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It looks like the St. Louis Cardinals are experiencing first hand just how difficult it can be to defend a championship. Now, given that it's only spring training I'm not going to suggest that a repeat performance is impossible, but when Manager Tony LaRussa indicated this week that two-thirds of his team's projected starting outfield probably won't be ready for Opening Day and could likely begin the season on the DL, it made for a rather inauspicious start.
Center fielder Jim Edmonds and right fielder Juan Encarnacion have both been slow to recover from off-season surgeries, so it appears neither of them will be in the Opening Day lineup.
Edmonds, rewarded with a new two-year deal last fall despite coming of an injury-riddled season, is trying to get over surgeries on his right shoulder and left toe. It's unclear how long he'll be out, but after taking batting practice for the first time this week, he said he's nowhere near full strength.
Encarnacion, who had wrist surgery in December, has been all able to participate in non-hitting drills and has taken several rounds of BP, but the wrist is still not strong enough. La Russa doesn't seem overly impressed with his projected right fielder and the man who will often spell Edmonds in center. "I'm not going to push him. He doesn't want to be pushed. I don't want to push him. So one and one definitely equals no push."
Okay, we've got that calculation cleared up then.
From a fantasy standpoint, this is a situation that's created an early-season opportunity for several Cardinals. Let's see who might take advantage and earn a bump in value out of the gates this year.
Chris Duncan remains entrenched in left, stone glove and all, but because of his, how shall we say this nicely…defensive limitations, having a top-notch glove man replace Edmonds in center is vital.
The first name that pops to mind is So Taguchi, of course, and sure enough he looks like the odds-on favorite to be manning Edmonds's position on Opening Day. But if that doesn't get your fantasy juices flowing, don't worry, there's nothing wrong with you. Taguchi's early-spring performance at the plate (a 1-for-16 start), raised questions of whether he might even lose his job as the fifth outfielder. But he's turned things around, is now batting a lofty .152 and is making Cristian Guzman (see below) look like an attractive fantasy option.
Taguchi's struggles with the stick this spring have helped breathe life into a couple of longshots – John Rodriguez and Skip Schumaker. Now it appears that even if Taguchi's job is safe, the injuries to Edmonds and Encarnacion may open the door for both Rodriguez and Schumaker.
Rodriguez has certainly hit well enough this spring (.409) to deserve breaking camp in a back-up role. But he'd be limited to playing a corner, which makes Schumaker, capable of playing center, a more attractive option. Schumaker hasn't hurt himself at the plate either with a lofty .400 BA, but he has lost several days to an ankle sprain. The club hopes to get him back this weekend, so he still has time to overtake Taguchi and break camp with the CF gig.
Over in right, the job appears to be Preston Wilson's to start with. He's struggled offensively in the early going, but his power is intriguing. Wilson is also capable of manning center, so if Taguchi were to continue to struggle and Schumaker is slow to return, that could be an option. Of course, Wilson is also dealing with health issues, albeit minor ones. Bicep tenderness has slowed him to an extent, limiting him to DH duty until this week, but what's really been his problem is his notoriously long swing, one that's beginning to frustrate La Russa.
Back-up infielder Scott Spiezio is also an option to play a corner spot in a pinch.
But there are two other outfield candidates, each of whom is swinging a hot bat this spring and each of whom is a former top prospect.
Ryan Ludwick, formerly a power-hitting prospect in the A's organization who's bounced around the minors, leads the Cards in hitting this spring with a .450 mark. After hurting his hip five years ago, Ludwick's career stalled somewhat, but power bats are always in vogue.
Finally, former phenom Rick Ankiel is perhaps the greatest curiosity of all. The top pitching prospect turned injury-prone wild man, turned outfielder, is showing he can swing the stick this spring, batting .286 with three extra-base hits. Interestingly, the Cards have given him a look in center this spring, and if he can man that position, it will increase his chances of sticking as a power-hitting extra bat on the bench.
Speaking of phenoms, 20-year-old Colby Rasmus was reassigned to minor league camp this week, but not before going 2-for-6 with the big team. Cards' fans will have to wait another year or two before the man who will ultimately replace Edmonds in center arrives on the scene to stay, however.
- Cristian Guzman, who missed all of 2006 because of right shoulder surgery, remained limited by the shoulder this spring, so he's been unable to man shortstop until this week. Now it appears that he'll be ready to start the season as the Nats' Opening Day shortstop and the No. 2 hitter in their order. I've been in contact with a die-hard Nats' fan recently who says he'll be happy if the club wins 75 games. But with Guzman near the top of the order limiting the RBI chances for Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Ryan Church, Washington probably deserves to lose 110 games. It's hard to imagine Guzman will be worse than he was in 2005 (.219/.260/.314), but if he gets 450 at-bats or more this season, he will not only be the worst regular in the majors, but could personally be responsible for taking 50 or more runs out of the Nats' pockets. Will he take as many away from the opposition with his glove?
- How far has Jeremy Reed's stock plummeted in just one year? He was the Mariners' starting center fielder when the team broke camp last season, but a thumb injury ended a very forgettable 2006 early and now the former top prospect is a man without a role. Seattle is shopping him around in the hopes of improving its pen, but there are no takers so far. Reed is healthy now, yet he's not exactly increasing his stock with a .212 spring to date. Call me a sucker, but I still believe Reed, just 25, can deliver on his promise. However, it's going to take a change of scenery.
- Although he's thrown seven innings without giving up an earned run this spring, there's no room in the Pirates' rotation for lefty Sean Burnett to break camp with the team (especially with three southpaws already locked in for jobs). But he's a name to file away because he will see some time in Pittsburgh at some point and, now a couple of seasons removed from Tommy John surgery and a subsequent torn labrum, he's going to fly under the radar. NL-only league owners should definitely track Burnett's progress at Triple-A this season and get ready to pounce once an injury opens a slot for him.
- There must be plenty of relieved Justin Verlander owners after his appearance yesterday when he retired all 12 Nationals he faced. After taking pounding courtesy of the Yanks and Bosox earlier this spring, this was more like it for the 2006 AL ROY. Don't be swayed by his early spring showings – Verlander remains a solid option in whatever type of league you play in.