|ST. LOUIS -- For the first time since 1967 and 1968, the Cardinals have made it to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons.
One year ago, St. Louis came a step away from being in the World Series. The team lost to the New York Mets in five games in the National League Championship Series.
The Cardinals begin their postseason run at the 2001 crown on Tuesday, but they may not have gotten this far had it not been for a hamstring injury to Bobby Bonilla, a bench player for St. Louis, in the final week of Spring Training.
Placing Bonilla on the 15-day disabled list enabled St. Louis to keep Albert Pujols, a 21-year-old with one season of minor-league experience, on the Major League roster.
"You have these ideas about how you should develop your players, and then maybe there are other players that may
be capable of playing in the big leagues, but there is a normal process they go through to get to the Major
Leagues," General Manager Walt Jocketty said. "This kid defied all odds last year when he went from low-A to Triple-A and he was the MVP of the Pacific Coast League Series, and then he went to the Arizona Fall League and competed very well out there. He was a quick study, I guess. He just picked it up and made the most of it.
"There are a handful of guys who were able to have no minor-league time or a very limited minor-league time. Ken
Griffey Jr. was a guy like that. Robin Yount. Al Kaline. There have been guys throughout the history of the game
that have done that, and it's pretty rare."
Jocketty has a reason for placing Pujols in the select company of two Hall of Famers and one future inductee. Fred Lynn, an outfielder with the 1975 Boston Red Sox, is the only player in Major League history to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same season. Pujols may become the second.
He led the team with a .329 batting average, 37 home runs, 47 doubles, 130 RBIs and 112 runs scored. Pujols has done all of this while playing four different positions during the year: first base, third base, left field and right field.
This guy nearly didn't make the team.
"It was such a hard decision whether to keep him on the club or not," Jocketty said. "If we had envisioned this type of year for him I think we would have made the decision right away. What happened really was the fact that he was given the opportunity to come to the Major League camp [in February] because of the good year he had last year. When he came to Major League camp, he worked really hard and every time he played, he played really hard. [Cardinals Manager] Tony [La Russa] used him in a lot of different positions. I think Tony was trying to see how he handled the different positions, so that if he should make the club, at least you would have the versatility to use him at different spots.
"We got to our cut meetings every Sunday and each time we said, 'We've got to give him another
week.' When we got down to the end, we said, 'We've got to give him another week.' Tony was a little concerned
with bringing a kid of this caliber to the Major League club and not being able to play him a lot and get him his
at-bats. That was the only drawback to even considering bringing him up. When Bobby Bonilla got hurt the last few
days of Spring Training, it was very easy to see that for a short period of time he would pick up those at-bats
that Bobby would have had. Albert got the opportunity and absolutely made the most of it."
St. Louis had Jim Edmonds, Ray Lankford, Fernando Vina, Edgar Renteria and Mike Matheny all returning to the starting lineup. J.D. Drew assumed the starting right field job when Eric Davis moved to San Francisco via free agency. Mark McGwire, who underwent patella tendon surgery immediately after the season, was expected to be able to play most of the season and be productive.
When Drew and McGwire spent time on the disabled list and many players struggled at the beginning of the season, Pujols' offense and the Cardinals' pitching staff kept them in ballgames. Matt Morris re-emerged in the spotlight, two seasons removed from Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow, to win 22 games.
"I think we all thought that Matt Morris was capable of doing this," Jocketty said of St. Louis' 1995 first-round pick. "It was just a matter of when. He had that
setback with the surgery a couple of years ago and it was really a major disappointment for us and for him. I'll
never forget that day in Spring Training when we had to talk to him. It was Dr. George Paletta, [athletic trainer] Barry Weinberg, myself, Matt and his dad, who happened to be in town at the time. We told him that he would have to have surgery and he would be out at least a year. It's really taken him two years to come back. It was pretty emotional and pretty tough for him to deal with it because he was on the verge of breaking out and having a really good season.
"He worked really hard and our medical and training staffs were very diligent with him over the last couple of
years. I think the way Tony and [pitching coach] Dave Duncan used him last year out of the bullpen gave him the chance to build up his arm strength and kind of get back into the way he is today. He's got a great future ahead of him and he's only 27."
