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Cards Turn To Power, Youth To Bolster Staff

[Editor's Note: This story ran in the print edition of Baseball America before Thursday's news, first reported by Rick Hummel of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, that righthander Trevor Rosenthal would move to the bullpen.]

JUPITER, Fla.—As far as symbolism goes, it doesn't get much more direct than when Cardinals rookie Trevor Rosenthal walked into the spring training clubhouse in early February.

His locker had been moved from the far side of the room, where prospects and minor leaguers rent spots, to the wall where major leaguers live. Hanging in front of his locker was a new number, No. 26. Kyle Lohse was the last to wear it, and it's Lohse's spot in the rotation that Rosenthal is out to win.

The competition had begun.

"It's a vastly different situation for me this spring," Rosenthal said. "Switching sides of the locker room is a big change. It's really cool to be bumping shoulders with guys who have had so much success, so much time in the major leagues. There's no difference in approach for me. I show up every day, try my hardest, have the best attitude possible, continue to learn, and see what happens."

The availability of No. 26 for Rosenthal and the open spot in the rotation speaks to the Cardinals' optimism about the pitching talent that emerged from the minor league system last season. The Cardinals, who have the No. 1 minor league system according to Baseball America's Prospect Handbook, made calls this winter to assure there would be room in the majors for at least one, if not two of their ascending, homegrown pitchers. Three of them will be given the chance to win a spot in the rotation this spring: Rosenthal, Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly.

All three hotshots had at least an appearance in the majors last season. All three are considered part of the power pack that moved through the system with fastballs clocked consistently at 95 mph or faster. All three were drafted in 2009. Not one is older than 24.

"We're not in the development business at the big leagues," manager Mike Matheny said. "But we also don't want to stunt anybody. If we don't think they're ready, they wouldn't be here. I think all of these guys have proven that they are and are getting a good shot at proving it to us now."

More Than Heat

Kelly, taken 98th overall in the 2009 draft, entered spring with the edge because of his 16 starts last season, but rookies Rosenthal and Miller reached the competition with high-ceiling expectations.

Miller, taken 19th overall in '09, has been the Cardinals' top pitching prospect ever since and he ranks No. 2 in the organization coming into this season behind outfielder Oscar Taveras. Miller is coming off a season that humbled him in Triple-A. A year ago, he arrived at spring training after losing weight to get what he called a "beach bod," but it cost him strength. He struggled to maintain his delivery and his velocity through the opening months of the season at Triple-A Memphis, and needed a break in the middle of the year to reboot.

He came back with restored mechanics and a no-shake rule that meant he couldn't keep convincing the catcher that his overpowering fastball was always the pitch to throw. The result was a 7-2, 2.88 finish after the all-star break with a 70-7 strikeout-walk ratio in 57 second-half innings. He capped his year with six shutout innings against the Reds on the final day of the major league season and a spot later in the postseason on the Cardinals' playoff roster.

There, Miller joined Rosenthal, who was an October revelation. Rosenthal, taken 639th overall in '09, jumped from Double-A Springfield to the majors in the middle of last season because of his success as a starter and the power of his arm. He went 8-6, 2.78 in 17 starts for Springfield before his promotion, and he had three more starts in Triple-A during a brief return to the minors. At the major league level, Rosenthal, also 22, displayed a fastball that consistently hit 98 mph. Of his first 80 pitches in the postseason, more than half were clocked at 99 mph or faster. He hit 101 mph.

But he brings more than just heat. The Cardinals saw Rosenthal's hard curveball and developing changeup and believe that what the righthander showed in one-inning bursts could translate to six-inning starts.

"It's completely level in the fact that we saw Trevor come into high-leverage situations and do a great job out of the bullpen," Matheny said. "Shelby is the guy we saw the least, but we also saw some things that are very encouraging and we understand that there's a high ceiling there with what he can do. Every day they get out there we're evaluating it. And we have to evaluate it not just on their individual performance but on what does this mean for our club. What makes our team better?"

Said Miller: "We all know we're not just going to be given a spot. We're going to make each other work for it. That's my whole goal—to make the roster somehow and to be in St. Louis. I'm trying not to let Triple-A be in the picture."

Miller had his audition slowed near the start of spring when he experienced soreness in his right shoulder. The discomfort cleared quickly and he was set make his Grapefruit League debut a few days after Rosenthal made his second appearance. Rosenthal admitted to being over-amped in his first outing, and twice catcher Yadier Molina had to walk out to the mound to calm him down. Rosenthal's aim to impress left him rushing his delivery and losing command.

Pitching Apprentices

The Cardinals expect both to settle into the competition as March continues. They both arrived ready. They both had learned from a major league mentor.

Having learned from last year's shedding of weight, Miller concentrated on increasing his weight this past winter for the workload. He and ace Adam Wainwright, who took to texting Miller in the second half of last season with suggestions and support, had a running bet on who could reach their target weight. Miller checked into spring training 20 pounds heavier, at 224. ("We tied," he said of the bet.) Rosenthal too had a mentor, spending the winter with former Cy Young Award winner Chris Carpenter. The veteran ace, who is not expected to pitch this season because of a nerve condition, pushed Rosenthal through his regimen. The result was increased muscle for the broad-shouldered rookie, as much as 10 pounds.

"That's what you want," pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said, "a bunch of frothing dogs, right?"

Lilliquist outlined how the spot in the rotation is not the only way for Miller, Rosenthal or Kelly to make the majors on Opening Day. While intrigued by what Rosenthal could bring as a starter, the organization can also see a future where Rosenthal is a late-inning reliever and perhaps a closer in the making with his high-voltage stuff.

Miller is viewed as a pillar of the rotation for years to come, but Lilliquist drew a connection between Miller's development and what the organization did with Wainwright and Lance Lynn in recent years. Both spent the season before they became starters in the bullpen, learning the major league rhythm from a relief role and gradually growing into more important and higher-leverage innings.

The Cardinals sought to make room for the future in 2013. There could be spots for Miller and Rosenthal, two of the biggest arms coming out of the system, to start this year. The club knows there will be eventually.

Their lockers will be on the major league side for awhile.

"I want to do that as a starter and contribute more innings in each game," Rosenthal said. "Hopefully I'll be able to earn respect in that manner. That's the goal."