The candidates for the final four spots of the reigning world champion's pitching rotation include a 32-year-old who hasn't started a game since he pitched in Class A 10 years ago, a free-agent acquisition who once tested positive for steroids, a prospect who spent all of last season in the bullpen, a long reliever with a face suited for Gerber jars, a fashion plate for those who prefer their hats flat-billed and a guy named Kip.
And yet Walt Jocketty, the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, sounds calm and confident less than two weeks before his pitchers and catchers report to Jupiter, Fla. He thinks Braden Looper (the old guy) can make the transition after a career as a reliever, likes the upside of Ryan Franklin (the steroid user in 2005) for only $1 million, can't wait to see Adam Wainwright (the reliever) start after his dominant postseason as closer, remembers Brad Thompson (the babyface) throwing 57 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings as a starter in Double-A, believes Anthony Reyes (the cap connoisseur) can consistently repeat his brilliant eight-inning performance in Game 1 of the World Series and cares plenty more about the ability of Kip Wells (the … Kip?) than his sharing a name with Napoleon Dynamite's brother.
So forgive Jocketty if he looks at his rotation and chooses not to bellow, "Gosh!" After losing National League Championship Series MVP Jeff Suppan and World Series hero Jeff Weaver in free agency, he's content to commiserate with manager Tony La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan before hammering out the rotation behind ace Chris Carpenter.
"We've got to have something to do in spring training, right?" Jocketty said.
Years of success afford Jocketty the ability to waltz so nonchalantly into a season with more question marks than the Riddler. Most comforting for the Cardinals is his ability to scour for bargains and make luck in an era when keeping together a World Series winner simply doesn't happen.
The cost is too great, and it is why the 2005 champion Chicago White Sox traded starter Freddy Garcia and Aaron Rowand and, in all likelihood, will lose Joe Crede and Jermaine Dye to free agency this offseason. It is why eight players remain from the Boston Red Sox's 2004 championship team, only Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera survived the purge of the '03 Florida Marlins victors and just five players from the Los Angeles Angels' 2002 World Series winners are still around.
Jocketty pulled a rabbit last year when he plucked Weaver from the waiver wire, and look where it has him now: thankful that Weaver pitched so well down the stretch, and frustrated that he turned down a two-year offer from the Cardinals to sign a more lucrative one-year, $8.325 million deal with the Seattle Mariners.
"We've got other guys now we feel can fit that same role and will have the same type of success," Jocketty said. "Am I disappointed the way it happened? I am. In the end, he was better suited to pitch here for another year with Tony and Dave Duncan. I know that for a fact.
"In certain situations, some change is good. We've tried to change our teams a little bit each year. It's a natural evolution of your roster. Just because of free agency and the demands on the payroll, you do have to make choices."
Hitting the important ones allows Jocketty to take risks with his pitching staff, for example, or with the revolving door that has been second base.
Before the 2004 season, he signed Albert Pujols to a seven-year, $100 million deal. With a club option for the 2011 season, the Cardinals get five more years of Pujols at $79 million, about a 33 percent discount to what he'd fetch on today's open market.
And this winter, when Hyundais suddenly were selling for Bentley prices, the Cardinals managed to lock up Carpenter, the National League's best pitcher, to a five-year, $63.5 million deal, with a $15 million option for a sixth season.
"It's almost critical to try and do that and hedge your bet," Jocketty said. "The market continues to increase dramatically. One of the ways you are able to combat that is to tie your guys up. At the time, people probably thought $100 million for Albert was a lot of money."
Still, large, long-term deals do hinder spending, even on a team whose payroll should end up between $95 million and $100 million. The Cardinals almost never pursue high-priced free agents. Because they tie up more than 50 percent of their salaries in Pujols, Carpenter, third baseman Scott Rolen, outfielder Jim Edmonds and closer Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals' biggest splashes the last two years have been second baseman Adam Kennedy, outfielder Juan Encarnacion and Looper.
Which is to say they are not, in any form or fashion, the Cubs, who gave Jason Marquis – deemed not good enough to make the Cardinals' postseason roster last year – a three-year, $21 million deal.
Jocketty took $13 million and lavished it for two years on a riskier prospect: left-hander Mark Mulder, who will miss at least half the season after getting shut down by the Cardinals last year for shoulder surgery. They expect Mulder back by July, and if he's healthy, he could give St. Louis the type of boost that generally costs two or three prospects at the trading deadline.
Already Jocketty is expecting the return of the injured Isringhausen, who he said has been cleared to start throwing off the mound, and the emergence of Wainwright and Thompson as potential starters – and Wells as someone who finally harnesses his considerable talent – under Duncan.
"He gives me comfort," Jocketty said.
Such confidence is borne of more than 20 years spent consulting one another. La Russa, Duncan and Jocketty built a championship team with the Oakland Athletics in 1989. And after 100-plus-victory seasons in 2004 and '05, now they have one in St. Louis, too.
Following that with another World Series will depend on Looper, Franklin, Wainwright, Thompson, Reyes or Wells.
Gosh? Maybe somewhere else. This is St. Louis. They're used to making their own luck.
- Walt Jocketty