Minus big names, new-look Cards say they're ready
JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — So long, Albert Pujols. Happy trails, Tony La Russa. Timeout, Dave Duncan.
The World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals have had plenty of upheaval. Now they enter spring training looking for a new No. 3 hitter and breaking in a rookie manager and pitching coach. Time for the newcomers to step forward.
Before meeting with reporters, just steps from the closest of six practice fields at Roger Dean Stadium, Mike Matheny jokingly checked to make sure this was where La Russa usually held court for 16 springs. Armed with a cup of coffee instead of facemask and shin guards, the former four-time Gold Glove catcher confessed to feeling a bit strange.
"Is this the spot?" Matheny said.
Two equipment bags topped by six boxes of shoes was stacked in front of Matt Holliday's locker stall, which used to be Pujols' spot. As for Pujols' decision in December to take a 10-year, $254 million free-agent deal with the Angels after 11 Hall of Fame trajectory seasons with the team that drafted him? Old news.
Pujols' name never even came up during Matheny's wide-ranging 18-minute opening media session.
"It's going to be different," pitcher Kyle Lohse said. "But it's a business and we have 25 other guys who'll pull together to win as many games as we can. That's the way it goes. And nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
The Cardinals anticipate a visit in the next few weeks from La Russa, who will be assisting longtime friend Jim Leyland with the Tigers. La Russa has said he won't be looking over Matheny's shoulder.
Just like La Russa, Matheny plans on short, activity-filled days before the spring schedule starts March 5. He devoted a lot of Saturday to completing the routine that likely won't deviate much from the La Russa days.
That's no surprise considering Matheny played for St. Louis for four seasons and was an instructor in the organization for two more years before getting the job last November.
"Guys get in and get their work done, there's not a lot of standing around," Matheny said. "Actually, there's no standing around. We get our job done, we get better and then we get them out of here. That is all going to be very similar to what's happened in the past."
Derek Lilliquist plans on sticking with Duncan's tried and true methods in his first year as pitching coach. He's already battle-tested after filling in late last season while Duncan took a leave of absence following his wife's surgery to remove a brain tumor, and was elevated to the full-time position when Duncan decided he wouldn't be back this season.
"The recipe for his chocolate cake is pretty good," Lilliquist said. "Maybe add some sprinkles here and there."
Good news for Lilliquist, who began last season as the bullpen coach, is that the rotation appears to be among the strongest in the National League. Adam Wainwright, a 20-game winner in 2010, is set to return from reconstructive elbow surgery that sidelined him all of 2011 and rejoins fellow ace Chris Carpenter.
The 37-year-old Carpenter will probably be eased into things coming off a heavy workload last season, but Lilliquist said Wainwright will be on the same schedule as everybody else.
The other major medical issue entering camp is utilityman Allen Craig's surgically repaired right knee. Craig, one of the team's surprise postseason heroes, expects to beat the initial timetable for a May return from a torn patellar tendon and is holding out hope of being ready on opening day.
"It's going to be close," Craig said. "I don't like to say that I'm going to be back on this day for sure, but the path I'm on now it could be a possibility."
As to who'll bat third? Matheny joked that spring training hasn't even begun and there's plenty of time to figure it out, several times mentioning that there's flexibility with Holliday, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran and perhaps even Craig up for consideration.
"Since the first day of this deal I've been scribbling lineups and it's been a lot of fun," Matheny said. "We have multiple guys who have hit in the three hole, multiple guys who can hit 4, 5, 6 and even in the two hole. There will be a little bit of toying around to see who really fills the best spot."
Position players aren't to report until Thursday, but most players are expected to beat that deadline. Just like virtually all the pitchers and catchers, who have been in town for a while.
Such enthusiasm. And off the short break that comes with beating the Texas Rangers in Game 7, too.
Matheny said the entire staff was watching when former 20-game winner Adam Wainwright threw off a mound a few days ago. He is set to return to the rotation after reconstructive elbow surgery sidelined him all of 2011.
"I've been here a couple days and it's just blown me away, how many guys are here," Matheny said. "That they're this anxious to get going again, I think it says a lot about their individual character and kind of the makeup of this team. So, a lot to be excited about."