The Cards aren't likely to challenge for the pennant this year. In a way, that'll make them all the more interesting to watch.

St. Louis Cardinals

Cardinal baseball. It's as much a part of summertime in St. Louis as ice-cold Budweiser, soul-crushing humidity and egg yolk-fortified ice cream. If you were raised in this city, you can feel it approaching, as metronome-predictable as the lengthening days.

In recent years the results have been equally predictable. Each summer, 90 wins. Another division title, another playoff berth. The only real question has been just how late in October the season would continue. That made last year's poor showing a shock to the system of Cards fans. Unfortunately, it's unlikely the glory days are back just yet.

Moreover, when you tune in to watch the Cardinals this season, the team you'll see on the field will be very different from the one you're used to seeing. Gone are many familiar faces: Scott Rolen, in iconoclastic exile north of the border. Jim Edmonds, patrolling center field in San Diego, having seen the writing on the wall. David Eckstein, joining Rolen in Toronto, a casualty of age, declining skills and a team in transition.

The formula for the Cards' recent success was a simple one. Former general manager Walt Jocketty was a master of the deal, consistently bringing in proven veteran contributors. That strategy, however, taxed the organization's minor-league system: For every Mark Mulder Jocketty wished to reel in, he had to bait his hook with a Dan Haren.

When Jeff Luhnow was hired in 2004 to run the drafting operation, the Redbirds' farm system was in a sorry state and ranked as one of the worst in all of baseball. Under Luhnow's stewardship the system has seen a renaissance. The Cardinals are drafting better, scouting better and developing young players down on the farm instead of trading them away. Baseball America, the preeminent authority on the minor leagues, recently ranked the Cardinals' system as the thirteenth-best in baseball. Not quite where we'd all like to see it, but the exponential improvement in a few short years is cause for considerable optimism.

By now you've all heard of Colby Rasmus and been told he's the savior of the franchise. But he is far from the only talent to like in the Cardinals system. The Cards have dedicated themselves to building the next great team from within, and the first fruits of that labor aren't far off. You may not have heard of these players just yet, but you might want to learn their names all the same. You'll be cheering for them soon enough.

Chris Perez, RHP
A wild, woolly, whirling dervish of a pitcher, Perez sprints in from the bullpen to the strains of Prodigy's "Firestarter" and proceeds to attack opposing hitters in a similar frenzy. Perez has been tagged to inherit the closer's role from Jason Isringhausen, and nothing he has shown during spring training has disabused anyone of that notion.

Perez dominated as a closer at the University of Miami, and he impressed Cardinals scouts enough for the team to draft him in the supplemental first round. It's easy to see what the organization liked about him: He combines an intimidating mound presence with an imposing repertoire. He features a fastball he consistently pumps in the 93-97 mph range, a wipeout slider and a pretty good curveball he'll occasionally drop in against lefties.

What he doesn't bring to the table is consistent control. Despite being able to overpower hitters — who struggle to hit better than .150 against him — he creates too many jams, issuing free passes at a rate of nearly one per inning. (Maybe Chris should rethink that intro music.) With only that glaring weakness, Perez has put himself at the doorstep of the majors in less than two years since being drafted.

Clayton Mortensen, RHP
When Mortensen scored an invite to spring training, he became the first Cardinals player to do so the year after he was drafted since Braden Looper in 1997. Mortensen, who went undrafted following his junior season at Gonzaga, suddenly blossomed as a senior. He finally began to grow into his six-foot-four frame (though he's still a bit of a beanpole), and his repertoire sharpened significantly.

He was taken by the Cardinals in the supplemental first round, prompting much carping. Many fans who follow the draft saw him as an overdraft at best; some argued that he represented a deliberate attempt by the team to target a player so mediocre that he'd have no negotiating leverage and, therefore, low bonus demands.

