The Clock is Ticking on Mulder's Return

St. Louis Cardinals left-hander Mark Mulder, who pitched in just three games last season and opened this season on the 15-Day disabled list, made his first rehab start on Tuesday night for the Class A Palm Beach Cardinals at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter Florida, marking what should be his imminent return to St. Louis.

Mulder, who had off-season surgery on a torn rotator cuff, has been battling multiple injuries to his left arm over the last two years.

In September of 2007, an examination by team doctors of his repaired left shoulder from an earlier operation, revealed that there was complete healing of the labrum, but only partial healing of the rotator cuff.

The findings from the examination led to team doctor, Dr. George Paletta performing arthroscopy surgery to repair a partial thickness tear in the right rotator cuff and for Mark Mulder it meant the beginning another rehabilitation journey, the fifth one of his major league career.

Mulder's start Tuesday night in Florida activated the 30-day clock and countdown for his return to the St. Louis rotation. Still on the major league DL, the St. Louis Cardinals have the option to assign the 30-year-old pitcher to a minor league club for injury rehabilitation for up to 30 days of minor league rehab. At any time during that period, the Cardinals may recall Mulder, but they cannot extend his rehabilitation period past the 30-day limit.

Since Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings in Nashville, the Cardinals general manager, John Mozeliak has told me that he was projecting a return date of mid-May for the left-hander. Mulder's start in Florida on April the 14th, would seem to fit perfectly within that time frame. It's unlikely that the Cardinals will rush Mark back to their rotation, before he's had the opportunity to make at least three to four more starts in the minors, taking advantage of the 30-day limit.

Acquired from the Oakland Athletics in exchange for pitchers Kiko Calero and Dan Haren and catcher Daric Barton on December 18, 2004, Mulder won 16 games for St. Louis in his first season as a Cardinal, but has won only a total six games in the last two seasons, actually losing all three of his starts in 2007, going 0-3 with a bloated 12.27 ERA.

A lot of Cardinal fans spent most of the 2007 season lamenting and cringing over the price tag paid for Mulder. While Mulder was basically on the sideline all season, Dan Haren, the key player in the trade, had one of the best seasons among any pitcher in the majors. Haren finished in the top ten in the American League in wins, with 15, strikeouts, with 192, and finished in the top three in the AL in ERA with 3.07. Catcher Daric Barton also included in the Mulder deal, had an All-Star season at Triple-A last year, making his major league debut for Oakland in September and is currently the A's starting first baseman.

Meanwhile back at Baseball Heaven, Cardinal fans could only cling to the hope and expectation that some day before his contract ran out that Mark Mulder, the man with the golden arm, would return and carry the St. Louis Cardinals to another World Championship.

Tuesday night Mulder took another step towards fulfilling that unfulfilled promise. Efficiently throwing just 60 pitches through five innings, he gave up just two runs (one earned), on six hits, while striking out one and not walking anyone. His fastball was clocked at 88 mph at times and he threw his cut fastballs, curves and changeups with surprising effectiveness for his first rehab start.

According to Matthew Leach at MLB.com, Mulder is expected to return to St. Louis to throw a bullpen session on Thursday. In the meantime, the Double-A Springfield Cardinals are anticipating that Mulder will potentially make his next start for them on Sunday April the 20th against the Tulsa Drillers.

Signed to a two-year, $13 million deal with St. Louis in January 2007, with a club option for 2009, the St. Louis Cardinals and their fans haven't got much in return for their investment in Mulder up until now. However if two-time All-Star has made a full recovery, he could find himself back in the number two slot for the Cardinals by the May the 14th, when the 30-day clock stops ticking.

It's Mulder's contract year, he's in the final year of a two-year deal with a club option for 2009. Which means Mulder needs to prove on the mound that he is still a front line, top of the rotation starter, before the Cardinals will exercise their club option for 09 or before another club will make an offer for that fragile yet sometimes golden arm.

What Mulder does between June and September will signigicantly impact his career and future earnings, as well as the hopes and dreams of Cardinal fans who are anxiously awaiting for his return, not ready to write off the 2008 season.

I guess you could say, that the clock is ticking on Mulder in more ways than one.

 

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