Opening Day

For some of us, today is New Year’s and Christmas rolled into one. Major-league baseball begins today. Boston and New York tonight – even the Globe and NYT say, “ho, hum” – and my Cardinals open tomorrow afternoon in Cincinnati, and at home against Houston next Monday.

A lot of pundits favor the Redbirds to win the NL Central this year, but there is always – always! – the problem of injuries. This is a special worry; because they are not a deep team. Home town paper asks how thin are the Cardinals

Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Yadier Molina lead the worryingly lengthy list of players who got hurt during Spring Training. Molina begins 2010 on the DL. His backup, Jason LaRue, is coming off the DL to start behind the plate tomorrow.

The Cardinals feature baseball’s most awesome 1-2 punch (okay, technically, 3-4, their spots in the order) in Pujols and Holliday, both of whom of whom have batting championships on their resumes. Pujols and Holliday were born one day apart – Holliday on January 15th, 1980, and Pujols on the 16th. Pujols is the best player in baseball, and Holliday, though far below Pujols’ career numbers, is a respected hitter and good left fielder. With his big new contract, there will be serious expectations for Holliday to perform at the highest level. Both men were injured during spring training, so we’ll see if they’re 100% for tomorrow. If they both play to their potential this season, that should be something to see. If they’re both hurt a lot during the season, it won’t be quite so much fun.

The entire lineup is impressive on paper. Three .300 hitters batting 1st (Schumaker), 3rd (Pujols) and 4th (Holliday), and the 2nd and 7th slots occupied by hitters – Ryan and Molina – who flirt with .300. Decent on-base percentages generally. A 6th-place hitter – Ryan Ludwick – who has a career average of .271 and some pop. Colby Rasmus still has something to prove at the plate, to my way of thinking, and David Freese, the rookie third baseman, gets the chance to show his stuff this year.

Freese is one of two particular question marks for me. He seemed to find a groove at the plate late in the spring, but I am concerned about his glove. The other – larger – one is closer Ryan Franklin. He has not impressed me, and I don’t see a major turnaround from late last summer, when he lost his effectiveness. With a mediocre bullpen, the Cardinals really need a consistently lights-out closer.

That bullpen, by the way, will create pressure on the starters – a better-than-average group, I think – to go longer more often, unless the relief corps can inspire confidence early in the season.

To my way of thinking, the most interesting story will be whether young lefthander Jaime Garcia proves to be solid or turns out to be a flash in the pan. Even though the Twins knocked him around yesterday, Garcia returned from Tommy John surgery and pitched his way into the rotation during the spring, and he’ll be the Cardinals’ only southpaw. Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright continue to command most people’s attention – they’re already in the Cy Young chatter – but Garcia will be the one I want to watch.

Play ball!



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