Looper to compete for rotation spot

Looper to compete for rotation spot

ST. LOUIS -- When Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan first approached Braden Looper about the possibility of becoming a starting pitcher, Looper had the same reaction that many fans, media members and other observers likely did. He wasn't entirely sure someone wasn't pulling his leg.

"He talked to me, I don't remember exactly when it was," Looper said. "It was either towards the end of the year or right at the beginning of the playoffs. And he just kind of mentioned it to me.

"We were kind of just joking around with each other and I thought he was playing a little bit, and he was like, 'No, seriously, you never know what will happen. Start thinking about it.' That type of thing."

Now, with Spring Training starting in less than a week, Looper will begin real preparations for a foray into starting. He's not guaranteed to win a spot, but he'll be in the mix.

Looper said that his offseason work hasn't changed any. It's only when he starts working in camp that things will be a little different. In the meantime, it's more a matter of getting his mind in the right place.

"As the offseason went on and they called me a few times, I kind of got excited about it," Looper said. "I look at it as a challenge to prove a lot of people like you guys [reporters] wrong.

"I'm an athlete and I have pride, and when people say you can't do something, it makes you want to do it even more. I know I've never done it in the big leagues, but I look at it as a huge opportunity to do something different. I'm looking forward to it, man."

Chances are, Looper will return to the St. Louis bullpen come April. Four spots are expected to be taken by Chris Carpenter, Kip Wells, Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright. Brad Thompson and Ryan Franklin may rank ahead of Looper on the list of candidates for the fifth spot. They'll all compete, though.

In order to be an effective starter, Looper will need to hold his own against left-handed hitters. That's been a problem at times in his career, and overall in 2006, he struggled against lefties. But breaking it down reveals that, as Looper went through the season, he became much more effective against left-handed batters.

Before the All-Star break, lefties, hit .395 against Looper. After the break, he cut it down to .196, with a .255 slugging percentage. That sort of performance will be key when he has to see several lefties two or three times in a game.

"I got off to a real slow start, particularly against lefties, at the beginning of last year," he said. "But I felt like I pitched really well down the stretch. I was commanding the inside part of the plate, mixing sliders and cutters, just using all my pitches.

"When you come in for one inning, I don't think people can truly appreciate how difficult it is to go to your third pitch. All you've got to do is make one mistake and then [a reporter] hammers you in the paper because you used your third pitch. You make one mistake with your third pitch and the ballgame is over. As a starter, you have to mix it up and you get an opportunity to work on it more."

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