the end it’s Jeff’s decision. That’s what he decided.

"But I know there was — Scott was less than forthcoming. He kept talking about different messages that Jeff was getting from me and from Dunc versus what the organization was sending with their offers. Exactly what I told Jeff was, to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, you and your agent negotiate this deal and however it goes, it goes. But we want you to be part of the competition this year. That’s what I told him. We want you. Because he asked Dunc one time, how come you won’t give me three or four years, and Dunc told him, ‘Because you had a horse (blank) year.’ We want you and we believe in you. But you’ve got to come back and re-establish. That is, to me, totally consistent with Walt and Bill (DeWitt).

"I don’t understand how agents make misrepresentations and get away with it. The union just, ‘OK, OK, what’s the big deal?’ But if one general manager calls another general manager just to check, that’s tampering. I don’t understand how that’s possible. At the same time, I don’t understand how a player doesn’t take control. And Jeff was very impressive with not just his competing but his thought process. So he decided, but I’m disappointed and I really don’t understand it. But he had his reasons.

"First of all, everything that we did for him, he did for us. As far as I’m concerned, at the end of the season, we were even. No guilt trip was dropped on him, no obligation, nothing. He helped us win and we helped him. But I felt like if what he had done meant somebody gave him a contract like what Jeff got or Jason got, and we weren’t in a position to do that, I could understand it. But to go for one year, I don’t understand. And my suspicions are not the most positive about Scott. And Jeff, I have a lot of respect and affection for him, but I would be curious, in the end, about his decision.

(do you think he will get back to old levels?)

"Yeah, I do. Because I think Dave Duncan is great, but I think there are a lot of people in baseball that are effective coaches and managers, stuff like that. And Seattle’s got that situation. So yeah, I think he’ll be fine."

-M.

The man in the red jersey, Dude. Worthy **** adversary.

During the first day or two of live batting practice, aka "pitching practice," typically you don’t see star-versus-star matchups. If Albert Pujols is swinging, he’s probably swinging against Andy Cavazos or Troy Cate. Conversely, if Chris Carpenter is pitching, he’s probably pitching to Bryan Anderson and Miguel Negron.

Today, that started to turn a little bit, as we got a few entertaining matchups out on Field No. 5. The best, easily, came when Pujols stepped in to face Adam Wainwright. For the most part, there weren’t a lot of fireworks, since it’s still early and neither guy is at peak form. It’s not like Wainwright snapped off a fall-off-the-table curve and got Pujols chasing something in the dirt, or Pujols hit a 450-feet monster shot.

But the first time Pujols stepped in, for the first pitch, we got one of those moments that make Spring Training so much fun. The first pitch from Wainwright was a big curveball that started way up and snapped hard. And Pujols, who isn’t known for bailing out on anybody’s curveball, bailed out on this curveball. He ducked back, and quickly. And he laughed. Fun moment, and the kind of thing that makes it such a treat to be on the back fields at this time of the spring.

-M.

(Currently playing on the iPod: Dinosaur Jr., Where You Been)

Cause you've got personality

I’m not much of a believer in the impact of "chemistry" on winning and losing. For the most part, I believe that things like talent and health have the most affect on whether a team wins or loses games. In my observation, winning creates chemistry more than the other way around — and the 2006 Cardinals are a great example of that. There are some personal matters that can make a big difference in individual performance, but often it’s overstated.

But with that said, it doesn’t mean I don’t think chemistry matters at all. This game is hard, and if you’re distracted or not motivated, it gets even harder. Besides, the clubhouse mix matters in the same way it matters whether you or I like the people we work with. When you’re around the same people ALL the time, it’s not much fun if you don’t all get along.

All of which, I suppose, is a pretty big contradiction. And none of which, really, is the point of this post. The point of this post is to point out the value one or two fun guys can have in a lockerroom. A lot of people point to what glue Mike Matheny was in the Cardinals clubhouse, and it’s true; Matheny had a lot of value. Larry Walker was an important guy too.

But I’m of the opinion that nobody’s departure in the past few years has had more effect on the day-to-day vibe in the clubhouse than that of Reggie Sanders. Reggie was the kind of guy who brought everybody together, talked to everybody in all corners, made everybody laugh, gave everybody a hard time. When he moved on, the clubhouse had a different feel.

