Carpenter preparing to start in '09

Carpenter preparing to start in '09

ST. LOUIS -- Chris Carpenter stood behind the podium and answered question after question, many of them variants of the same question. And he kept giving the same answer. The Cardinals ace feels great. Better yet, he feels normal.

Carpenter has begun a throwing program aimed toward a typical Spring Training and an appearance in the Cardinals' rotation in the season's first week. He told reporters at the annual Cardinals Care Winter Warm-Up that he's not thinking of what he's doing as rehabilitation, but preparation.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "Doc cleared me to throw a couple weeks ago, and I started playing catch. My elbow feels great and my shoulder is getting stronger each time I go out and throw. It feels like a normal January. ... So far, so good. It's getting stronger and feeling better every day."

Carpenter is recuperating from two separate issues in his pitching arm. He underwent nerve transposition surgery in his right elbow in November. The bigger deal, though, is the nerve injury in his right shoulder that forced him to end his 2008 season in September.

Admittedly, it's the time of year for bold pronouncements. January and February are when you hear declarations like "I feel great" and "the best shape of my career." But Carpenter is not one for idle boasts or unfounded optimism.

"I think when he says he feels that way, that's how he feels," manager Tony La Russa said. "And he's a veteran of feeling good and feeling not good. We're optimistic, and that's exciting."

Carpenter's condition is, by far, the biggest question facing the 2009 Cardinals. More than the end of the bullpen, more than second base, more than the back of the starting rotation. A healthy Carpenter at the top of the rotation means the Cardinals are a force. An absent Carpenter likely means a long year.

In fact, the Cardinals say they're waiting to see how Carpenter comes along before determining their next move in building the '09 roster. General manager John Mozeliak didn't necessarily rule out a move between now and the start of Spring Training, but he indicated that Carpenter's situation would likely dictate some decisions.

"There are still some opportunities that could present themselves between now and the time we get to Spring Training that might be something we couldn't ignore," Mozeliak said. "But as far as going forward, you try to map out an outline or a strategy, and that's one way of looking at it -- to stand pat until we see where Carp is in this equation.

"But I still can't rule out a few other things that may happen. I would hate for anybody to try to capture it as if this was kind of an end-all. That wouldn't be necessarily fair."

Hot Stove

Still, even if it isn't the "end-all," there's nothing bigger. Mozeliak knows it, La Russa knows it, and Carpenter knows it.

Not that Carpenter thinks in those terms. His perspective is much narrower.

"I'm just going to go into taking one game at a time, like I have all the time in the past, and go out and try to do everything I can to take the ball every fifth day," he said. "With everything that I've gone through, obviously, some of it is out of my hands. I have done everything I can in the past four months to prepare myself to go out and pitch."

So far, it's worked very well. It's uncertain how Carpenter's shoulder will hold up as he gets more aggressive with his throwing, but, thus far, he hasn't had any missteps. Carpenter expects to begin throwing off a mound in about two or three weeks, before Spring Training begins.

"I feel like it's a regular winter," he said. "It might be different a month from now when I get off the mound. But, right now, I feel like it's a normal offseason. My shoulder feels good. I have no issues whatsoever. I'm excited about what the future holds. I'm excited about getting myself prepared to go and pitch."

As for what situations he'll be pitching in, it sounds like there's been more sound and fury than actual consideration of a switch for the 2005 Cy Young winner. Some rumors and reports have floated that Carpenter might close for the Cards, but that appears highly unlikely.

Both La Russa and Mozeliak have said consistently that unless Carpenter's health dictates otherwise, he will start. And, at this point, the Cardinals' medical staff seems to believe that Carpenter will actually be better suited, health-wise, to start.

"I just want him healthy and pitching," La Russa said. "So, whatever that is. Barry says it may be easier starting. Whatever he can do healthy, I'm all for that."

And so is Carpenter.

"I'm preparing myself like I'm going to pitch," he said. "I'm preparing my body, and I'm preparing my arm, and I'm preparing my mind to go to Spring Training ready to pitch like any other year."

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