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01/28/10 6:07 PM EST

Inbox: Why did the Cards let Ankiel go?

Beat reporter Matthew Leach answers fans' questions

Welcome to the latest Cardinals Inbox. As always, if you have a question, use the link below to submit it -- and please be sure to include your first name, last initial and hometown. If you send a regular e-mail, rather than using the form, be certain to use the word "mailbag" in the subject header -- otherwise your mail may be directed to the spam folder or possibly be ignored in an unbecoming manner.

Also, please understand that literally hundreds of e-mails arrive every week, so they can't all be used in the mailbag or receive personal responses. Moreover, if you leave a fake e-mail address, and I do try to respond personally, then obviously you're not going to receive my response.

With the great Uncle Tupelo playing on the stereo, here are the questions. This week's Inbox will be another lightning-round version, with more questions and shorter answers.

Why did the Cardinals get rid of Rick Ankiel? Tony La Russa seemed to have loved him like a son! Also, Mark McGwire may have helped him with his hitting. I'm going to miss him. Go Rick!
-- Kenny O., Otwell, Ind.

I think "get rid of" is a touch strong, but it's true that there was little effort to re-sign Ankiel. In short, Ankiel wanted a full-time job, and the Cardinals were not in position to offer him one. So he went someplace where he can play every day -- and make a pretty decent amount of money to boot.

With the signing of Rich Hill, who do you think is the strongest candidate for the fifth spot in the rotation?
-- Matt R., Peoria, Ill.

Assuming Hill is healthy and reasonably effective in Spring Training, my guess is that he's the favorite right now. They're clearly reluctant to commit to Jaime Garcia until he shows some more durability, and Kyle McClellan is an unproven commodity as a Major League starter. Blake Hawksworth may be someone to watch, but the club may decide that Hawksworth and Mitchell Boggs are both key parts of the bullpen.

With the way McClellan ended the season last year, do you think it is wise to put him in a starting rotation?
-- John F., Sumner, Ill.

I'm skeptical. McClellan really wants to do it, and he's committed to doing the work. And it's true he has more than the typical two-pitch repertoire of a reliever. But he hasn't started at any level above Class A, and he hasn't had any consistent success as a starter since he was in Rookie ball in 2003. In his last two full seasons as a Minor League starter, McClellan's combined ERA was over 5.00.

That's not to say he can't do it. And it would be a boon for the club if he can. But I think there's a good bit of evidence that suggests that McClellan is best suited as a reliever.

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Is Joe Mather likely to get some looks at Spring Training this year for a possible roster spot? He can play both outfield and third base (two positions where an extra player on the roster would be preferred) and can provide a good solid bat off the bench. Assuming he's healthy, do you see him as one of the more likely candidates for a spot on the roster this spring?
-- Daniel P., Troy, Mo.

Mather is one of the most intriguing players coming to camp. If he's healthy and effective, he could be a valuable member of the 2010 Cardinals. He's shown an ability to play a number of positions, and he has power. The question is his health. If that's in order, though, he's absolutely someone to keep an eye on in Jupiter, Fla.

How are the Cardinals planning on using Julio Lugo this year? Will he be the starting second baseman since Skip Schumaker can play every day in either the outfield or up the middle?
-- Jason A., Elliott, Ill.

It will be very much like last year. Schumaker is the starting second baseman. Brendan Ryan is the starting shortstop. And Lugo is the primary backup for both of them, especially playing second base against left-handed pitchers.

I don't remember who said it, but I recall during the season in an interview or during a game I heard someone say they believed Yadier Molina could wind up being a 20-home run hitter. Would you agree?
-- Matt S., Springfield, Mo.

I once thought that Molina would eventually come into some power as he matured, if not 20 homers then 15 or so. But he's now 27 and more than 2,000 at-bats into his Major League career. I think we have a good idea of what kind of hitter he is. The thing is, Molina is at his best when he's hitting the ball up the middle and to the opposite field, an approach that will not lead to him hitting the ball out of the park much. Still, a catcher who can manage to hit around .300, put up an OBP around .350-.360 and play elite defense is a very valuable player.

What are the odds of Molina batting ninth with the pitcher eighth? This would keep the double plays at a minimum with Yadi, as the pitcher could sacrifice any runners over and leave a runner or two in scoring position.
-- Marcus B., Jacksonville, Ill.

Virtually nil. The Cardinals are very unlikely to bat the pitcher eighth this year. Even if they do, Molina is not the guy they would use. La Russa likes on-base ability but also speed in the nine spot, if at all possible. He also likes Molina hitting in an RBI spot in the lineup. Molina has a career .269 batting average, but is .296 for his career with runners in scoring position.

Where is Chris Duncan and have the Cardinals signed him somewhere?
-- Chuck, St. Louis

Duncan signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals.

I live in Florida in the winter. Is it possible to watch the Cards practice in Jupiter?
-- Jim, Leawood, Kan.

Yes, absolutely. Workouts typically begin at 9 a.m. ET on the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium and they are open to the public.

Great to see the Inbox regularly again; it is some of my favorite reading. Why is it such a priority for Mr. La Russa to split up the right- and left-handed hitters? The fact that Mr. La Russa does it means that there is a good reason for it. Yet, if right-handed hitters hit better against a particular pitcher, wouldn't it increase the chances of producing runs if they are all clustered together -- two hits and a walk in one inning is more likely to produce RBIs than two hits and a walk over two or three innings? Thanks again
-- Gabe H., Indianapolis

There are two main reasons. One is to counter relief matchups. If you have two or three left-handers or right-handers in a row, you are more susceptible to specialist relief pitchers. So when the Cardinals face a team that is not especially strong in left-handed relief, you'll see that La Russa is less committed to splitting up his left-handed hitters. But the other factor -- and I have asked this question of him myself -- has to do with the starter.

La Russa said that he was taught that for a starting pitcher, it is much easier to get into a rhythm when you face a sequence of hitters who bat from the same side of the plate. If it's a lefty then a righty then a lefty, he believes it's a less comfortable game for the starter.

With all the talk about a few holes to fill with x-amount of money, why not save the cash, fill the holes from within and see how things go? Does it make any sense at all to make a trade later?
-- Tom V., San Francisco Bay area

That option is very much on the table. Trading may be difficult, since the Cards' farm system took a big hit due to trades and promotions last year. But waiting to spend the money, either during Spring Training or on a traded player, is indeed an option.

How did the Cardinals' April schedule wind up with those two off-days in the middle of a series (Reds and Astros)? Aren't off-days usually used for travel?
-- Tony T., Columbia, Mo.

Teams nearly always have an off-day after their home opener. It allows them to have a backup plan in case of bad weather on Opening Day.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.