Redbird Report 02/19

Redbird Report  02/19

After 572 consecutive relief appearances in the major leagues, right-hander Braden Looper is all right with not making it 573. Looper is intrigued by his first chance to be a big-league starter.

"I haven't done at the big-league level," Looper said, "so I'd be lying if I said I didn't understand what (doubters) were saying. The potential is there, but we haven't done it yet." Only 22 pitchers in baseball history have more major league appearances without making a start than Looper. "I think Looper has a chance of being something special," pitching coach Dave Duncan said.

"I don't think he's afraid of challenges," manager Tony La Russa said.

Speaking of the team having several relievers trying to convert to starters, Duncan said, "It's not typical. I think you usually go into spring training with one or two spots at the most open in your rotation and the others pretty well locked down. That's not necessarily the case this year, even though I think there are five guys who will get the priority."

Looper, the club's top draft pick in 1996, is one of three Cardinals who, in the last year or so, have returned to the organization where they started. Second baseman Adam Kennedy, the team's top pick in 1997, is back after seven seasons in Anaheim. Catcher-outfielder Eli Marrero, a third-round pick in 1993, has signed on as a minor league free agent.

La Russa went with only two catchers last season but plans to give Marrero a long look this spring. Yadier Molina and Gary Bennett are the likely two to be kept, but the athletic Marrero could force his way onto the roster as a combination player. La Russa said Marrero would get plenty of at-bats in spring training rather than just auditioning as a third catcher.

WHERE, WHEN: Roger Dean Stadium, Jupiter, Fla. First exhibition game is Feb. 28 against the Marlins.

TOP CANDIDATE TO SURPRISE: C Yadier Molina. After a .216 regular season, Molina was one of the top Cardinals hitters in postseason play last year. If he can display the same patience he did then, he should be able to hit .250 of .260 and drive in 65 to 70 runs while hitting seventh.

TOP CANDIDATE TO DISAPPOINT: CF Jim Edmonds. Maybe the injuries have taken their toll, but until he had a good postseason, Edmonds was not the same productive hitter he had been for his first six seasons with the Cardinals.

AUTHORITY FIGURES: With his first World Series title as Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa has reached the pinnacle of his popularity in a city relatively slow to adopt him. La Russa has proven his worth, with 2,297 wins over 28 seasons as a big-league manager. Over the years, he has mellowed from a man perceived in some circles as humorless and unyielding. But, make no mistake, he still is very much in charge.

NOTES AND QUOTES:

--Manager Tony La Russa, addressing last year's World Series title, said, "It's a great memory. But we just turn the page."

--1B Albert Pujols was in camp a week ahead of the normal reporting date for position players. Unlike last year, there were no tardy pitchers or catchers for the first day of battery men's drills.

--Aaron Miles and Scott Spiezio are back as extra infielders for their second year with the Cardinals, and manager Tony La Russa said, "Those are their jobs to lose. You've got to figure they're going to be with us."

--Pitcher-turned-outfielder Rick Ankiel is in camp as a non-roster player. Though Ankiel never has played above Double-A as an outfielder, manager Tony La Russa said, "When you've got talent, you can never be surprised. He's got enough talent to be a star." Ankiel missed all last season after knee surgery.

--Pujols, who never has played professionally in his native Dominican Republic, said he would like to do so some day. Pujols did play for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic last year.

BY THE NUMBERS: 31 -- Number of years since a National League team (1976 Cincinnati Reds) has repeated as World Series champion.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It feels the same. Everybody's at zero." -- Manager Tony La Russa, on how it feels to be in camp as the manager of the defending champions.

The Cardinals, in attempting to become the first National League team to repeat as World Series champion since Cincinnati in 1975-76, made virtually no changes among position players from the club that beat Detroit in October. There may be only one different position player, in fact, 2B Adam Kennedy, who was signed to replace free agent 2B Ronnie Belliard.

ARRIVALS: 2B Adam Kennedy (free agent from Angels), RHP Kip Wells (free agent from Rangers), RHP Ryan Franklin (free agent from Reds), UT Eli Marrero (minor league free agent from Mets), RHP Russ Springer (free agent from Astros).

DEPARTURES: RHP Jeff Suppan (free agent, signed with Brewers), RHP Jason Marquis (free agent, signed with Cubs), RHP Jeff Weaver (free agent, signed with Mariners), RHP Jorge Sosa (non-tendered, signed with Mets), 2B Ronnie Belliard (unsigned free agent).

SPRING FOCUS: The Cardinals' biggest mission is to establish a rotation behind staff ace Chris Carpenter. RHP Jason Isringhausen, the closer who had hip surgery in September, already is throwing off a mound and should be ready for the start of the season, presumably freeing up RHP Adam Wainwright, last season's postseason hero as a reliever, to go into the rotation. But beyond Wainwright, there are even more questions. Can RHP Anthony Reyes be consistent? Can RHP Kip Wells stay healthy? And who will be the fifth starter?

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