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Guarded optimism surrounding Carp's rehab process

Veteran righty, once thought to be on way to retirement, could return to Cards

SAN DIEGO -- The pair of February news conferences took on a tone of solemnity and reflection as general manager John Mozeliak and, a week later, Chris Carpenter, painted a picture void of optimism. Carpenter refused to utter the "R" word, but the idea of career finality was certainly palpable as he spoke.

Carpenter discussed renewed priorities, which started with getting his body healthy enough that he could lift up his children and have a normal quality of life after his playing days were over. Mozeliak talked about reconfiguring the season plans without Carpenter and about the off-the-field loss the Cardinals would feel without the veteran around.

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"My hope," Mozeliak added, "is that he still comes around and makes himself available from time to time."

A little more than three months later, Carpenter is now beginning to believe he can do even better than that.

An April game of catch with his son started a comeback trail that, if finished, would be as remarkable as any in Carpenter's career. He has come back from injuries several times before, but he has never made a return as unexpected as this.

Carpenter was scheduled to throw four simulated innings in a bullpen session at Busch Stadium on Thursday. It was the latest in a series of 'pen sessions that Carpenter has used to gauge his progress, test his body and improve his arm strength. Carpenter couldn't get through similar checkpoints over the winter, which led to the assumption that recurring symptoms from thoracic outlet syndrome would end his career.

Remembering how quickly all the excitement vanished in February, Carpenter has been cautious in exuding too much early optimism this time around.

"There's no question that it makes you feel like you're closer and makes you feel like you want to continue to go out there," Carpenter said. "I don't want to get ahead of myself. I want to slowly get back involved and make sure that I'm doing the things that I need to do to be ready when it's time."

If Carpenter emerges from Thursday's work without issue, the Cards will determine what the next step will be in his rehab process. He is considered close to being ready to face hitters, but there is also timing to consider before immediately sending Carpenter out to begin a rehab assignment in the Minors.

Such an assignment can only last up to 30 days for a pitcher. The Cardinals do not want to start that clock until they are confident that Carpenter is ready for that next push.

Once that rehab stint does begin, Carpenter is expected to maximize that stay, using several rehab appearances to challenge his arm and build up his pitch count. It will be treated similar to Spring Training, where starters prepare for the season by making five or six appearances.

"It's going to be up to my stuff and my ability to go out there and stay strong throughout a certain number of pitches or a certain number of innings," said Carpenter, the Majors' winning-percentage leader from 2004-12. "We'll see how that goes when I start doing those rehab starts. From what was originally talked about, we were going to use all the starts that I could get, and all the days I can get, to make sure that it's working."

How Carpenter can contribute to this 2013 Cardinals club has shifted in expectation since he first resumed throwing. Earlier this month, it appeared as if he would carve a path as a reliever. There was a need in the bullpen and, seemingly, no obvious fit in the rotation.

Since then, however, the Cards have lost Jaime Garcia to season-ending shoulder surgery and remain without Jake Westbrook (elbow inflammation) indefinitely. With three-fifths of the rotation spots currently claimed by rookie pitchers, the possible return of a veteran with 144 career wins as early as next month takes on a new significance.

That said, the Cardinals have also been adamant that need will not override the importance of giving Carpenter plenty of time to build up the necessary arm strength.

"Clearly, when you lose someone like Jaime, you start thinking about how those innings will be covered. Carp now factors into that," Mozeliak said. "But I'm taking this in a very realistic approach. Baseball is so fluid. For me, it's all about him being able to show that he is healthy and he can contribute. We have to gear him up as if he were coming back as a starter, because A, that pushes him physically, and B, if we don't build him up as a starter and we determine we need one, we haven't taken advantage of getting him ready for that."

When Carpenter will be ready to return is only the first in a series of questions still to be answered. Other critical questions still remain:

Can a 38-year-old pitcher who has thrown only 30 2/3 innings since the 2011 World Series be as effective as he once was? How will Carpenter's body respond to the rigors of a starter's workload? Will the numbness and discomfort eventually resurface?

The litany of unknowns is why Carpenter, Mozeliak, manager Mike Matheny and others have been hesitant to talk timelines and possibilities. They'd prefer to let the process play out without expectation. But they also know that when it comes to Carpenter, unexpected possibilities are always in play.

"It's awesome to see his relentlessness," said Trevor Rosenthal, Carpenter's winter workout partner. "We all know that he wants to help us out in any way possible, and now, with us losing a couple guys, the team knows what he can add if he can come back healthy and be Chris Carpenter. I think everybody else is pulling the reins. All he wants to do is get out there."

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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