Cards' middle ready to hold the fort
Grudzielanek, Eckstein new double-play combination
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com

JUPITER, Fla. -- All the remnants are gone from what was one of baseball's finest double-play combinations. Even their uniform numbers.
As recently as two years ago, Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winner Edgar Renteria would flip the ball to Gold Glove winner Fernando Vina, providing Cardinals fans and pitchers with a great comfort every time a ball was hit on the ground.

But Vina left after 2003, joining Detroit as a free agent. Tony Womack ably filled Vina's second base position and leadoff role last season, then left to sign with the Yankees this past offseason.

Renteria is gone, too, having signed with the Red Sox. Even Renteria's No. 3 and the No. 4 worn by both Vina and Womack have been handed out to newcomers this spring.

The Cardinals find themselves in the unusual position of trying to defend a league championship with new starters at both middle infield positions. Mark Grudzielanek heads south after two years with the Cubs to take over the keystone, and likely Renteria's No. 6/7 spot in the batting order. David Eckstein comes east from Anaheim, where he only knew one full-time double-play mate -- Adam Kennedy -- in four big league seasons.

On a team with few other obvious questions, the new DP combo will be watched vigilantly. And they'll watch each other constantly as they try to get on the same page.

"I think we're going to be fine," said manager Tony La Russa. "And we're going to give it as much attention, which I think is a big part of it. Guys will understand the priority we give defense. If you look at our work, we do more defensive things than we do offensive things. Players get the point when you do it that way."

St. Louis had the most groundball-oriented pitching staff in the league last year, and the addition of Mark Mulder will probably lead to even more infield chances. So while Grudzielanek and Eckstein need to contribute offensively, their defense will be critical.

Then again, while Renteria was a Gold Glover in 2002 and '03, that wasn't the case in '04. And Womack, who had some trouble throwing after returning from elbow surgery last year, has never been considered an exemplary defender.

So whereas Eckstein likely represents a downgrade from Renteria at short, Grudzielanek may be an improvement over Womack. Defense was an undeniable strength of the '04 Cards, but that doesn't mean that every player who wore the "birds on the bat" was a human vacuum cleaner.

Eckstein, well known for both his strengths -- sure hands, positioning and an ability to put the ball in play -- and relative weaknesses -- lack of power and a limited throwing arm -- doesn't view himself in the context of his predecessors.

"With the nucleus of the team that's coming back, we're the two variables," Eckstein said. "Definitely Edgar Renteria had such a great career here and did a good job, and Womack stepped in last year and did a fantastic job, replacing Vina who was here before him. So it was one of those things that you're almost expecting, that these are the questions that are going to be asked."

There will be a feeling-out period for the two men, who have never even played in the same league, but that's what Spring Training is for. Neither is worried about his ability to mesh with the other, especially given six full weeks to get ready for Opening Day.

"We're professionals," said Grudzielanek. "We've been doing this for a long time now. It's just a matter of getting comfortable with each other. That may take a couple weeks. If it was during the middle of the year, maybe [it would be different]."

There will be doubts until the new guys establish themselves, though. Will the turnover up the middle doom the defending league champions? St. Louis also has a new starting catcher in Yadier Molina, who replaces three-time Gold Glover Mike Matheny.

"I think it's a legitimate question to ask," said La Russa. "And if somebody has the opinion that it means that we're not as good going in, you can't really be upset about it. All you can do is just go out and play. I believe that when our team goes on the field, and you watch these guys catch the ball in the middle of the field, you're not going to see any dropoff from the defensive unit up the middle we had."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.