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Cardinals look for bounceback year

Albert Pujols is six months away from free agency and 20-game winner Adam Wainwright is out for the year. It's not yet opening day and already the St. Louis Cardinals are scrambling.

Pujols didn't get his landmark contract by the start of spring training, so talks are off until after the season. Whenever the three-time NL MVP slumps, there will be whispers that he's distracted.

"There's been something with Albert every year he's played," manager Tony La Russa said, noting elbow woes in recent seasons that didn't slow down Pujols. "There's always been something. Amazing strength, character, mind. He knows what he's got to do and he's doing it."

Wainwright was one of the major leagues' best pitchers the last two seasons, totaling 39 wins. Just like Pujols, he appears irreplaceable.

It's former setup man Kyle McClellan's job to lessen the blow. McClellan inherits Wainwright's spot in the rotation and has been nearly spotless this spring with an 0.78 ERA in five starts.

"This is big for me. I had to come in and do this, I had to come in and have a good spring and show that I can do it," McClellan said. "Yeah, it's fun. You always have a chip on your shoulder for people that question whether you can do it."

Going into Thursday's opener at home against San Diego, there are plenty other questions surrounding a franchise that's missed the postseason three of the past four years.

Ryan Theriot is on the move, a regular shortstop again after getting shifted to second base by the Cubs and Dodgers. Third baseman David Freese is coming off surgery to both ankles.

The Cardinals are also gambling that 35-year-old Lance Berkman can become a regular outfielder again for the first time since 2004 and regain his batting stroke to bolster the middle of the lineup.

Berkman is coming off his worst major league season while battling knee woes, and considered retirement before taking a one-year deal with the Cardinals in hopes of restarting his career. He understands the skepticism, but he's counting on right field being easier on his legs.

"I've got almost 1,000 games in the outfield," Berkman said. "I am an outfielder, I came up an outfielder, I've played a full year of center field in the big leagues."

La Russa has Berkman batting fifth behind Pujols and Matt Holliday, also coming off a .300-100 RBI year in an order that could lessen pressure on Colby Rasmus and Freese, likely slotted to bat second and sixth. La Russa said he'll be happy if Berkman can make the routine plays and hit the cutoff man while staying healthy enough to play in two-thirds of the games.

The manager insists he won't sweat it when runners occasionally take that extra base and challenge Berkman's arm.

"There are a lot of guys around that you get extra bases on," La Russa said. "And how many guys get thrown out at the plate? If you look at 162 games, for all the guys that tried to throw guys out at the plate, you throw 10 of them out and you get 50 guys take extra bases because they miss the cutoff man."

Chris Carpenter (16-9, 3.22) moves back to the top of a rotation the Cardinals had believed was second to none. Jake Westbrook's strong showing after coming from Cleveland on the trade deadline merited a two-year contract and lefty Jaime Garcia (13-7) was third in NL rookie of the year balloting, although he's struggled this spring with a 7.94 ERA.

La Russa noted the Twins lost closer Joe Nathan last year and still won the AL Central.

"It's really a tough break, but that's part of the season," La Russa said. "Somebody's going to get an opportunity and you concentrate on what you have, not what you don't have."

A bounceback season from Kyle Lohse would improve the picture at the bottom of rotation. Lohse won 15 games in 2008 but totaled 10 wins the last two seasons while dogged by a forearm injury that left the right-hander serving up too many fat pitches, eventually requiring surgery last May.

"Yeah, I've been getting paid a lot the last couple years and haven't been healthy," Lohse said. "But I can't do anything about that. My job is to get ready for this year."

The Cardinals anticipate a steadier hand at shortstop, where Theriot replaces Brendan Ryan.

"It's weird, just being on that side of the infield makes you a little more comfortable. I guess that's because I've played there since I was a little kid," Theriot said. "I can still play short. It's definitely a fun spot for me."

Rasmus enters his third year as the starting center fielder, having survived a few clashes with La Russa last year. Both manager and player insist the relationship is strong.

"All that stuff don't matter," Rasmus said. "We're all grown men. Water under the bridge."

It's anticipated that the affable Berkman will mean a clubhouse upgrade along with his contributions on the field. And Holliday figures to have a more relaxed start after pressing to justify his seven-year, $120 million contract at the start of 2010, although his first half was good enough to make the NL All-Star team.

"I think there's a comfort level obviously when you know your teammates and you know your setup in spring training and some of those things," Holliday said. "I'm substantially more comfortable going into this year."