JUPITER, Fla. • With Adam Wainwright awaiting the verdict on his elbow injury, the pitching drills continued Wednesday and at one point, during fielding work, Chris Carpenter found himself beside Kyle McClellan.
The veteran told the sudden candidate for the rotation that injuries are part of the game and Wainwright's absence was "an opportunity for someone."
Filling in for an injured teammate, Carpenter said later, was how he got his first start in the major leagues.
As the Cardinals braced for an extended period without Wainwright, the focus shifted internally for the pitchers who could take the spot in the rotation. McClellan, who dueled Jaime Garcia for the No. 5 spot last season, will get an extended look this spring for the job, with youngster Lance Lynn, lefty Raul Valdes, spot-starter P.J. Walters and a few others also auditioning. There was a noticeable change already Wednesday as McClellan joined two starters in a hitting group — the first time this spring McClellan had taken swings.
"That's because it's the first day that he's been thought of in this camp as a potential starting pitcher," pitching Dave Duncan confirmed.
Valdes spent the winter starting in the Dominican Winter League — going 5-3 with a 2.95 ERA in 10 games — and he'll take Wainwright's scheduled start Monday in the Cardinals' Grapefruit League opener. McClellan was already scheduled to start next Thursday. How the rotation shifts for the second turn is uncertain. Manager Tony La Russa and others described how they could allow the challengers for the opening to emerge during the first week or so of games before innings get scarce and priority candidates need to be identified.
La Russa insisted that Wainwright's replacement would come from inside the organization. ("The answer is here," he said.) The Cardinals dismissed the idea of pursuing free agent Kevin Millwood, and Braden Looper, who spent time in the Cardinals' rotation, has a minor-league deal with the Chicago Cubs.
"Today I would say the answer is no," general manager John Mozeliak said when asked about the free-agent market for starters. "As days start to push toward opening day, we'll explore things. There's nothing that jumps out to us that we feel we need to chase at this point."
This will be the third consecutive spring that McClellan will get a shot at a spot in the rotation. In 2009, he was groomed to be available if Carpenter wasn't. Last spring, he pitched well in the competition with Garcia before going back to the bullpen. He responded with a career-low 2.27 ERA in 75 1/3 innings. He annually preps as a starter because of the number of pitches he throws, and he reported to Jupiter in early January to build his arm strength.
"Games haven't started yet, so it's not a big transition," McClellan said. "It's early and I've got plenty of time to adapt and go from there."
Veteran Miguel Batista will not shift into the starter derby, Duncan said. The Cardinals like him as a versatile reliever, and his righthanded presence in the bullpen could slide into McClellan's role. Wainwright's absence could also encourage the team to stock another long reliever early in the season to absorb innings.
"For me, and I'm speaking for me, I have always felt like you build a pitching staff starting with your starting pitching being the priority," Duncan said. "So you want to get the best five guys that you've got and then see what you have to do to put your bullpen together."
Mozeliak looked to the pitchers who have starting experience as possibilities to move into the rotation, like lefty Brian Tallet. Prospect Lynn has been viewed as a potential starter if given more experience and consistency in Class AAA. Ian Snell and Adam Ottavino, both former starters, are out to prove their health and conditioning in the final week before games.
McClellan got the first swings; others will at least get a look.
"I think what you do is it creates opportunities," La Russa said. "Every time Adam was going to pitch this spring, somebody else pitches. Then you watch, evaluate, and who seizes the opportunity?"