When the St. Louis Cardinals' Caravan came to East Peoria, Illinois Sunday night, fans got a sneak peek at what the 2009 season may look like for the Cards.
The biggest issue for the Cardinals this offseason is who will be the closer. The Cardinals problem last season was blown saves. Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals' all time saves leader broke down and the team did not resign him. Ryan Franklin did well for a while and then could not hang on.
The first choice may be a guy who was labeled the future closer from the day he was drafted: Chris Perez. Perez came up last year for bullpen depth and ended up as a closer late in the season. He had seven saves in eleven chances.
"Well just being called up in the first place was a chocolate dream and I got to fulfill it, and get thrown into some roles that are pretty pressure packed," Perez said of being called up.
"It was fun at the same time as it was anxious. I was anxious a lot. But it was a great time, a great experience and I learned a lot of stuff, that's for sure."
When asked where he stood in the closer competition, Perez said he was one of the guys in the running. He will go into spring training ready to show Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan that he can handle the role.
If Perez doesn't get the job, he will be a set-up option. To him it is the same job. He says he will have to close out the game no matter whether it is in the seventh, eighth, or ninth.
With this responsibility comes the pressure of the situation. Some guys like it, some don't.
"For as long as I've been closing, I'd better like it," Perez said. "You have to have a short memory, that's for sure. Pitch to pitch, hitter to hitter, your ultimate goal is just to win. It doesn't matter if it's by one run or bases loaded.
"If you have the bases loaded and the guy pops out, you win. Some guys can handle that, some guys can't. I feel I've done a pretty good job. I've had some bad games and washed them out of my mind and come back fresh the next day."
Perez says his favorite moment of his rookie season, he said it was when he struck out his former college teammate Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 27. He struck out the side that night to get the save.
It has been Perez's goal to be a major league closer since the day he was drafted. This spring he will have his chance.
Another option for the closer role is Josh Kinney. Kinney was a key set-up man on the 2006 World Series team, but he had to have Tommy John surgery in 2007. He finally made it back to the team at the end of 2008 and did not allow a run in seven innings.
Kinney said it was kind of hard to watch the team when it needed a closer and he could not help, but he knew that all he could do was get healthy and come back when he was ready.
Kinney does not care whether he is the closer or a set-up man.
"I absolutely don't think it matters. It's three outs. To me, it's the same thing if you're pitching with a game on the line when it's the seventh, eighth, or ninth. You go right after guys," Kinney said. "You make too much of it, you loose your focus."
The good news that all of the players in attendance said is that pitcher Chris Carpenter is on his normal workout routine and will be ready to enter spring training as a starting pitcher.
There was some thought by Tony LaRussa that Carpenter may become the closer, but the team feels that he will be able to help them the most in the rotation.
Next spring the Cardinals will have a good group of guys to look at as the future closer, and they may still sign a veteran. There is word that the team may be interested in former Arizona Diamondbacks closer Brandon Lyon.
Along with the two pitchers, infielder Brendan Ryan and Nick Stavinoha were in attendance, as well as former Cardinals Al Hrabosky, John Tudor, Danny Cox, and Tom Lawless.
The Cardinals' biggest acquisition so far this offseason has been shortstop Khalil Greene. The guy who will most likely back him up, as well as the rest of the infield will be Brendan Ryan. Ryan was in the mix with Cesar Izturis last spring to be the starting shortstop.
Unfortunately, Ryan was hurt late in spring training, missing out on the starting job and then never got into a groove offensively over the season.
This year, he is only seen as a backup with Adam Kennedy and Khalil Greene being the obvious starters, but he may get his chance to play quite a bit. He is unsure if he will have a key role in the infield.
Last season, Aaron Miles was semi-platooned with Adam Kennedy, so the possibility of Ryan playing as Kennedy's platoon partner is there. Ryan said that although it is possible, A.K. (Adam Kennedy) hit both right and left handed pitchers fairly equally last year, so it is unlikely.
There is also the possibility of playing for Khalil Greene, if Greene were to get hurt. Throughout his career, Greene has been out for a significant amount of time each season with an injury. If this happens, Ryan could slide right in as his replacement.
"You never know. There are so many games. Anything can happen at any given time," Ryan responded. "You just have to stay prepared and stay hungry and wait for your chance."
Ryan is a guy who could be the answer at shortstop for the Cards some day. He is just waiting for his chance.
"Absolutely," he said, "I want to be an everyday shortstop at some point. I'd love for that to be with the Cardinals. Just got to wait for my next opportunity and shine."
The final player in the group was outfielder Nick Stavinoha, who made his major league debut at the historic Fenway Park last year. He said it was the most memorable moment of his rookie year.
Stavinoha is lower on the depth chart, so he may not make the club out of spring training. If there is an injury in the outfield, he will be one of the first call-ups.
The Cardinals go into 2009 as an underdog with the Chicago Cubs being favored to win the division. This does not bother the team one bit. After all, the Cardinals were the underdog in 2006 playoffs and they ended up as world champions. If the team can come together, they can go anywhere they want.
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