JUPITER, Fla. -- St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa had just gotten a dose of bad pitching news, but he should be used to that by now.
Left-hander Donovan Osborne may be out longer than expected with a persistent groin strain, bringing to three the number of 1997 starters who will not be in the Cardinals' rotation on Opening Day. La Russa will have to get by with a patchwork pitching staff for the first month or so of the 1998 season, which could challenge his club's status as the favorite in the National League Central.
Right-hander Andy Benes checked out in January, signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks after his agent and Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty missed an unbreakable Jan. 8 negotiating deadline. Right-hander Alan Benes is recovering from rotator-cuff surgery and is not expected back before May 1. Now, Osborne, who missed much of last season with an injury, is behind schedule.
The door has been left ajar in the soft-centered NL Central, and the Cardinals will have to get their act together in a hurry to keep from being drowned in a sea of so-so contenders.
"Your preference would be to have what we've had a few times in the past," La Russa said, "four or five starters to roll over from the first day to the last day. But as long as you understand what the problem is, you can deal with it. If you had a crystal ball and could tell me that Alan will be back on May 1 and everyone else will be pitching and catching, then it's just one month out of a six-month season, and you can make do."
Of course, there are no such assurances. Osborne originally was expected to be back in time for the opening week of the regular season, but that now appears highly doubtful. Todd Stottlemyre is pitching well (2-1, 3.60) this spring, but Matt Morris (1-1, 10.00) and Kent Mercker (0-1, 7.71) -- now at the nucleus of the rotation -- have not been particularly sharp. La Russa also is taking a look at journeyman Steve Ontiveros as a possible No. 5 fill-in while Benes continues his rehabilitation program.
If past performance is any indication, the rotation has relatively // limited upside potential, anyway, with only two pitchers who won more than nine games last year and no one who won more than 12.
Still, the Cardinals may be the best team on paper, because they are the one team in the division with the potential for a truly explosive attack. First baseman Mark McGwire hit 58 home runs last year, despite having to adjust to a change in leagues at midseason. If all goes well, he'll have Ray Lankford (31 homers) hitting behind him all year and Ron Gant in the fifth spot, which should mean enough good pitches to make another run at the single-season home run record.
The Cardinals are all but certain to enjoy an overall increase in offensive production, but that's partly because the club ranked a dismal 13th in the league with a .255 combined batting average and 11th with an average of 4.25 runs per game. Just having McGwire in the lineup all year should pump up the volume. So would a big comeback year from Gant, whose run-production numbers dropped off precipitously.
So far, so good. Gant, who played much of last year on a gimpy knee, is having a huge spring. Through the first 11 games of the Grapefruit League schedule, he was batting .429 with two home runs and 13 RBIs.
"One of our keys to winning is going to be depth of run producers," said La Russa, "so you can't take one away from us. So he [Gant] is going to be huge."
If La Russa can hold his pitching staff together long enough to get healthy, the Cards should be good enough to get to the playoffs. Even healthy, however, they remain a highly suspect postseason club.
When the Red Sox signed second-year shortstop Nomar Garciaparra to a multi-year contract recently, it proved a couple of things. First, it proved to the fans of Boston that the club is serious about building a perennial playoff contender. And second, it proved again to first baseman Mo Vaughn that he isn't an important part of the club's future.
Contract negotiations with the club have gone nowhere since Vaughn was arrested on drunken-driving charges Jan. 9. He recently was acquitted, but says the club doesn't have any real interest in re-signing him. In fact, he says the team would have preferred that he be convicted of the charges, because it would have made it easier to justify letting him go at the end of the season.
"It seems like the Red Sox wanted me to be found guilty or something and were using the whole situation to control my [contract] situation," he said.
But the most galling thing obviously is the way the club has
placed several other players higher on the front-office priority list than Vaughn, a former American League MVP who has been the heart and soul of the Red Sox offense for the past five seasons.