Now, it seems, there’s been something of a replacement for Sanders. Preston Wilson has taken on some of that role, and it was evidenced today. He was holding court on astronaut Lisa Nowak, garnering laughs from different quarters of the room. He took grief for his outfit from a couple of different places.

Maybe it won’t have any effect on how many games this team wins. But just adding one or two guys like that can make a difference in the daily life of a ballclub. And that’s worth something, for sure.

-M.

(currently playing on the iPod: Garbage, Beautiful Garbage)

Sunshine and Arti Gras

Good news: the sun came back out today and the temperature picked up too. Lovely day, and any day now we’ll be in shorts again.

Bad news: Arti Gras (a street fair/art festival) started today, guaranteeing near-impossible navigation of the streets of the Abacoa development for the next three days. It’s an absolutely miserable experience trying to get from the main thoroughfares to Roger Dean Stadium during Arti Gras. Ah well.

As for baseball, today was another relatively uneventful day. Pitchers are still only throwing bullpen sessions, and it’s tough to tell much about where anybody is until they’re throwing to hitters. The five expected starters — Carpenter, Wainwright, Looper, Reyes, Wells — continue to throw at similar times, generally paired with each other and generally throwing to the Major League catchers. This is not coincidence, as nothing is a coincidence on a TLR/Dave Duncan Spring Training program.

The whole atmosphere has remained pretty relaxed so far. Folks seem to be in good moods, including the skipper and front-office types.

Currently playing on the iPod: an assortment of my New Order favorites.

-M.

Old Eli-able

Did you know that even when he was hitting .181 and .204 the past two seasons, Eli Marrero remained a useful power source? Marrero slugged .441 in 93 at-bats in 2006, and .413 in 138 at-bats in ’05. In three seasons since he was traded to the Cardinals, he’s smacked 23 home runs in 481 at-bats, or better than one per 21 ABs.

Maybe that’s not enough, in itself, to get him on the Cardinals roster, but it sure adds a dimension this team could use. A guy who can acquit himself even adequately as a catcher and also hit the ball out of hte park on a semi-regular basis is a valuable player. If Marrero can put the ball in play even a little bit more, say getting the average just up to .240, he can help the Cardinals.

Not saying he will make the team. Just saying maybe he should be a little bit less of an afterthought than he seems to be at this point.

-M.

Dunc on the rotation

Greetings from Jupiter, where it’s warm and sunny. Wish I could send some of this balmy loveliness back to all of you in the Midwest.

Dave Duncan gave us today his view of how the rotation shakes down, and it’s clear that in his eye, it’s Braden Looper — not Ryan Franklin — who is the leading candidate for the fifth spot. Here are a couple of his comments:

"You usually go into Spring Training with maybe one or twospots at the most open in your rotation and the others pretty well locked down.
That’s not necessarily the case this year, even though I think there are five
guys that will get the priority. And if they do what I think they’re capable of
doing, they could very well leave camp as our starting rotation."

Follow-up question: who do you consider those five priority guys?

"Carpenter, Wells, Reyes, Looper and Wainwright."

What leads you to see Looper as the priority guy over, say, Franklin?

"Franklin’s
going to get an opportunity. But I think Looper has a chance of being something
special. He’s got the physical ability to do that, for sure. It’s just
adjusting to a different role."

-M.

The odyssey begins

So, it’s one of the most bittersweet days of the year.

I come to you from Intercontinental Airport in Houston, enjoying (!) a lengthy layover on my way to Spring Training. And the start of Spring Training practically defines bittersweet for me.

My job, as of today, gets much, much, much better for the next eight months. Life, meanwhile, gets harder. It’s tough to leave Mrs. Dude, tough to leave MollyDog and Queen Beatrice the cat. But it’s very, very easy to leave 24 degrees and a "wintry mix."

Ready or not, though, the time is here. It’s time to start writing about things happening on the field once again. Time to start figuring out what the 07 team is all about. Time for lunch at Pyro’s, dinner at Nick’s Tomatoe Pie and setting an alarm in the morning. Time for long nightly phone calls home.

So have fun, everybody.

-M.

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