The Cardinals announced late Thursday they had come to terms on a three-year, $13.5 million contract with the 31-year-old Braden Looper, who has spent parts of the last four seasons as a closer with the Marlins and Mets.
Drafted third overall by St. Louis in 1996, Looper made his big league debut with the team two years later, but was traded to Florida in December 1998. He joins left-hander Ricardo Rincon as major additions this week to a Cardinals bullpen which had been depleted by the loss of Al Reyes to surgery, Cal Eldred to retirement and Ray King to a trade.
"Ever since I was drafted by the Cardinals, I've wanted to play back here," Looper told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at a Missouri Athletic Club event late Friday, where the Cardinals hurriedly introduced the reliever. "I went into this offseason understanding if the right situation arose, I'd definitely do it. There's not a place I'd rather be than this, that's for sure."
Rincon and Looper will serve as setup men for closer Jason Isringhausen, who has notched at least 30 saves in three of his four seasons in St. Louis.
Looper will also serve as insurance in case Isringhausen needs a break. Looper posted at least 28 saves in each of the past three years and a sub-4.00 ERA in six of his seven Major League seasons.
"We are glad to have Braden back in our system, and he's glad to be back," Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty said in a statement. "He will be a quality setup pitcher in our bullpen and be able to close for us on days when Jason is not available."
The Cardinals may not be finished stockpiling former closers. Jocketty told local media in St. Louis that the Cardinals would continue to pursue 32-year-old right-handed reliever Octavio Dotel, who replaced Billy Wagner as the Astros closer in 2004 and was later traded to Oakland as part of the three-team deal that sent Carlos Beltran to Houston.
Dotel pitched in 15 games with the A's in 2005 before he was shut down with elbow problems. He underwent Tommy John surgery in June and might not be available to pitch until mid-season.
Looper chose St. Louis over a number of suitors including Philadelphia and Cleveland. The Indians reportedly are also after Dotel, and if he signs elsewhere, the Cardinals would be expected to pursue veteran Felix Rodriguez, one of the game's elite setup men who is coming off a poor season with the Yankees.
According to The Associated Press, Looper will receive base salaries of $3.5 million in 2006, $4.5 million in 2007 and $5.5 million in 2008. The deal includes $1 million in performance bonuses, including some for games finished.
Looper became a free agent on Oct. 31, after the New York Mets declined his $5.5 million option for 2006 and instead paid a $250,000 buyout. In 2005, Looper converted 28 of 36 save opportunities for the Mets and went 4-7 with a 3.94 ERA. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on Oct. 3 to clean out the AC joint in his right shoulder, but cleared a physical with the Cardinals' medical staff.
Looper has been extremely durable throughout his career, pitching in at least 60 games in all seven of his full seasons. His 60 appearances in 2005 were his fewest since 1998, when he pitched four games for the Cardinals.
On Dec. 14, 1998, the Cardinals traded Looper, Armando Almanza and Pablo Ozuna to the Marlins for Edgar Renteria. Looper's first full season as a closer was 2003, when he helped the Marlins win the World Series.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.