Column: Cardinals show they're willing to take a few chances

2013-02-20T10:00:00Z 2013-03-14T21:08:35Z Column: Cardinals show they're willing to take a few chancesBy JOE STRAUSS - Lee News Service Writer
February 20, 2013 10:00 am  • 

JUPITER, Fla. - Never have I witnessed Bill DeWitt Jr. tumbling dice at a craps table while sporting a gold pinkie ring and a tilted fedora. I've never caught John Mozeliak wearing a gray hoodie concocting some triple-tiered bluff from behind poker pro shades.

The Cardinals' chairman and general manager prefer Polo and corporate to grunge and degenerate. They dig advanced metrics over tonight's college hoops over-under totals.

There are no sure things in life; however, the Cardinals always seem to be seeking the next best thing. They embrace cost certainty and are fluent in BankerSpeak.

In informal settings, khaki is the team color.

But make no mistake: We are quickly learning there is gamble in these Cardinals.

The Cardinals are still 72 hours from their Grapefruit League opener, and already their risk-taking is increasingly exposed. Chris Carpenter says he won't be attending camp. He instead plans to seek multiple medical opinions about returning nerve issues that forced the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner to quit throwing. Tuesday, less than a week after entering camp, shortstop Rafael Furcal acknowledged his right elbow remains an issue almost six months after he suffered a season-ending ligament sprain in Washington.

Manager Mike Matheny conceded Tuesday morning that Furcal would not be part of early Grapefruit League play. Matheny couldn't project when Furcal might be ready for game action, only that he had no misgivings about Furcal being ready opening day.

The day's intrigue was just beginning. All parties admitted Tuesday afternoon that a bone spur behind Furcal's problematic elbow offers a complication. The damaged ligament is not the current problem.

For a fan base leery of injury concerns, the news might send many to the ledge.

At the very least this is sobering stuff for an elder shortstop who spent much of the offseason resting and strengthening the elbow only to deal with renewed discomfort before cutting loose his first throw from the hole.

Furcal is already on anti-inflammatory medication and could require a cortisone injection if discomfort persists. If Furcal requires a shot, he almost certainly will be limited for another seven to 14 days.

Sunburn is typical for snowbirds from Missouri. But such rapid exposure has to be unsettling for a franchise that relied on Carpenter for more than 270 innings in 2011 and asked Furcal for 116 starts before last September's injury.

The Cardinals made no external move for rotation insurance this winter. They instead self-insured, trusting Jaime Garcia's left shoulder and psyche can withstand hard contact and, if not, that young arms Joe Kelly, Shelby Miller and Trevor Rosenthal provide enough safety net.

The good news is that Garcia so far looks outstanding while insisting he again feels normal.

The bad news is that the three young pitchers already vie to take Carpenter's vacated spot. Having to commit a second to the rotation could create an onerous innings load for the bullpen.

If the weeks immediately before and after camp's opening spotlighted the rotation's vulnerability, the last week has resurrected concerns about the turnstile at a premium defensive position.

Obligated to Furcal for $7 million this season, Mozeliak has embraced the presidential slogan of Hope and Change regarding shortstop: Hope for the best; spend change for a contingency. Ronny Cedeno, 31, is an eight-year vet with a career .247 batting average and a .647 OPS. He's played 137 games total for two winning teams, the 2007-08 Chicago Cubs, and made 186 plate appearances with last season's New York Mets. Pete Kozma could also return to prominence in Furcal's absence.

Furcal's best-case projection is equally telling, as one internal projection labeled 100 starts as "a home run."

It is easy to criticize the organization for failing to urge Furcal to undergo surgery immediately following the club's postseason ouster. However, Furcal insisted he would not play rather than submit to further surgery.

The Cardinals thought it a safe bet that Furcal would return to form before opening day. However, the club's assumption was based on adherence to a throwing program that became a casualty of Furcal's travel to the Dominican Republic.

In some ways this season is considered a transitional one for an organization proud of its burgeoning player development system. Though shortstop isn't among the farm system's largesse, the Cardinals prefer to wait for an improved market to address a position known for five different starters (Cesar Izturis, Khalil Greene, Brendan Ryan, Ryan Theriot and Furcal) during Mozeliak's previous five seasons as general manager.

With the Cardinals already heavily committed to Furcal, Stephen Drew was not appealing at $9.5 million. Potential trade targets such as Baltimore's J.J. Hardy and Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki remain unavailable.

The Cardinals' gamble doesn't take place within a vacuum. Skepticism exists over the Cincinnati Reds' ability to repeat a 97-win season that hinged on uninterrupted health among their rotation and a dominant bullpen that safeguarded 31 one-run wins. The Reds also won 49 games within the division and out-kicked the Cardinals by nine games despite producing a run differential inferior to their rivals.

Mozeliak has given no indication of pursuing Kyle Lohse on a short-term contract. This camp's theme is depth. Adam Wainwright is two years removed from elbow surgery. Garcia has averaged fewer than 160 innings the last three seasons. Jake Westbrook is considered trustworthy but had last season ended by the third oblique strain of his career. A leaner Lance Lynn hopes to avoid crashing into the figurative wall that forced him from the rotation last August.

The Cardinals know the risks. They've lost seasons (2003, '07 and '10) because of pitching malfunctions. They've also become adept at midseason course corrections such as the one that imported Furcal in 2011.

They have paid their money. Now they take their chances.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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