I’m in the minority among baseball fans: I don’t find spring training to be all that interesting. Sure, it’s exciting to know that baseball games that actually count are right around the corner, but as for devouring the ins and outs of spring training games and studying the myriad competitions for precious roster spots that ensue, I could care less. So and so is mowing down the organization’s soon-to-be Double-Aers in batting practice? So and so is 16 for 40 and leading the team in RBIs? So what!
Maybe I’ve just become a cynical twerp after too many years exposure to Tony La Russa. After all, “La Genius” did everything in his power to keep Albert Pujols off the Cardinals’ 2001 opening-day roster, despite an amazing spring from Phat Albert. Remember, it was only a late-spring injury to Bobby Freaking Bonilla that created the opening for Pujols to promptly begin his Hall of Fame career. La Russa needed to have his arm twisted behind his back before he would cave in to a youthful slugger with “FUTURE ALL-STAR” written all over him. When my team’s manager is just as likely to see the value in giving Aaron Miles a roster spot as he is going with a cheaper, arguably better, certainly no worse, young guy like Brendan Ryan for the team’s 25th bench spot . . . well, you can certainly forgive my cynicism.
As far as I’m concerned spring training is good for one thing only: figuring out who is as healthy as advertised. To that end, the St. Louis Cardinals have their work cut out for them this spring. They brought to camp a hodgepodge of reclamation projects — some inherited, like Mark Mulder; others recently signed, like Matt Clement; some imagined, like Juan Gonzalez. As a franchise, the Cardinals value exhausting all options, even if those options are truly exhausted prior to arriving in camp.
The results haven’t been nearly as entertaining as listening to Joe Girardi say a bunch of stupid things in his first month as Yankees skipper. Young Joe stated that he didn’t see the need for an ambitious Tampa Bay player to injure the Yankees seventh-string catcher by barreling him over in an exhibition game. It’s just an exhibition, Joe cried! His utility first baseman, Shelley Duncan (son of Cards pitching coach Dave Duncan and brother of Cards left fielder Chris Duncan), backed up his new coach. Then on Wednesday, Shelley slid into second base spikes high against the Devil Rays and started a brawl. But wait guys — it’s just an exhibition game!
Eh, I digress. Back to Tony La Russa’s incurable fascination with undistinguished veterans who can hit for an empty average while taking up a roster spot that could go to a developing youngster. Sometimes, I sort of agree with La Genius, as the St. Louis farm system hasn’t been known to produce many worthy candidates — or as I like to call them, cheap hires. Then one comes around — say, Brendan Ryan — and La Russa finds reason to be intolerant of said prospect’s failure, usually citing a faulty attitude when the numbers don’t support his case. That’s how Ryan came to the bigs, hit .405 in the month of July, then soon found himself buried at the end of the bench.
It’s hard to find much motivation to invest myself in St. Louis’ spring battle in center field when my gut tells me, “Hey dummy! La Russa isn’t going to go with a stud rookie like Colby Rasmus or a promising Rule V prospect like Brian Barton when Juan Gonzalez is in camp.” For crying out loud, Juan Gone, who has been gone from the majors for three entire seasons, still has the reek of steroids on his breath. How can La Russa resist?
Can’t we just hit the fast-forward button already? We know that the Redbirds’ rotation is already in shambles due to the health concerns of Mulder, Clement and now Joel Pineiro. We know that we’ve got a glut of uninspiring middle infielders and the probable Opening Day starters at short and second — Cesar Izturis and Adam Kennedy — combined to hit .239 last season. And we know that we can kiss our entire season goodbye if the thread of a tendon in Pujols’ right elbow decides to snap sometime in the next three-to-four months.
Let me take the element of surprise out of spring training and gift wrap for you the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster. Allow me to first pull the La Genius cap down snug around my big ole brain . . . there, I’m ready to announce your 2008 Redbirds:
Catchers — Yadier Molina, Jason LaRue
Infielders — Albert Pujols, Adam Kennedy, Cesar Izturis, Troy Glaus, Joe Mather, Aaron Miles, Brendan Ryan
Outfielders — Rick Ankiel, Chris Duncan, Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker, Juan Gonzalez
Starting pitchers — Adam Wainwright, Braden Looper, Anthony Reyes, Todd Wellemeyer, Kyle Lohse (just signed)
Pen — Jason Isringhausen, Russ Springer, Ryan Franklin, Brad Thompson, Randy Flores, Ron Villone