The Littlest 'Birds

All of a sudden the Cardinals are embracing a youth movement.

I started looking forward to the 2007 season in September of 2006.

That's about when I decided that 2006 was a lost year for the Cardinals. They were in first place at the time, but come on — with Mulder headed for the operating table, Edmonds seeing double, Eckstein on the shelf and Isringhausen on crutches, what chance did they have do go anywhere in the playoffs?

About as much chance as Yadi Molina had of hitting a pennant-winning homer. Yeah, right — good luck with that one, guys.

Even if our boys should manage to slog through the weak National League side of the bracket and return to the World Series, they obviously stood no chance at all against the mighty American League champ, whoever that might be. In nine games against the cream of the AL Central (White Sox, Tigers and Indians) in June, the Cards had gone 1-8 and were outscored something like 547-26. Their only win was a gift, courtesy of a ninth-inning error on a routine Eckstein grounder to short.

Anyway, I didn't like the Cardinals much by September, and neither did much of St. Louis. The fans were booing a lot, bitter that seemingly every hole on the roster was being filled by a player some other team had released. Jose Vizcaino, Preston Wilson, Jorge Sosa, Jeff Weaver — was general manager Walt Jocketty even trying? No team with serious championship aspirations would waste its time with bums like these. The pitching staff's motto — Let's go Carp, then roll out the tarp — didn't inspire great expectations.

So, yeah — 2007 was looking pretty good right about then. A fresh start; a clean slate. We'd bid vaya con Boras to the soft-tossing ground-ball brigade, the Mulders and Suppans and wretched Marquises who every October, sooner or later, seemed to get outpitched by Schilling-Johnson or Oswalt-Clemens or some other power-arm tandem. In 2007 the St. Louis staff would finally get its own long-overdue power infusion, with Adam Wainwright and Anthony Reyes moving into more prominent roles.

Funny thing, though — spring training of 2007 arrived in the fall of 2006. Having been let down horribly by their veteran pitchers all season, manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan turned the postseason into a tryout camp, tossing four rookie hurlers — Wainwright, Reyes, Josh Kinney and Tyler Johnson — into the fray. That's standard personnel usage during the exhibition season — you run the kids out there to see how they'll fare against real big-league hitters. But exhibition games don't count. In the games that counted for everything last October, the four rookie hurlers combined to throw more than one-quarter of the Cardinals' innings — twice the proportion they'd worked in the regular season. They won or saved seven of the team's eleven postseason victories, shouldered none of the losses and boasted an aggregate ERA of 1.78.

Springtime in October.

Now spring is here for real, and the Cardinals roster has the feel of — oh, the irony — last autumn's. The front office spent the off-season reassembling the championship cast, right down to the backup catcher. Only four players failed to come back — and two of them had been with the team for less than three months, while a third (Marquis) didn't play at all in October.

Conversely, of the replacements added from outside the organization, two — Russ Springer and Adam Kennedy — are returning to the Cardinals for encore stints. (Non-roster invitee Eli Marrero, who at press time has an outside shot to make the team, is in the same boat.)

So what's the deal, then: Does 2007 loom as a season of new beginnings or just a long Homecoming weekend?

As I see it, it's decidedly the former, despite all the familiar faces. This season finds the Cardinals in the midst of a profound philosophical shift, away from checkbook-based player procurement — i.e., the free-agent market — and toward a program driven by homegrown talent. Rather than overspend for pitchers in this past winter's free-agent frenzy, the Cardinals left the fate of their 2007 rotation in the hands of Reyes and Wainwright, two guys who came up through the system. Likewise, they'll assign a lot of critical late-inning relief work to homegrown products Johnson and Brad Thompson. (Kinney would have been in that mix too, if not for an untimely injury that killed his season in March.)

And when mound reinforcements are needed during the season (as inevitably happens), Walt Jocketty won't necessarily have to cast a line outside the organization and reel in a guy like Jeff Weaver. Instead he'll have viable options down at Memphis — Dennis Dove, Andy Cavazos, Troy Cate and Blake Hawksworth among them.

In years past, players like those might have been packaged in trades for established veterans, or stalled in the pipeline behind journeymen who lacked upside but provided insurance for the big-league roster. The Cardinals have made that formula work for a long time, but it's the way of the past: Today it is simply too expensive to buy players at retail prices. Moving forward, the Cardinals are going to have to grow more of their talent at home.

Wainwright and Reyes, then, are being asked to do more than help pitch the Cardinals back to the playoffs. Their job is to advance a critical organizational objective. By extension, the Cardinals' job in 2007 isn't merely to win another NL Central title and slug it out again in October. The real task is to build upon the youth movement that began in the 2006 postseason — regardless of whether it culminates in a successful title defense.

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