Spring Training Spotlight - Braden Looper

Last season Braden Looper recorded a career high nine wins, the most by a St. Louis Cardinals reliever since 1996. This season, the Cardinals will be expecting him to break that record, as he moves into the rotation in search of his first major league career start.

Signed by the Cardinals to a three-year-contract in December of 2005, Braden returned to St. Louis where he had began his professional career, as a first-round pick of the Cardinals in 1996 (third overall). Just two years later, in 1998 Looper made his Major League debut with the Redbirds, before being dealt to the Florida Marlins in the trade that brought shortstop Edgar Renteria to the Cardinals.

As spring training gets underway in Jupiter Florida, St. Louis Cardinals' pitching coach Dave Duncan considers Looper the frontrunner to be the fifth man in a rotation that has been destroyed by the loss of free-agents Jeff Suppan, Jason Marquis and Jeff Weaver plus the injury of Mark Mulder.

Manager Tony La Russa, who rarely disagrees with his pitching coach, does so to a point concerning the competition for that fifth starter. La Russa publically states that Looper is competing with newly signed free-agent Ryan Franklin, Brad Thompson, Chris Narveson and Troy Cate for the fifth place in the rotation, a spot that someone will hold down until right-hander Mark Mulder returns from the disabled list.

My take is the job is already Looper's. La Russa has indicated in the past that his starting rotation is set at least three months in advance. Granted that may be once the season starts, but I'm confident that the decision has already been made to at least pencil Looper into that fifth spot this spring.

Last season in spring training, Looper appeared in 10 games, and in 9.2 innings pitched, he posted a dismal record of 1-3 with an 8.38 ERA. Not a record you would want to have to write home about and certainly not a good enough record to "win" a job out of spring training.

When I asked La Russa if he had considered leaving Looper behind in extended spring training to work on his mechanics and control, once the regular season was getting underway, the Cardinals manager responded it was never considered and you just don't do that to a pitcher of Looper's stature.

That being the case, I don't think you announce that Looper is competing for a job in the rotation, even a part time gig and not give it to him. Only four active major league pitchers have appeared in more games than Looper without making a start, a fact that doesn't seem to concern Looper. He was quoted as saying, "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.

Short of saying the job is Looper's to lose, "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."

It'll take some work for sure because in 587 career outings in the majors including the postseason, Looper has lasted as many as three innings just three times.

The big question is can he make this transition from the bullpen to the rotation? Duncan has said, "I certainly wouldn't even consider trying him as a starter if I didn't think that physically and mentally he could do it."

It appears that Looper, who hasn't started a game since A-ball in 1997, is going to get his chance this season. You can write that down in ink.

Of course they make ink erasers too.

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