Cards help spice up NL Central

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

March 26, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- Maybe the St. Louis Cardinals will win the National League Central, but if they don't, it won't be for lack of effort on the part of general manager Walt Jocketty.

The deal that put marquee center fielder Jim Edmonds in the middle of the Cardinals lineup was just the latest move in a dramatic organizational makeover aimed at returning the club to prominence in a vastly improved division.

Jocketty spent the winter stocking up on starting pitchers. He acquired Darryl Kile from the Colorado Rockies. He got Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen from the Toronto Blue Jays. He signed free agent Andy Benes. All that made it possible to deal last year's pitching ace -- Kent Bottenfield -- in the package for Edmonds.

Wanna talk turnover? The departure of Bottenfield left former Orioles reliever Heathcliff Slocumb as the dean of the Cardinals pitching staff in terms of continuous active major-league service with the club -- about 2 1/2 months.

The acquisition of Edmonds improves the Cardinals outfield defense, beefs up the offensive lineup and relieves manager Tony La Russa of the concern that veteran Eric Davis might not be healthy enough to play regularly.

The Cardinals will enter the season with one of the most versatile outfield alignments in baseball. All three of the starters -- Ray Lankford in left, Edmonds in center and J.D. Drew in right -- are natural center fielders, which should make life a lot easier for the revamped pitching staff.

The departure of Bottenfield is a major loss for the rotation. He was, after all, the club's winningest pitcher last year with an 18-7 record, but there apparently was some sentiment inside the organization that he might have trouble repeating that career performance.

The big loser in the deal has to be Davis, who has been working his way back from rotator cuff surgery. He was expected to be the regular right fielder but has been reduced to a fourth outfielder and -- perhaps -- insurance in case Drew fails to live up to his can't-miss billing.

Edmonds will add further to the complementary lineup that the Cardinals have built around home run king Mark McGwire, which could make it easier for him to continue the unprecedented home run barrage that he has sustained the past two seasons.

The big winners, again, are NL Central fans, who have seen one of baseball's dullest divisions transformed into potentially the most dynamic races in baseball in the space of a few months.

Never say never

Less than a week before the deal was announced, new Anaheim Angels general manager Bill Stoneman told Edmonds not to worry -- that he was going to be an Angel all season.

Edmonds knew better than to take him at his word. This is the same team that once told Cecil Fielder to buy a house in Southern California and traded him two weeks later.

Of course, most of the speculation involving Edmonds centered on the New York Yankees, who refused to give up either pitcher Ramiro Mendoza or shortstop prospect Alfonzo Soriano. The Cardinals apparently didn't come into the picture until Jocketty got a serious offer from the Angels on Thursday.

Another jinx

The Boston Red Sox have been fighting the "Curse of the Bambino" for generations. Now, they've got to deal with the "Sports Illustrated jinx" as well.

The magazine predicted in its annual baseball issue that the Red Sox would finally win the World Series this year, ending a world title drought that dates to 1918. Trouble is, SI is known for putting the hex on any athlete or team that appears on its cover, which doesn't bode well for Pedro Martinez and the Red Sox.

"The people in Boston who believe in the Bambino curse are also going to believe in the Sports Illustrated curse, so if we don't win it, that's probably going to be why," veteran pitcher Bret Saberhagen told reporters, "but we still have Nomar [Garciaparra] tapping his shoes and pulling on his batting gloves. We'll try to counteract all those curses with our own superstitions." Chimed in Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy: "Now it'll be another 100 years before they win the World Series."

No controversy

Cincinnati Reds manager Jack McKeon hears the whispers. He knows that everyone assumes that Ken Griffey Sr. is on deck to become the next Reds manager, but he doesn't seem particularly concerned about it.

"The undue pressure is more on Griff than it is on me," McKeon said. "That doesn't bother me. I know I can do the job. The day will come when I won't be in the job, and when that day comes, I hope Griffey gets the job."

So does Ken Griffey Jr., but he continues to insist that had nothing to do with his desire to be traded to Cincinnati.

"When I talked to [Griffey Sr.] about coming here, he told me, `Don't do it because of me. I'm going to be OK. If you want to come, come. If you don't, don't," his son said recently. "It's always been a dream of mine, a goal of mine, to play in my hometown. If my dad had played for Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh was my hometown, I might be playing for the Pirates now."

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