ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Tony La Russa loves to tinker with the lineup card, using a whopping 135 variations last year in what was a pretty typical campaign.
No doubt there'll still be some juggling for the St. Louis Cardinals this season as La Russa factors in lefty-righty matchups and pitcher-vs.-hitter numbers. He will also have input from new batting coach Mark McGwire, whose hiring and subsequent admission to steroids use caused a stir. But a full season penciling in an order anchored by Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday figures to provide much more stability than usual.
"I think managers do what they have to, not what they want to," La Russa said. "My favorite thing is to have a core of five or six guys, and you play around with the other two or three, keep your bench going."
The Cardinals were 91-71 last season and won the National League Central Division despite La Russa's season-long search for a No. 2 hitter ahead of Pujols. A dozen players got a shot at that spot, 10 batted cleanup, 16 hit seventh and 12 more landed in the eighth slot, not counting the 48 times he batted the pitcher there.
For the most part, La Russa will be working with a set starting eight.
Cleanup intrigue ended when Holliday was acquired from the Athletics last July, and he batted .353 with 55 RBIs in 63 games. Ryan Ludwick, the primary No. 4 hitter before the Holliday deal, is now a fixture in the fifth slot.
Pujols has owned the No. 3 spot for years, and was the unanimous NL MVP after batting .327 and leading the league in homers (47), runs (124), on-base percentage (.443), slugging percentage (.658) and intentional walks (44). He had elbow surgery after failing to homer in his final 89 at-bats, counting the postseason, but the power stroke appears to be back.
Brendan Ryan, one of five players to get at least 18 starts at shortstop last year, is now established as one of the league's top fielders, and he returned in plenty of time from minor wrist surgery in early February. David Freese, acquired from the Padres for Jim Edmonds in 2007, will get a full shot at third base -- a big change from last year when Troy Glaus couldn't return from shoulder surgery until September.
"What I wanted to do is come out here and earn the job," Freese said. "I feel like I've been productive and progressed over the course of the spring and that's all I can do."
Colby Rasmus, who batted second about half of his rookie season, has batted more in the middle of the order during a strong spring. But La Russa isn't totally adverse to trying Rasmus at second again behind leadoff man Skip Schumaker -- even if it means both of his left-handed bats are at the top.
Questions about the order were overshadowed at times by McGwire's hiring. Big Mac was brought in after the Cardinals went 4-for-30 with runners in scoring position while getting swept in the first round of the playoffs. McGwire has patiently answered all questions about his doping days, though he will surely face more scrutiny when the season begins.
The rotation could be one of baseball's best, anchored by Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright.
Carpenter was 17-4 and led the NL with a 2.24 ERA, returning to dominance after missing nearly all the previous two seasons. He was second in the NL Cy Young balloting, just ahead of Wainwright, who was 19-9 and led the NL with 233 innings while working six or more innings in 26 consecutive starts.
Wainwright likened Carpenter to a shark and said he just followed that lead.
"I'm like a remora, always looking for useful tidbits that he drops," Wainwright said. "He's always filled with knowledge and he's a good teacher, too."
The bottom three has plenty of promise. Hard-throwing Brad Penny got a free agent deal off a strong finish with the Giants, Kyle Lohse was 6-10 in an injury plagued season but has had a healthy spring and was a 15-game winner in '08, and rookie left-hander Jaime Garcia won a three-way battle for the fifth spot.
The Cardinals wanted Garcia to get more minor league seasoning coming off reconstructive elbow surgery that sidelined him most of last season. But he proved he was ready.
Closer Ryan Franklin was a first-time All-Star at age 36 last year with an ERA that hovered around 1 most of the year, and though he tired in the final month was 38-for-43 in save situations. Kyle McClellan, who had in the running for the fifth starting spot, returns to the bullpen and could become the setup man.
"Whatever role, it will be a valuable role," McClellan said.
Holliday (right side) missed two weeks of spring training and Pujols' back briefly flared up, but both were in the lineup as the spring schedule wound down. The lone lineup concern entering the opener April 5 at Cincinnati was catcher Yadier Molina (right side), who was not expected to miss much time if any.
"Generally, most of the guys that were feeling something are feeling better," La Russa said.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)