1997 Season Preview
"1997 St. Louis Cardinals Team Preview" – by Kristin Harmel
After an 88-74 finish in 1996 and a trip to the National League Championship Series against the powerful Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals have the bases loaded and the tables stacked for a successful 1997 campaign. There will be a few new differences in this year’s roster beginning with the absence of future Hall-of-Famer Ozzie Smith, but the 1997 Cardinals will feature the same components that led them to the top of the NL Central and gave the Braves a run for a ticket to the Fall Classic.
Under the expert leadership of second year manager Tony LaRussa, the Cardinals will not disappoint their fans in 1997.
The Cardinals will feature a dynamic outfield, touted by many as the best trio in the majors. Any ball blasted to the outfield will once again be easily handled by Ron Gant, Brian Jordan and Ray Lankford. The speedy group made only eight errors combined in 1996 and it would be safe to say their fielding prowess will continue in 1997.
At the plate the three were no less formidable. Gant led the club with 30 homers while Lankford launched 21, as well as stealing a team-high 35 bases. Jordan led the team with a .310 average and 104 RBIs while hitting 17 long balls.
Adding depth to an already solid outfield will be veteran Willie McGee and second-year player Mark Sweeney. First baseman John Mabry may also see time in the outfield. Terry Bradshaw, who split time between the big-league club and the minors in 1996, may also be ready to assume a larger role with the club.
The Cardinal infield will again be strong this season. Mabry was reliable at first base, making only eight errors in 151 games while hitting .297 with 74RBIs. Providing depth will be 23-year-old Dmitri Young. Young, the Cardinals’ first pick in 1991, hit .333 with 64 RBIs at Louisville before playing 16 regular season games with St. Louis and contributing with a game-winning triple in game five of the NLCS versus the Braves.
Third baseman Gary Gaetti is a stronghold at the opposite corner of the diamond and should continue his strong play in the field in 1997. Gaetti also showed prowess at the plate, smashing 23 long balls while adding 80 RBIs. Royce Clayton will again be at shortstop where he played 113 games in 1996. Clayton proved to be dangerous on the base paths as well, swiping 33 bases. Delino Deshields, acquired via free agency this off-season, will take over at second base. Deshields, a career .263 hitter will look to rebound following last season, in which he hit only .224 for the Dodgers. 24-year-old Aaron Holbert, who hit .264 at Louisville in 1996, will provide depth along the infield.
Behind the plate, Tom Pagnozzi will contine to call the shots. Pagnozzi hit a solid .270 with a career high 13 homers while driving in 55 runs.
The Benes brothers Andy (18-10, 3.83ERA) and Alan (13-10, 4.90) will continue to shine while Todd Stottelmyre (14-11, 3.87) and Donovan Osborne (13-9, 3.53) give the Cardinals one of the top rotations in the majors. Danny Jackson, scheduled to return after missing a year and a half due to injury, should be the fifth starter.
The bullpen will be led by closer Dennis Eckersley (30 saves, 3.30). Eckersley, named the top reliever in the 20-year history of the Rolaids Relief program, will continue slamming the door on opposing batters.
Helping to bridge the gap between the starters and Eckersley will once again be a fine set-up crop.
Leading the ‘pen will be 20-year veteran lefthander Rick Honeycutt (2-1, 2.85). Honeycutt appeared in 61 games for the team in 1996, earning a save in four of those contests. Tony Fossas (0-4, 268) appeared in 65 games last season, making two saves.
1997 should be another stellar year for the Cardinals. Look for Gant, Jordan, Lankford, and Gaetti to continue to lead the attack at the plate. The Cards can continue to rely on their pitching staff to hold opposing teams to a minimum while the legendary “Eck” can be counted on once again to save any close game.
And as for another shot at the post-season this year?
“We had a good club and were one game from the World Series last year” said Cardinal Director of Player Development Mike Jorgensen. “We’ve got a strong club with a lot of experience. The attitude on the ballclub is what we should be there at the end.”
It’s a long road to the World Series, but it’s apparent that the Cardinals have what it takes.
“The Best Outfield in Baseball”
When thinking about which teams had the best outfield tandems in 1996 you could put up a pretty good argument for the Cleveland Indians, who featured Albert Bell, Kenny Lofton and Manny Remirez or the Seattle Mariners, where Ken Griffey Jr. and Jay Buhner put up monster numbers.
However, if you really wanted to see the most complete outfield in baseball, you needed to look no farther than St. Louis where Ray Lankford, Ron Gant, and Brian Jordan patrolled.
Touted by many as the best outfield in the majors, the trio not only bring a combination of speed and power to the plate, they strike fear in to opposing player with their defensive ability, turning sure extra base hits into just another out.
Gant is the proverbial “straw that stirs the drink” of this talented group. The six-year veteran has the experience to lead the group while his power at the plate has the potential to turn a game around with one swing of the bat. Gant hit .246 last year, his first with the Cardinals after coming over from the Reds, while smashing a team-high 30 homeruns. That total proved to be the most by a Cardinal left fielder since Stan Musial’s 32 in 1951 and the most by a Redbird player since Jack Clark stroked 35 in 1987. Despite missing nearly a month with a hamstring injury, Gant still managed to drive in 82 runs. In game three of the National League Championship Series versus the team he broke in with, the Atlanta Braves, Gant pounded a pair of homers, yet again proving that the Braves made a mistake by letting the 32-year-old outfielder go.
In centerfield, the 29-year-old Lankford is quickly becoming one of the top players in baseball. Lankford hit a solid .275, leading the team in runs scored (100), stolen bases (35), triples (8) and total bases (265). His RBI total (86) equaled a career high and his 100 runs scored were the most by a Cardinal since Vince Coleman in 1987. He also tied for the team lead with 36 two-base hits.
Adding to Lankford’s array of abilities is his prowess in the field. He committed only one error all of last season, compiling a .997 fielding percentage, tops in the majors and had nine assists. Lankford’s speed allows him to chase down many balls that should drip for a base hit. With Ray in centerfield there is truly no gaps for a hitter to put the ball into.
The third member of this dazzling trio is right fielder Brian Jordan. An all-around player, Jordan combines power and speed on offense with the ability to run down a fly ball and the arm strength to easily cut down a runner attempting to take an extra base.
Last season Jordan led the team with a .310 batting average and 104 RBIs, while tying Lankford for the team lead with 36 doubles. Jordan, like Lankford also had a spectacular year in the field, committing only two errors in 320 total chances, finishing the campaign with a .994 fielding percentage while coming up with nine assists. After three partial seasons in the majors, Jordan found his niche in St. Louis in 1995, playing in 131 games and hitting .296 with a career high 22 homeruns.
Making the outfield even better is the services of Cardinal legend Willie McGee. McGee made his return to St. Louis in 1996 after spending six years with Oakland, San Francisco, and Boston. The 16-year veteran started 60 games in the outfield last season, batting .307 with 15 doubles and five homeruns. McGee provides the insurance and depth for the Cardinals while brining his abundance of experience to a young club.
With their combination of speed and power, complimented by their exceptional fielding skills it would be hard to argue that the Cardinals have on of, if not the best outfield in the game.
- 1997 Official Spring Training Program
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