Cardinals eager to defend title

Cardinals eager to defend title

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.

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