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Cards' pitching picture coming into focus

Cards' pitching picture coming into focus

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- A seemingly small announcement by the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon gave way to some increasing clarity regarding the team's still-in-flux bullpen situation.

Shortly before Sunday's game against the Braves, which was eventually rained out in the second inning, the team announced that four players had been cut. Right-hander Josh Kinney was optioned to Triple-A Memphis, while righties Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn and lefty Evan MacLane were re-assigned to Minor League camp.

Kinney has dealt with shoulder trouble this spring. He had an MRI and received a cortisone shot on the joint and has pitched once since.

"He needs to pitch, and he needs to pitch on a regular basis," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "And we can't guarantee that we can do that with him. We can't guarantee anybody will pitch on a regular basis from now on. We like him. We like the way he's been around, the way he's thrown. But he needs to throw every third day at least."

So Kinney heads to the Minors, somewhat clarifying a muddy bullpen picture. He was far from a lock, but he was one of a relatively small pool of candidates with Major League experience. This much is now certain: if Kyle McClellan is not in the Cardinals bullpen -- and possibly even if he is -- at least one spot in that unit will be filled by a rookie or a potential trade acquisition.

McClellan is competing for a starting job, and has pitched well. But if the internal candidates for the last bullpen job don't enthrall the Cardinals, he could still go to relief. The decision on McClellan's fate is likely to be made within a week.

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"We're getting to the point of the spring where, earlier you were just watching them work, but now you start to evaluate," manager Tony La Russa said. "Tomorrow is two weeks left, right? So you start narrowing down, if you can, what the possibilities are. ... By next Sunday, you have to, I think, pick somebody. Maybe before next Sunday. But no longer than next Sunday."

Five or six relief spots appear fully settled: closer Ryan Franklin, right-handers Jason Motte and Blake Hawksworth, lefties Dennys Reyes and Trever Miller and likely right-hander Mitchell Boggs. The Cardinals will carry a 12-man pitching staff, leaving one relief spot open. That might have gone to Kinney, but obviously will not now. It could go to McClellan, if the club chooses Rich Hill or Jaime Garcia as its fifth starter.

Otherwise, it will go to a pitcher who did not pitch for the Cardinals last season: a would-be rookie such as Adam Ottavino or Fernando Salas, or conceivably a traded player.

For now, though, Ottavino may have the slight edge. He'll pitch on two days' rest on Monday, a way for the Cardinals to get a look at how he handles something closer to a reliever's workload. Ottavino, a former first-round pick, has been a starter throughout his professional career. His performance this spring has garnered him consideration as a possible relief candidate for the Major League team.

"You've got to pay attention to what he's done," Duncan said. "I felt like at the beginning of spring he was getting real close to turning the corner with controlling his delivery. I suggested one more little step and he adopted it, and he's had these last two outings where he's thrown the ball outstanding."

Ottavino is not the only former first-round Draft pick who impressed the Cardinals this spring. Shelby Miller, in his first professional Spring Training, drew raves from the field staff.

"I told him, the reason you were there so long is that you made a very good impression," La Russa said. "To watch our starters go about it like they do [is valuable], but at this point he's got to get ready for his season. ... He's been impressive. Now he's got to go out there and do all the stuff that makes you a good pitcher."

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

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