Cardinals eyeing closer candidates

Cardinals considering closer alternatives

JUPITER, Fla. -- Jason Isringhausen is the Cardinals' all-time saves leader with 173. Braden Looper has tallied 103 saves, including three seasons with more than 25. Adam Wainwright recorded the final out of all three postseason series as St. Louis raced to the world championship last October.

Yet from that group of three closing candidates, there's a chance that none will finish off the first Cardinals win of 2007. The hope is that it will be Isringhausen, who is recovering from hip surgery. He remains on schedule to be available for the opener, but he's not scheduled to pitch in a Spring Training game until March 15.

The problem is, if not Isringhausen, then who?

Wainwright is penciled into the Cards' starting rotation, and with every throw, it looks more like his name is written in permanent ink. Looper, asked to make the move to starting, will get every chance to succeed and is a favorite for a rotation job as well.

That leaves a slew of unproven candidates. A winner could be Josh Kinney, who emerged as a rookie and played a key role in the World Series run. It could be Russ Springer, a veteran of late-inning battles but a man with just eight saves in 491 career Major League relief appearances. And it could be someone else entirely -- maybe a lefty, Randy Flores or Tyler Johnson. Right-hander Brad Thompson is throwing well this spring.

According to manager Tony La Russa, it's not only too soon to tell, it's too soon even to consider.

"We're not pondering," La Russa said. "I know that between now and then, there's so much uncertainty, variables, there's enough real stuff that's imminent right now that you think about. A lot of times, the way you survive in this game is to what-if. But this what-if is too far down the road. You lack too much information. So don't drive yourself nuts."

Four months ago, it was a foregone conclusion that if Isringhausen was unavailable, Wainwright would reprise his role from the '06 postseason. But as his place in the rotation gets more and more secure, that notion becomes less and less likely. Wainwright may be just as important to the starting core in '07 as he was to the bullpen in 2006.

"If that were to happen, we would be far enough along in the spring that we would be looking at all the options that we might have," said pitching coach Dave Duncan. "It's not cut and dried that if Izzy isn't available, Wainwright would be the closer. I don't think that's a cut-and-dried thing."

Another possibility to consider is that Isringhausen will be available, but carrying a handle-with-care label. Even if he's cleared, there's no guarantee he will be available three days in a row in the early parts of the season.

spring training 2007
Spotlight on the Cardinals
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
More team spotlights:

In that case, a committee approach might make sense on the days Isringhausen is held back. For a lefty-heavy inning, maybe Johnson or Flores would be called on. A run of right-handers? Summon Kinney.

It has the potential to be a complicated situation, though those situations seem to bring out the best in Duncan and his pitchers.

"What you do is you try to envision any possible complication, and at the same time keep your eyes open as to who could help solve that situation should it exist," Duncan said. "And then hope that you have the personnel to cover all of the possible problems that could happen."

Kinney, a former independent leaguer, is part of that personnel and one of the most intriguing pitchers in camp. He dominated at Triple-A Memphis to earn a callup, and he showed a nasty breaking ball that befuddled right-handed hitters in the latter part of the season and the playoffs. Kinney appears to be the favorite to serve as Isringhausen's right-handed setup man, but that doesn't necessarily translate to being the backup closer.

So the Cardinals will spend the next several weeks sorting out the various options. They have nine relievers for seven spots, so they will be trying to figure out who will be on the roster.

But they also will keep an eye on who might step in if an end-of-game hammer is needed. Or at least they'll start keeping an eye on that matter at some point.

"I'm thinking ahead to the first half of Spring Training," La Russa said. "That's where it stops. Suppose Izzy is ready to go. You're here, sitting around, spending all this time thinking about that."

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