Spring brings questions for Cards

Spring Training brings questions for Cards

ST. LOUIS -- For the first six or seven innings or so on Opening Day, Chris Carpenter will almost certainly be pitching for the Cardinals. That much, we can all be fairly sure of.

The last inning or two of that Sunday night game against the Mets, not so much. The next game, Tuesday, April 3 against New York? Good luck. Game three? Yeah, still a blur. Carpenter will go at some point over the season's first weekend in Houston, and so will, um, two other pitchers.

It's hard to remember a defending World Series champion, save for the reconstituted Marlins, that went into Spring Training with so much uncertainty in its pitching staff. The six weeks of camp in Jupiter, Fla., will feature a wide-open derby for pitching jobs, starting and relief.

The Cardinals are unsure who will fill out their rotation beyond staff ace Carpenter, and equally unsure who will close out games early in the year. They know who they hope will hold down some of those jobs, but that's as far as it goes right now.

If Jason Isringhausen shows he's healthy and ready during Spring Training, he'll be the ninth-inning man. If Anthony Reyes performs like he can, and Kip Wells shows his mid-2006 form, they'll both be in the rotation. If Isringhausen is good to go and Adam Wainwright doesn't lay an egg, Wainwright will start.

But that's a whole lot of ifs for a team coming off three straight division titles and a world title. And it doesn't bother manager Tony La Russa one bit. He's looking forward to it.

"I just like the talent," La Russa said. "I like when you have talent. When the talent is young, that creates a lot of exciting Spring Training games, which otherwise can get away from you a little bit, because guys are working so hard to earn innings."

Officially, according to the skipper, the starting pitching derby consists of six pitchers vying for three spots. Reyes and Wainwright are favored, but not guaranteed. Ryan Franklin, last year's setup man Braden Looper, Brad Thompson and Chris Narveson will also contend.

But a great deal depends on Isringhausen. The club is confident that its all-time saves leader will be ready. If he's set back significantly, though, Wainwright probably moves back to the bullpen. For a World Series hero, the second-year righty sure doesn't have much guaranteed.

"It is what you make of it," Wainwright said. "I'm just going to go in with the same approach I did last year. And that is to win a starting job if it's open, and if not, if Isringhausen's not healthy, I'll try to be the closer or whatever role they want me to be in.

"And if he is healthy and I don't make a starting role somehow, then I'll go from there. But right now they're telling me I need to go in there ready to start. That's the only thing I'm thinking about."

Whether Wainwright starts or relieves, there's one piece of very good news in Cards camp -- the bullpen is deep. Even if Wainwright and Looper are moved, the right side still includes Josh Kinney, Josh Hancock, Russ Springer and Franklin to complement Isringhausen. If it's Franklin in the rotation, then Looper or Wainwright joins that group.

The left side is just as overloaded. Randy Flores, Tyler Johnson and Ricardo Rincon may be battling for two spots -- it will be tough to carry three lefties with all the right-handers on board.

Not that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are complaining. They're looking forward to sorting through all the pieces.

"If you look at our club, what's going to be happening with our rotation and shaping our bullpen is probably going to be the most intriguing part of what's happening," La Russa said.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.