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KEEP THOSE CARDINALS ROLEN A pair of former Memphis Redbirds -- Placido Polanco and Bud Smith -- were involved in the biggest baseball trade of the season, the deal last week that brought All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen (thrice a Gold Glove winner) to St. Louis from Philadelphia. Considering Rolen can become a free agent at season’s end and there remains a very distinct possibility that labor issues will kill the 2002 season, the trade involved some risk on the part of Cardinal general manager Walt Jocketty and his bosses. Just how risky was the move? Foremost, Rolen is a proven commodity, the best third baseman in the senior circuit. Aside from being one of the two or three finest fielders at the hot corner, the 27-year-old Indiana native has some pop in his bat (he averaged 25 homers and 95 RBIs over his first five years). In acquiring the 1997 National League Rookie of the Year, the Cardinals have decided the 2001 ROY -- Albert Pujols -- will be fine in leftfield. (Needless to say, the protection Rolen will provide Pujols at the plate should ease any positional discomfort on Albert’s part.) When you add Jim Edmonds and J.D. Drew to the mix, you’d be hard-pressed to name a more deadly offensive foursome in the National League. The good part of the package St. Louis sent east is the third Cardinal thown in: Mike Timlin. An overpaid veteran since his arrival in 2000 (he was acquired from Baltimore in exchange for Redbird prospect Chris Richard), Timlin became excess this year with the emergence of Mike Crudale in the St. Louis bullpen. The money the Cardinals save in dealing Timlin -- another free-agent-to-be -- will be sorely needed in the contract negotiations with Rolen. The bad aspect of the trade is the loss of Polanco. He’s no game-breaker as Rolen often is, but Polanco is as versatile as they come, providing a solid glove at third, short, and second, while wielding a steady bat from the all-important second spot in the batting order. He’s the kind of guy who will never live in A-Rod’s neighborhood, never have his own bobblehead. But he will help win a lot of baseball games. Finally, there’s a potentially ugly side to this trade. The Cardinals have a dreadful track record when it comes to trading lefthanded pitchers to Philadelphia. During a contract squabble after the 1971 season, the Cards sent a guy by the name of Steve Carlton to Philly . . . for Rick Wise. Four Cy Young awards later (none of them Wise’s), you can find Carlton in bronze at Cooperstown. If Smith (1-5, 6.94 ERA this year) finds his no-hitter form of September 2001 and holds it, well, as I said . . . ugly. The fact is, even with Rolen on board, the Cardinal ship sails under a cloud of pitching woes. For St. Louis to have any real hope of a world championship, Woody Williams and Garrett Stephenson need to get healthy, newcomer Chuck Finley needs to fight off Father Time, Jason Simontacchi needs to avoid his clock striking midnight, and Andy Benes needs to keep surprising big-league hitters in his unlikely comeback. Long term, Rick Ankiel (still only 23) needs to play a role on the Busch Stadium mound. A lot of needs for a club that should score plenty of runs . . . for a healthy and thriving starting rotation. The Rolen deal should be encouraging to Cardinal (and Redbird) fans. St. Louis didn’t have to give up its top pitching prospect, Jimmy Journell. They added a still-young slugger who will be a force both at the plate and in the field. Clearly, St. Louis is aiming for nothing short of the World Series and, as the tears continue to dry during this tragic campaign, Cardinal Nation should feel a dose of energy. A pair of recent big-name free agents -- Mark McGwire and Jim Edmonds -- fell in love with that energy upon their arrival at Busch. Here’s hoping Scott Rolen absorbs the same vibe, and decides to stick around for a while.

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