Folks, right now, the Cardinals are hurting, and they're hurting bad. Their best pitcher, Matt Morris, is out for the year. Their other hot young arm, Alan Benes, isn't ready to go yet and may not be for months. Their second-best hitter and center fielder, Ray Lankford, isn't ready to go. Neither is their shortstop and leadoff man, Edgar Renteria. They don't have much depth in center or at short, and the depth they have in starting pitching is bulk arms, not quality starters. That is one big fat load of bad news, and the season itself hasn't even started yet.
Still, the Cardinals have a chance. The Astros are down Randy Johnson and Moises Alou, who were, at the end of 1998, their best pitcher and one of their core hitters, respectively. The Cubs have nothing more than they did last year, and they are down Kerry Woods. Milwaukee is mediocre at best, and the Reds are a bunch of kids. It's not impossible. Just difficult.
What will it take for the Cardinals to win anything?
Well, the most important thing to remember while following this season is that Cardinal manager Tony La Russa is used to winning with pitching. When he has had pitching, he has won. When he has not had the arms, the quality of his offense hasn't seemed to matter much. Specifically, when he was with Oakland, he had three star hurlers in Bob Welch, Mike Moore and Dave Stewart. He won when two of them had good years and lost when only one did. Of course, he also had closer Dennis Eckersley, but he didn't win, even with Eck, when he didn't have the starters.
Here in St. Louis, the plan when La Russa arrived was to have Andy Benes, Todd Stottlemyre and the two hot kids, Alan Benes and Morris. None of the four will open this campaign. Instead, the staff ace will be Donovan Osborne, whom La Russa would really like to use as his fifth starter. The No. 2 guy, in my opinion, is Darren Oliver. Then it's bulk arms, unless Juan Acevedo can come out of the bullpen and start. That, of course, would require new closer Ricky Bottalico to turn into Eckersley.
Assuming that it takes both Acevedo and Bottalico to fuel the bullpen, the Cardinals have to hope that Osborne pitches at full ability all year long and that Oliver steps up. I believe that Oliver will perform. His poor 1998 campaign was the result of pitching more than 200 innings in 1997 with Texas. The overwork of '97 exploded his 1998 ERA, but it also kept the Rangers from using him much, so he only pitched 160 innings last year. That he can do. And, before 1998, his career won/lost record was a fine, fine 35-20. I think Oliver can turn in something like 14-8, which would really help.
Osborne, of course, will either go something similar to the 14-8 or he'll get hurt again. To me, that's the biggest key to the season. Can Osborne stay healthy and give the Cardinals a six-game head start at finishing over .500? Without that, I think it's about over.
The second most important thing to remember is that La Russa is still experimenting with putting together a National League lineup. The reason for this is that he is down two bats compared to his tenure in the American League. In the AL, La Russa's offense consisted of his first baseman, his outfielders, his catcher and his DH. That's six strong bats in the lineup. The middle of the infield was for glove men. In fact, La Russa has a history of changing his middle infield every year or so. That is, he's willing to use a good-field/no-hit kid at short or second to save salary money.
In the National League, though, La Russa doesn't have a DH to work with. Also, although Eli Marrero is a fine prospect, he doesn't project to hit like La Russa's previous catchers did. La Russa's AL catchers were Carlton Fisk and Terry Steinbach, and just about nobody else. Marrero can't match those two.
I suppose you can discount the DH lack, because no other NL team has one, either. But the catcher is key. Without a Fisk or a Steinbach, La Russa is in constant danger of ending up with a four-man offense, which isn't really enough to win.
To counter this, La Russa has tried to bring in middle infielders who can hit. Delino DeShields was the first try, and he worked out really well -- as a hitter. Unfortunately, DeShields isn't a good defensive second baseman, and La Russa's team concept requires gloves up the middle. The "trade" of DeShields for Renteria (not actually one trade, but you know what I mean) was supposed to solve that, but Renteria isn't going to open the campaign healthy.
That leaves La Russa's April offense as Mark McGwire, J.D. Drew and Eric Davis, plus some mediocre bats to fill the lineup. Needless to say, you can't win with that. The Cardinals desperately need an early appearance by Lankford, and they need Renteria almost as bad.
Unfortunately, the one good Cardinal gamble didn't pan out. That was the pickup of Carlos Baerga, who used to be a superstar hitter at second base. Baerga could really have helped La Russa get back to that six-man run of hitters that he's used to. Baerga, though, showed up overweight and out of shape, and he's gone now. That leaves Placido Polanco or somebody -- essentially, a glove man -- at second.
To sum up, the Cardinals cannot afford any more injuries, if they want any chance to win. They also need to get Lankford and Renteria back in the lineup as early as possible, and they need Oliver to come through as he has in the past. They could really use a midseason return by Benes. They need to have their fill-in bulk starters pitch reasonably close to .500 ball. They need Davis to do what he did last year in Baltimore. They need Drew to do what it looks like he will do.
Yes, it's a long list. But it does have one plus behind it. The Cardinals were over .500 last year. People forget that, because they started so badly and finished so many games behind Houston. But this was a good team in 1998 -- better than average, even with Luis Ordaz at shortstop. And anything better than average just might be enough to win this division this time out.