Mortensen is a right-handed sinkerballer — a perfect fit within St. Louis' "pitch to contact" ethos. His signature pitch has drawn some early (and probably premature) comparisons to the sinker of 2006 Cy Young winner Brandon Webb. While that's hyperbolic for a pitcher with fewer than 100 professional innings to his name, Mort's sinker is a special pitch, arriving in the low 90s with hard bottoming action at the plate. He also possesses a short, sharp slider that he can throw for strikes, and a developing changeup.

Mortensen was originally tabbed to start the year in either high-A ball or possibly at AA Springfield, but after catching the major league staff's eye this spring with his performance, he could debut as high as AAA. Wherever he starts, he should move quickly through the system and has already begun to shed the overdraft label.

Allen Craig, 3B
After Colby Rasmus, Allen Craig might just be the best bat in the Cards' system. He has huge right-handed power and a solid approach at the plate. Craig put up massive numbers in high-A and AA last year and will likely reacquaint himself with Springfield to begin the season.

Beyond what he offers with his bat, there is some debate as to Craig's value. He possesses below-average speed and athleticism, limiting his range in the field and his contributions on the basepaths.

Despite those shortcomings, by most defensive metrics Craig is an adequate defender at the hot corner. He catches what he gets to and possesses a strong arm. In fact, overall he profiles similarly to the Cards' current third baseman, Troy Glaus, though Craig is a little less of an all-or-nothing hitter.

This season will go a long way toward determining Craig's future. Springfield is a hitter's park, so don't be surprised if the kid makes a big splash.

Andres Rosales, RHP
Looking for a good sleeper pick to tell your friends about so you can look smart down the road? Give Andres Rosales some consideration. He's a long way off, having pitched primarily for Johnson City, one of the Cards' lowest-level minor league teams, last year.

Still, there's a lot to like — namely the fact that he struck out 60 batters in 47 innings while walking only eight (!). It's far too early to begin assigning a ceiling to the kid, as he'll only be nineteen years old when the season starts, but one or two scouts have already tossed around comps to no less a talent than Pedro Martinez. Again, that's way too lofty for a pitcher so far out, but there are some similarities.

Rosales is an undersize right-hander, standing just six feet tall; Johnson City's Web site lists him at an improbable 140 lbs. He throws a fastball about 90 mph, with tremendous run and sink, and has one dominating secondary pitch, a hard curveball that accounts for most of his strikeouts. (Adam Wainwright, anyone?) He also throws a changeup that, like Andres himself, still has quite a way to go.

There's plenty of room for Rosales to mature physically, increasing both endurance and velocity.

We may not see him for a long time, if ever. He's an awfully intriguing prospect, though, considering his present ability, age and potential for improvement.

Bryan Anderson and Luis De La Cruz, C
When the Cardinals signed Yadier Molina to a contract extension, the move caused immediate debate among prospect followers. The reason: Bryan Anderson. A lefty-hitting catcher, Anderson batted nearly .300 as the youngest player in the Texas League (AA) last season. He doesn't have light-tower power, though, and his defense is merely adequate, leading many to believe he'll be ignored in favor of the defensive wizardry of Molina. Anderson won't turn 22 until this December, which gives him plenty of time to develop. And while he'll start the year at AA, he should see AAA at some point in the season, putting him only one step from the majors, and a very intriguing decision for the Cardinals.

Further off, but equally intriguing, is Luis De La Cruz. Part of the Cardinals' recent push into more aggressive scouting in Latin America, De La Cruz was signed out of Venezuela. He's a long way off — he's only eighteen — but he's got a very high ceiling.

He boasts tremendous bat speed from the right side of the plate, allowing him to make hard, consistent contact. He already has great catch-and-throw skills, with arm strength that rivals Molina's.

Catching talent has become a great strength of the Cardinals' system, and Anderson and De La Cruz, while at very different points on the development curve, represent the best of the lot. Whatever direction the team goes, be it Anderson, De La Cruz or sticking with Yadi, backstop is one position this ball club won't have to worry about for years to come.

Aaron Schafer is a Cardinals fan who lives in St. Louis. He contributes to the Cardinals blog Viva El Birdos ( under the screen name The Red Baron.

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