In addition to Morris' stellar season, Darryl Kile resumed his role as staff ace by earning 16 wins and posting a 3.09 ERA. The departure of Pat Hentgen to free agency, the demotion of Rick Ankiel to the minor leagues and the injury to Garrett Stephenson's pitching elbow left the Cardinals trying to find a way to make up for three starters who won 52 games in the previous season.
The biggest move the team made in the offseason was acquiring starting pitcher Dustin Hermanson and reliever Steve Kline from the Montreal Expos in exchange for third baseman Fernando Tatis and pitcher Britt Reames.
"What we felt we had to do [in the offseason] was improve our pitching," Jocketty said. "We wanted to improve our rotation and the bullpen. We thought that the one trade with Montreal really addressed both concerns. We got a guy in Steve Kline who we thought would be a quality left-hander and I think now he is arguably one of the best left-handers we've had in several years. Not only is he a guy who can pitch and get left-handers out, but he's a guy who can pitch a lot and close out games. He's been a valuable asset to the club.
"Hermanson has pitched the way we expected. We thought he would be our No. 3 starter and would be
very durable and a guy who would give us a lot of innings and give us a lot of quality starts. That's exactly
what he's been."
Kline appeared in a Cardinals single-season-record 89 games and is 3-3 with nine saves and a 1.80 ERA. In 33 starts, Hermanson is 14-13 with a 4.45 ERA, allowing 95 earned runs in 192 1/3 innings pitched.
The trade also allowed the Cardinals to make Placido Polanco the starting third baseman. Outsiders will look at the statistics and say that Pujols is the team MVP, but people who have watched the Cardinals this season would lobby for Polanco to get the award.
He batted .307 in 144 games and enabled the offense to generate even more runs when he was moved into the second position in the lineup. Polanco's defense has been steady and his arm is better than many people expected. He has only made four errors all season.
The Cardinals floundered around the .500 mark as the July 31 trading deadline came and went. With his team 7 1/2 games behind the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central, Jocketty made three moves that sparked the team to a 39-16 mark the rest of the way.
On Aug. 3, starting pitcher Woody Williams was acquired from the San Diego Padres in exchange for Lankford. One week later, the Cardinals picked up utility infielder Miguel Cairo off waivers from the Cubs. On Sept. 2, rookie starter Bud Smith returned to the Majors, fired a no-hitter against San Diego and garnered the rookie of the month award for September.
"I think the addition of Woody and Bud Smith [were the key acquisitions]," Jocketty said. "At the trading deadline, we were looking for starting pitchers. There were a lot of other guys that were more high-profiled that we were talking about, but we were in a situation where we couldn't really add a lot of payroll, and this deal [for Williams] worked out well for us."
Williams, who was 8-8 with the Padres, rejuvenated his season in St. Louis. In 11 starts, Williams was 7-1 with a 2.28 ERA and three complete games. As Williams earned NL pitcher of the month honors for September, many wondered why no other team claimed Williams as he passed through waivers.
"He was pitching OK and I think people looked at the money that was left on his contract and probably shied
away from making a claim," Jocketty said. "That's just kind of the environment that I saw this year around the trading deadline. With the waivers, people weren't claiming as many people as they had in the past, trying to block deals, because they were afraid they would get stuck with guys with big contracts. I think it was just a case of people looking at $10 million still left over this year and next year and that's a lot of money. But for us, it made sense because we were trading Lankford."
Cairo added depth to an already solid bench that included Bonilla, backup catcher Eli Marrero and infielder/outfielder Craig Paquette. Jocketty said he is certain that Marrero and Paquette would be starters on many other teams around the league.
"Cairo was a big upgrade for us," Jocketty said. "He's probably a guy that could be starting for a number of clubs. He hasn't played a lot, but he is a guy that could play any infield positions. He's a guy that has gotten some key hits. The few times that he's played, he's really contributed."
A different guy contributing every day has been a theme throughout the season. If the Cardinals expect to win the World Series, it is a trend that will have to continue through the postseason.
Patrick Mulrenin is the site manager for Stlcardinals.com He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org