Just a week ago, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Braden Looper was only 20 throws into his first bullpen session when he asked catcher Yadier Molina to tell him how many pitches he had thrown.
This Friday, the fatigue factor kicked in at 40 pitches, as Looper looked into pitching coach Dave Duncan, who was sitting behind batting cage with his pitch counter, asking the $64,000 question, "How many?"
Of course the fatigue factor is a major concern for the Cardinals as they look to the bullpen for help this season. That help is in the form of Braden Looper to fill a temporary gap in the starting rotation, which was created by the absence of pitcher Mark Mulder. The left-hander is recovering from rotator cuff surgery and is at least two months away from pitching.
Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa told reporters Thursday at Roger Dean Stadium that he will monitor Looper to ensure he isn't overworked as transition from the bullpen to the new starting role continues, as a work in progress.
"You get (fatigued) emotionally," La Russa said. "As a starter, you have to get breathing, get composed. It's not the sprint relieving is."
Looper recently relied mainly on his hard sinker and split-fingered fastball, rarely getting the chance or having the confidence to use a third pitch in his role as a reliever. His take is if you come into a ballgame as a reliever and you give up a hit or allow a run using your third best pitch, the question is always going to be, why didn't you use one of your best pitches in that situation?
This spring, Looper is working on further developing his breaking ball, a pitch batters haven't seen from him very often up until now, but one Looper will need if he ends up in the rotation when the season starts.
Looper is reportedly competing with Ryan Franklin, Brad Thompson, Chris Narveson and Troy Cate for that slot in the rotation that they'll keep warm for Mulder. Duncan considers Looper the frontrunner to be the fifth man in the rotation at the beginning of the season.
"I don't think it's an experiment," Duncan said. "I wouldn't even consider trying him as a starter if I didn't think physically and mentally he (could) do it."
Only four active pitchers have appeared in more major league games without making a start, but Looper isn't discouraged from making the transition. "I don't think it's a gimmick," Looper said. "I pride myself on what I do. I feel I do a lot of things the right way. I want to prove everybody wrong, if they don't think I can do it."
My take is that Looper is going to be in the Cardinals rotation barring a trade, which still is in the realm of a possibility. You don’t ask a player of the stature of Looper to take on something like moving from the bullpen to the rotation and not support him 100%.
It's not going to be easy. It's going to take all of spring training to get the reliever ready to be a starter in April.
"It's going to be a work in progress," Looper said recently. "It's not going to happen overnight, but it's going to be fun to do. I'm excited about it. It gives you a different look at spring training, a different look at what's going on."
What's going on so far?
Looper is making progress.