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Looper, a starter???

Eddie Altamonte

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Cardinals eager to defend title

02/14/2007 3:28 PM ET

By Matthew Leach / MLB.com


JUPITER, Fla. -- With wintry weather pounding St. Louis, here's some solace: for the boys of summer, it's springtime again.

Under sunny skies with temperatures in the low 80s, the defending World Series champion Cardinals reported to Spring Training in Wednesday to kick off the 2007 season. The first pitchers-and-catchers workout is set for Thursday. Remaining players report on Monday, with the first full-squad workout set for Tuesday.


The Redbirds will be trying to become the first team since 2000 to repeat as champions. It's been even longer since anyone won back-to-back National League pennants -- the last to do so was the Braves in 1995-96.


Simply reaching the postseason would make seven times in eight years for that feat, and the first time in franchise history going to the playoffs in four straight seasons. Not that anyone will be allowed to think in those terms. On a Tony La Russa team, it's always about what comes next.


"I have to forget about what we did last year and try to get ready for this year," catcher Yadier Molina said after a brief workout.


So there's plenty on the line when the Cards report to Roger Dean Stadium on Florida's southeast coast. They're starting early, because the regular season starts early for them. The Cardinals and Mets begin the 2007 season on Sunday, April 1, a day earlier than most teams. Therefore, the Cards will report and begin working out earlier than most.


Along with pitchers and catchers, several position players were already working out at Roger Dean on Wednesday. Albert Pujols, always an early arriver, did some running and hitting. Others who showed included outfielders Chris Duncan and Skip Schumaker.


"Next week is our first full workout," Pujols said, "and I'll be ready to go. I feel good. I'm looking forward to seeing every single one of my teammates and just get back on the field, leaving all that bad weather in St. Louis, and just getting down here with some nice weather and getting some nice workouts."


The champs will use the extra time to try to sort out a few issues. Their top priority will be sifting through a slew of candidates for the starting rotation, as they try to narrow a group of eight or nine down to five.


"It's not typical," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "You usually go into Spring Training with maybe 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 that will get the priority. And if they do what I think they're capable of doing, they could very well leave camp as our starting rotation."


Duncan said Wednesday that the leading candidates are four obvious ones -- Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright -- and one not as obvious. Duncan pointed to Braden Looper as the favorite to win the fifth starting job, ahead of Ryan Franklin and several others.


"Franklin's going to get an opportunity," Duncan said. "But I think Looper has a chance of being something special. He's got the physical ability to do that, for sure. It's just adjusting to a different role."


Also in the mix are Brad Thompson and Chris Narveson and perhaps some dark horses. But Looper will get the first chance to impress, and if things go well, he's expected to start the season as a starter.


"I'm not doing it as a maybe-type thing," Looper said. "Obviously I've got to come in and pitch well. They're not going to just give it to me. I'm the first one to understand that. But it's something that I'm looking forward to. I started Monday with a bullpen with Dunc, and I just go from there. I think it's going to be fun."


The Cardinals also will be looking to settle their bullpen picture and establish how healthy some key players are -- most notably Jim Edmonds and Jason Isringhausen. The closer has begun throwing off a mound, and Duncan is encouraged. Edmonds has not arrived yet. Another rehabbing Redbird, lefty Ricardo Rincon, is expected to be ready to go at the start of workouts.


Exhibition games get started on Feb. 26 with a game against Florida Atlantic University. The Cardinals kick off their Grapefruit League season on Wednesday, Feb. 28, against the Marlins at Roger Dean, and the Spring Training slate runs through March 29.


The Cards then have two exhibition games in Memphis. They'll play March 30 against their Triple-A Memphis affiliate. On March 31, they will face the Cleveland Indians in the inaugural Civil Rights Game at AutoZone Park in Memphis before starting the season at Busch Stadium on April 1.

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BERARDINO: Looper gets a fresh start



Veteran reliever leaves bullpen in Cardinals' pitching experiment.

Mike Berardino

Sports columnist





February 17, 2007




JUPITER ? Braden Looper was talking with a visitor about his latest challenge when Cardinals bullpen coach Marty Mason happened by in the clubhouse.


"Aw, what are you talking about?" Mason chided the Cardinals pitcher. "You can't remember back that far."


Indeed, a full decade has passed since Looper started a regular-season game. He made 12 starts for Class A Prince William way back in 1997, when he was a hotshot first-rounder fresh out of Wichita State.


Even then the plan for Looper was always obvious: He was a closer-in-training with a high-90s fastball and the strut to match.


