Still strong in St. Louis

THE BALTIMORE SUN

JUPITER, Fla. - Mark McGwire used to cast a giant shadow in the St. Louis Cardinals' organization. The hulking physical presence and prodigious home run swing made the near-certain future Hall of Famer an intimidating force on offense, and his regular-guy approach to the game made him one of the most popular players in the clubhouse.

So how is it that the Cardinals - just months after Big Mac's sudden retirement - appear to be better off without him?

The Cardinals club that will open the 2002 exhibition season later this week has a deeper pitching staff and a more balanced lineup than the team that took the eventual world champion Arizona Diamondbacks to the limit in the first round of the playoffs last year. At least on paper.

McGwire's abrupt retirement last fall stunned manager Tony La Russa and general manager Walt Jocketty, both of whom had been closely associated with him for most of his major-league career, including the past five years in St. Louis.

Both tried to talk him into playing at least one more season, to continue his climb up the all-time home run list, in spite of the painful knee injury that limited his playing time the past two years.

Both have a deep emotional attachment to McGwire that makes them resist the notion that he did the best thing for himself and the team, but they concede that this Cardinals team could be the best they have had in seven years together in St. Louis.

"I think it's apples and oranges," La Russa said yesterday. "We won the last two years and Mark was part of those clubs. He still drove in 60 runs in 300 at-bats last year [actually 64 RBIs in 299 at-bats]. It's just different. I know that Mark helped us the last two years - just not as much as he wanted to."

La Russa made several attempts during the off-season to convince him that he still had one more big season in him - predicting that McGwire could hit 35 to 50 home runs this year after a winter of injury rehabilitation. Jocketty joined in the chorus, but McGwire was adamant about starting the next phase of his life.

"The great things he has done in his career ... it's the end of an era for the Cardinals and Mark," Jocketty said. "It was hard to understand because I thought he still had the ability to play and there were some numbers he was so close to, but those things weren't important to him.

"This spring, we all obviously miss him, but he is so happy ... so at peace. That made it easier to deal with. If he had any remorse about it, we'd feel worse, but he's very happy."

Jocketty didn't let his emotions get the best of him. He moved decisively over the winter to replace McGwire's run production. The Cardinals put together a list of first base candidates, eventually signing former New York Yankees star Tino Martinez to a three-year, $21 million deal that stabilized the middle of an already explosive lineup.

There was some talk about trying to lure superstar Jason Giambi, but the Cardinals weren't going to be able to fit him into their $70 million payroll. The next-best option was Martinez, a consistent run producer with strong defensive skills who didn't figure to wilt under the pressure of replacing a legend.

Martinez, after all, faced a much more daunting responsibility when he was acquired by the Yankees in the mid-1990s to replace popular first baseman Don Mattingly.

"Tino drives in a lot of runs, he's a good leader and a great first baseman," Jocketty said. "He's capable of doing a lot of the things McGwire did for us."

If Martinez is a perfect fit for the Cardinals, the feeling is mutual. He is coming off a great run in New York, where he won four World Series before filing for free agency in November. He might have preferred to stay in pinstripes, but once it became apparent that owner George Steinbrenner preferred the star power of Giambi, Martinez was happy to go to another contending team.

"This was my first choice," Martinez said. "I thought they had a great young team with a lot of talent, a good bullpen, a great coaching staff a good fan base and a great history. If it was a rebuilding team, I probably would have looked elsewhere, but they know how to win."

The supposed pressure that might come with replacing McGwire was never part of the equation.

"I'm expected to come in and do my job," Martinez said. "I'm expected to produce, regardless of who was here before me. I just have to take care of myself."

Perhaps McGwire would have bounced back and delivered another Bunyanesque performance, but Martinez represents the sure thing the Cardinals need to project as a potential World Series team. He had 34 home runs and 113 RBIs last year and should have plenty of RBI opportunities batting sixth in a lineup that includes J.D. Drew, 2001 National League Rookie of the Year Albert Pujols and Jim Edmonds at the heart of the batting order.

"You're definitely going to miss Mark because he was such an asset to the team and such a great player," said leadoff hitter Fernando Vina, "but you have to keep going. We're going to miss him, but it's good to have a guy like Tino to replace him."

The Cardinals have improved an offense that ranked fourth in the NL in runs last year, but the real reason that they enter the season with such tremendous optimism is the overall strength of the pitching staff.

The starting rotation is so deep that veteran starter Andy Benes will be forced to compete with comeback pitchers Garrett Stephenson and Rick Ankiel for the fifth starter role. So deep that the Cards could trade well-regarded starter Dustin Hermanson for financial reasons without doing serious harm to their playoff hopes.

Matt Morris is coming off a 22-win season. Darryl Kile won 16 games last year - though his early-season status is clouded by a winter shoulder operation - and Woody Williams was 7-1 after coming over in a midseason trade with the San Diego Padres. Second-year starter Bud Smith, who pitched a no-hitter in September, is expected to be in the fourth slot.

Jocketty beefed up a solid bullpen with the signing of free-agent closer Jason Isringhausen, but he may have to trade veteran reliever Dave Veres to meet the $70 million payroll target by Opening Day.

There is little room to argue against this being the best pitching staff the Cardinals have fielded since they reached the World Series three times in the 1980s.

"I learned my lesson the hard way," Jocketty said. "There were a couple of years we thought we had enough pitching, but we didn't. I learned that you have to create as much depth as you can."

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