Motte has separated himself from the pack as the favorite to earn the closer's role, even if the manager has been reluctant to say so. So the smart money increasingly seems to be on Perez starting '09 in Memphis.

But what happens if Motte struggles early? Will La Russa stick with the kid with the big arm? Or will he turn to a veteran presence (albeit a much less talented one), in Ryan Franklin?

And what will become of Chris Perez? How long will he stay in the minors? He certainly doesn't fit the profile of long man, and the big club's stocked with setup men galore. One has to wonder where the right-hander fits into the Cardinals' plans.

The Hot Corner
When we learned in January that Troy Glaus would need shoulder surgery and would miss the first month of the season, third base went from a lead-pipe lock to a cage match between David Freese (the player the Cardinals got from San Diego in return for Jim Edmonds) and Allen Craig (a Double-A player with an outstanding bat but dubious defense).
Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
JC Ridley/Cal Sport Media
Kyle McClellan can be called upon to pitch more innings — but he probably won't be.
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?
Ed Wolfstein/Icon SMI
Colby Rasmus: Will this be his breakout year?

The first wrinkle came when John Mozeliak brought Brett Wallace, the club's top 2008 draft pick, into the conversation. In published reports Mozeliak stated that Wallace would get significant playing time in spring training. The inevitable fairy-tale Albert Pujols comparisons weren't far behind: Just like Albert, Wallace begins his professional career as an outstanding hitter whose body doesn't look suited to the game; just like Albert, Wallace's defensive skills have been questioned; just like Albert, Wallace's day of reckoning might come after very little time in the minor leagues, and thanks to someone else's injury. (Pujols' version of Glaus was Bobby Bonilla, whose injury at the end of spring training in 2001 landed El Hombre on the roster.)

Once spring training commenced, though, Brett Wallace received virtually no playing time — only a handful of at-bats, primarily as a pinch hitter, and not a single start at third. In fact, he was one of the first players cut from major-league camp, a far cry from the scenario Mozeliak had laid out a few short weeks earlier.

Craig also failed to receive playing time. He played sporadically at first base and a time or two in left field before being packed off to the back fields at Roger Dean Stadium.

David Freese fell victim to a more physical variety of misfortune, in the form of a car accident before spring training that put him on the shelf. He was seen as the favorite coming into camp, but the lost time set him back significantly.

The man who received the longest look at third was Joe Mather. "Joey Bombs," as Mather was nicknamed at Double-A Springfield, emerged as the early frontrunner for third in Glaus' absence. Not all that surprising, really, considering what kind of offensive package Mather offers.

But there is one mitigating factor.

Joe Mather is an outfielder.

Sure, he played third in the minors off and on. Hell, he was drafted as a shortstop. But as spring training began, Mather had been a full-time outfielder for the better part of two years. In fact, he was initially moved from third to the outfield because of concerns he wouldn't be able to handle the infield position defensively.

I can almost hear you now, asking why this is so important. Several players came to camp, some received more chances than others, and in the end a choice was made. Happens all the time.

This is important because there's a profound disconnect between not only what Mozeliak said and what La Russa then did, but between the way the two of them looked at the competition in the first place.

Mozeliak looked at the loss of Glaus as an opportunity; there were suddenly all of these free at-bats floating around over there at third base, just waiting for someone to take them. Who better than the player the Cardinals desperately want to stick at third base for the long term?

La Russa, on the other hand, saw Glaus' injury as a challenge to overcome. There was no upside; it was merely a problem to be solved: how to fill the spot with the least disruption to the roster.

As spring training progressed, Mather slumped badly, and Freese re-entered the picture. It now looks likely that Mather will be nudged back into the already overcrowded and chaotic outfield picture — which we'll get to in the next section.

Outfield Insanity
Volumes could be written on the subject of the Cardinal outfield in 2009; the story of the three players who will take time catching flies in Busch Stadium this summer could alternately be cast as an Algernon Swinburne tale of rags to riches, a story of hard-fought redemption or a yarn about overcoming long odds and doubters to make good on immense talent...and that's before we even move beyond Ryan Ludwick and Rick Ankiel to the really interesting bits.

Ever since the first draft Jeff Luhnow was fully in charge of, one name has remained constant in the Cardinal farm system: Colby Rasmus. As talented a ballplayer as there is on the face of this earth, Rasmus has taken on an almost mythic quality in the eyes of his fan base.

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