Cards' spending fuels spark

Saturday, August 1, 2009 | 11:46 p.m. CDT

ST. LOUIS — It appears the St. Louis Cardinals are finally willing to pay the price for victory.

Since late June, the franchise has been on an out-of-character splurge. Marquee pickup Matt Holliday is the third recent lineup addition, joining Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo on a team jockeying for the lead in a weak NL Central.

"We're never done shopping, but we feel like we have a great club now," team chairman Bill DeWitt said days before Friday's trade deadline.

It's an embarrassment of riches for manager Tony La Russa, who had gotten used to squeezing every ounce of production out of his rosters in recent seasons.

Dodgers manager Joe Torre joked that La Russa no longer has need for such innovations as batting his pitcher eighth, a ploy that gave him a second leadoff-type hitter the second time around to pack the bases for Albert Pujols. Or constantly fiddling with the lineup card, using 91 combinations in the first 104 games.

"Now, all of a sudden we've pulled La Russa into the rest of us by putting conventional lineups out there again," Torre said. "I think that's nice for him to jump in with the rest of us."

La Russa says simply: "I don't think we give up a talent edge to anybody."

There's a lot more bounce in everyone's step these days, a natural spring that comes with the sense the franchise is doing everything it can to win. Everyone is aboard, even those now in a fight to get on the lineup card.

"No reason to resent not playing," said infielder Brendan Ryan. "This is a fun ballclub to be a part of and hopefully we've got a chance to do something special."

It's a huge switch from the previous two seasons, when the Cardinals failed to follow up on their 2006 World Series championship while jettisoning aging talent and allowing injuries to drag down them.

Last year at this time, St. Louis didn't actively pursue trades. Instead, the Cardinals relied on activating oft-injured pitchers Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder from the disabled list. Together, the pair worked 17 innings as the Cardinals slowly sank to fourth place.

There were no major moves in 2007, either, to rescue a team dragged down by injuries to Carpenter, Jim Edmonds, David Eckstein and Scott Rolen. A small splash only, with the pickup of pitcher Joel Pineiro.

"I think the right opportunity wasn't there," DeWitt said, speaking generally about the recent past. "Or the asking price was too great."

This year, it felt right to take the plunge. The only real hole they had to fill was at third base, with DeRosa taking over for Troy Glaus, still rehabbing from January shoulder surgery.

The big-deal drought is over, DeWitt said, because the price was finally right. Again and again and again.

DeRosa cost the Cardinals potential future closer Chris Perez. The Cardinals sent struggling outfielder Chris Duncan to Boston for Lugo, who had been outrighted with more than a year left in a big deal. The Red Sox will pick up most of his contract.

Three top prospects, including 2008 first-round draft pick Brett Wallace, went to Oakland for Holliday, due for free agency after the season.

The franchise has put more emphasis on organizational development in recent years, leading to the departure of general manager Walt Jocketty, yet recent actions show they're still more than willing to barter prospects for proven talent.

"We've always been interested in winning now, it's what opportunities are there," DeWitt said. "We felt our offense needed beefing up and when we had an opportunity to get an impact player, a premium player, an All-Star, that doesn't come along every day."

The Cardinals walloped the Dodgers, who were jockeying with the Yankees for the majors' best record, by a combined 16-1 in consecutive games earlier this week without a contribution from Pujols. The two-time NL MVP, who leads the majors in homers and RBIs, is suddenly surrounded by talent and no longer forced to carry a dynamic offense.

For opposing pitchers, it's a different story.

"There's no room to breathe," DeRosa said. "At any point, we can rattle off two or three runs."

None of the pickups is viewed as a rental, either. The Cardinals have long coveted Holliday as a complement to Pujols, and will pursue a multiyear contract once they've given Holliday a chance to soak in his new surroundings.

That strategy worked in the past with Mark McGwire, Edmonds and Rolen.

"Certainly, we'd love to sign Matt Holliday long term and that'll be our objective," DeWitt said. "When you make a move like this as we did with Rolen, Edmonds, McGwire and others, you hope they'll get in this atmosphere and want to stay here.

"Of course, we're ready at any time to start talking about a contract."

More than $18.5 million will come off the books after this season from the contracts of Glaus and Khalil Greene, sidelined much of the season due to social anxiety disorder. That money could help finance deals for Holliday and DeRosa, and keep the payroll from ballooning too much beyond $100 million.

The downside: They've got to rebuild the farm system a bit.

Pitchers Clayton Mortensen (Athletics) and Jess Todd (Indians) both made their major league debuts earlier this year with St. Louis. Director of player development Jeff Luhnow had grown close with all the prospects, but noted "there comes a time when you've got to separate."

"We're all on board," Luhnow said. "To get a player like Holliday, who's going to say no to that?"


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