That track held up for him over his first nine big-league seasons, including five with the Marlins. Looper even piled up 103 saves, more than half of them in a two-year span with the Mets in the cauldron of New York City.


But sometime last fall, as the future World Series champions were wheezing their way toward the playoffs and Looper was sliding farther and farther down the bullpen pecking order, a new plan was hatched.


Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan, who is wrong about baseball about as often as Clint Eastwood smiles, sidled up to Looper and asked him what he thought about going back to starting.


Considering Looper's experience level and history, not to mention the three-year, $13.5 million contract he's working under, it could have been a dangerous question.


Plenty of veterans might have taken it the wrong way. Some would have wondered how a team that was already planning to move its closer (Adam Wainwright) back into the rotation could even consider removing one of his most tested setup men from the equation as well.


But Looper being Looper, he simply took the suggestion to heart and vowed to accept whatever challenge the Cardinals placed before him this spring. Even at age 32.


Once playoff stars Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver signed elsewhere over the winter, the Looper conversion plan took root.


"It's going to be a work in progress," Looper said Friday morning. "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."


Different? Instead of working an inning at a time for as many as three straight days, Looper must prepare himself to throw at least five innings every fifth day.


In 587 career outings in the majors, including the postseason, he has lasted as many as three innings just three times.


"I don't think he's afraid of challenges," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I think he has a lot of confidence and respect in Dave Duncan, who really initiated this last year. I'd be just like him. If I was a pitcher and Dunc suggested anything, I'd say, `Whoa, I'm going to think about it seriously.'"


Others have made the switch in recent years, with varying results.


The Reds used to bounce former UM standout Danny Graves back and forth from starting to closing. Ex-Marlin Miguel Batista, now with the Mariners, has made the switch in each direction multiple times in his travels.


The Red Sox are doing the same thing with Jonathan Papelbon this spring, just as the Cardinals are doing with Wainwright.


But the difference with the latter two is those young arms were groomed as starters in the minors. Looper was at the vanguard of a modern movement that made young power arms into short relievers soon after signing their first professional contracts.


Still, Looper and his manager insist this experiment isn't, well, as loopy as it might sound.


"I'm real hopeful," La Russa said. "Here's a guy that throws in the 90s and he's strong and durable and we have spots available. He's starting from a good base. He's got a lot of talent, he wants to do it and he's got a great pitching coach. It's got a chance to work."

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Cards Move Looper Into Starting Rotation





By Associated Press


February 22, 2007, 5:04 PM EST




JUPITER, Fla. -- Braden Looper hasn't started a game in nearly 10 years. The St. Louis Cardinals right-hander has never thrown more than 86 innings during a season while appearing in 587 career games, including postseason.


Yet, when the Cardinals arrived for spring training, Looper was slated to be in the starting rotation.


"I don't think it's an experiment," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "I wouldn't even consider trying him as a starter if I didn't think physically and mentally he couldn't do it."


Looper's career change is atypical for many reasons. At 32, he has never pitched more than three innings in a single outing in his major league career.


"I've always kind of wanted to do it," Looper said. "I've never told anybody that. There was talk about it when I was with the Marlins one year but we needed a closer. People are sitting back saying, `This is a gimmick.' For me that's fuel for the fire. I want to prove everybody wrong if they don't think I can do it."


Looper was 9-3 with a 3.56 ERA in 2006 after signing with the Cardinals, the team that originally drafted him. The previous two seasons he saved 57 games for the Mets. Looper started his career with the Cardinals before being traded to the Marlins before the 1999 season.


One of Looper's three-inning outings was Game 4 of last season's NL championship series against the Mets, when he allowed one run on two hits in the Cardinals' 12-5 loss.


"I just know later in the year when I threw (two or more) innings a couple of times I felt different because I was doing things I normally don't do out of the bullpen, and to me that was fun," Looper said. "Setting up hitters different ways. I was throwing sliders in on lefties a lot. Mixing up what I was doing. To me that was more pitching than going out there and trying to get a ground ball on the first pitch."


Relievers, especially closers, typically get by with one or two pitches. Looper recently relied mainly on his hard sinker and split-fingered fastball. He will work on further developing his breaking ball during the spring. His routine will not change much until the games start and he's on the mound longer than an inning.


"You look back at some of the times he threw longer and longer, you could just see him get more flow into the game," Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter said. "And it wasn't that, `I just have to get this one guy out.' It was, `I'm going to get this guy out this way.' He was working around and really pitching. He's going to be fun to watch."

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