Cards look internally for leadoff man
Manager La Russa prizes on-base percentage at top of order
ST. LOUIS -- In one form or another, satisfactorily or not, the Cardinals did check off just about every item from their offseason shopping list this winter. They added a starting pitcher in Matt Clement. They brought in an intriguing outfielder when they selected Brian Barton in the Rule 5 Draft. And they certainly added right-handed power when they traded for Troy Glaus.
One item that remains unchecked, however, is a leadoff hitter. And it will likely stay that way. General manager John Mozeliak has said he does not consider it a high priority to add a leadoff man from outside the organization.
So the Cards will go to camp seeking to fill the spot from within. In recent years, it's been obvious. David Eckstein held the spot while he was a Cardinal. Before Eckstein it was Tony Womack, and before Womack it was Fernando Vina.
In 2008, though, the options are numerous, and no one choice is perfect.
This much we know: it won't be Albert Pujols, Glaus, Chris Duncan, Yadier Molina or the pitcher. And it probably won't be Rick Ankiel. Duncan, Pujols and Glaus all present solid on-base percentages, but their power would be wasted in the No. 1 spot. Ankiel has speed, but doesn't get on base enough. Cesar Izturis has led off in his career, but his low OBP means he's better suited for the No. 8 or 9 spot.
"On-base percentage is the highest thing on the list," manager Tony La Russa said at the team's annual Winter Warm-Up. "If you've proven that you can get on base, that will give you the best chance to lead off. It doesn't mean it's the only thing. Say [Molina] has an on-base percentage of .700 in Spring Training. I don't think I'm going to lead him off because he clogs those bases a little bit. But I'm going to wait, let guys play."
That leaves a group of six legitimate candidates to hold or share the job. Here's a look at them:
Skip Schumaker, outfielder. He's led off a great deal in the Minors, and his .353 Minor League OBP is pretty solid, if not spectacular. Schumaker put up a .358 OBP in limited duty last season, and if he becomes the player the team hopes, he could be an excellent candidate, especially against right-handed pitchers.
Aaron Miles, infielder. Miles is a bit of a paradox because, overall, he's not a good source of OBP. But the switch-hitter has done a very solid job of reaching base against left-handed pitching -- the reverse from many switch-hitters.
Adam Kennedy, second base. Kennedy will have to show he's back to his pre-2007 form before he's even guaranteed a starting job, never mind the leadoff spot. Before last season, he'd put up a .350 OBP or better against right-handed pitchers for five straight seasons.
Barton, outfielder: The Rule 5 draftee has Minor League numbers that suggest he's the perfect man for the job. He's racked up 80 steals in 108 tries over three Minor League seasons, and his OBP in the Minors is a spiffy .416. But Barton has to make the team, and then he has to earn the at-bats. If he shows he's good enough to play on the big team, he could be just the man the Cards have been looking for.
Brendan Ryan, infielder: Ryan was a high-average hitter in the Minors, and he has speed. He showed a nice batting eye in his rookie season, though he'll need to prove it was for real. Ryan, however, is a long shot to make the roster, with Kennedy, Izturis and Miles all apparently set.
Colby Rasmus, outfielder: The top prospect in the organization probably projects as more of a No. 2 or even No. 3 hitter as his career goes on. But in the absence of a true leadoff man, Rasmus could be pressed into that duty when he reaches the big leagues. Rasmus may start 2008 at Triple-A Memphis, though.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.