01/30/2003 6:35 pm ET
Cardinals Spring Training preview
Pitching staff leaves many questions to be answered
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com
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Roger Dean Stadium
ST. LOUIS -- Shifting on the fly worked splendidly for the Cardinals pitching staff in 2002.
Half the rotation goes down to injuries? Call up an unknown from Triple-A -- and watch him become your No. 2 starter. Bullpen a little thin? Try your luck with a guy who was released by the Rockies and another guy who had an ERA over 6.00 with the Cubs.
And it all panned out. St. Louis wound up with the National League's fourth-best ERA, behind only the perennially pitching-strong Braves and two teams that play in pitching havens (San Francisco and Los Angeles). It panned out thanks to magnificent efforts from pitchers such as Jason Simontacchi, Rick White, Jeff Fassero and Andy Benes.
Now, the Cardinals will try to make it happen again. With significant turnover in the bullpen and only three spots settled in the starting rotation, the Redbirds are hoping for another year like last year.
"We were very strong at the end of the year, but potentially we could be better with the club we have," said general manager Walt Jocketty. "I can't make an evaluation until these guys are throwing, and we see how healthy they are. But potentially, I think they could be better than last year."
That would be quite a story. Very little is settled about the Redbirds staff as report date approaches.
Matt Morris is already slated to start Opening Day, but besides that, what? Brett Tomko is expected to be the No. 3 starter. Steve Kline and Fassero are the lefty relievers. And pretty much every other pitching role has some sort of question mark attached.
Woody Williams has been absolutely brilliant since the Padres traded him to St. Louis in 2001, but side injuries plagued him throughout the '02 campaign. If he's healthy, he's the No. 2 starter. But until he makes 30 starts, there will be some doubts.
"What he had last year was nothing that affected his elbow or shoulder, nothing that affected his arm," Jocketty said. "It was his side. And those things should heal. It should heal without further complication."
But Williams is one of the surer things in this mix. One thing the Cardinals know -- if Williams pitches, he is likely to pitch well. The back of the rotation is more unsettled than that.
Simontacchi gave the team lift after lift in 2002, ranking second on the staff in starts, innings and wins. But he came from out of nowhere to do it, and it's hard to shake the suspicion that he might not be able to do it again. The 11-game winner is not assured of a starting spot.
Garrett Stephenson, who has missed nearly all of the last two years with injuries, will compete for a spot in the starting rotation. Cal Eldred hasn't made 25 starts in a season since 1997. Dustin Hermanson pitched all of 22 innings in 2002 because of a groin injury.
All three will battle with Simontacchi for the fourth and fifth spots in the rotation. Hermanson could end up in the bullpen if he doesn't win a starting job, while Simontacchi could be ticketed for Triple-A Memphis if he doesn't crack the rotation.
Of all of them, Eldred is the sleeper. It's hard for Jocketty to contain his enthusiasm when he talks about the 35-year-old right-hander, who will be in camp on a minor-league contract.
"Our scouts (saw him pitch) down in Arizona," said Jocketty. "He threw well. The only question with Eldred really is his health. In the exam that he had ... before Christmas, he was very healthy, very strong. Looked like he's fully recovered. It's another case where he had an (elbow) injury that was never probably given proper time to heal. Now he's been off for a year and a half and we believe that it has healed. If it has, he should be the quality pitcher he was before he got hurt."
Oh, and by the way, in addition to the uncertainties in the rotation, the closer is coming back from shoulder surgery.
Jason Isringhausen enjoyed a superb season in his first year as a Cardinal, but he was slowed by injuries a couple of times. After the season ended, he had a surgical procedure to "clean out" his shoulder, a similar operation to the one Darryl Kile underwent the previous offseason.
It means "Izzy" will be limited in the early going, but the team believes he will be fine eventually. In the meantime, there will be opportunities for other pitchers to step forward -- especially Al Levine, who becomes the primary right-handed setup man and closer-in-waiting.
Levine was one of baseball's best relievers from 1999-2001, but he scuffled in '02. The Cardinals are counting on a return to form in his first tour of the National League.
"He had pretty good numbers," Jocketty said. "He had a pretty good year. I'm not concerned at all about the bullpen. We've got more depth now. We've got two solid left-handers. Joey Hamilton proved he could pitch well out of the bullpen, and Levine had a good year.
"The only concern is with Izzy, but I think everyone expects him to be 100 percent. Whether it will be right at the beginning of the season or not is still something that has to be found out in Spring Training. But I like the depth of our bullpen."
There's no doubt the Cardinals have enough talent on hand if everything breaks right -- and nothing breaks. They have seven guys who could be capable starters, and who knows how many potential relievers. But there's still plenty to sort out as report date approaches.
But isn't that part of what makes Spring Training fun?
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. He can be reached at Matthew_H_Leach@yahoo.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.