Mark Mulder said Friday afternoon that he envisions no problem exiting the disabled list when his 30-day rehab assignment expires May 14.
The Cardinals may privately disagree.
Mulder's return from rotator cuff surgery in September became one of the most-asked questions in spring training and early April. Now, with an overachieving rotation offering the most positive surprise of the Cardinals' record-setting start, a black-and-white issue takes on several shades of gray.
Manager Tony La Russa insisted earlier this season that the team's best five starters would man the rotation.
Question: Which of the current five should go to make room for a $6.5 million arm whose last win came on June 15, 2006, two surgeries ago?
At least temporarily complicating the matter is Mulder's abortive 11-out outing Wednesday against Salt Lake City. General manager John Mozeliak described it as a "step back" and plans to attend Mulder's start Monday at AutoZone Park in Memphis.
The good news was that Mulder reported no soreness or problems repeating his delivery. "I don't foresee that (returning) would be a problem," he said. "But we've got to wait and see how things go and see how I feel. That's obviously my goal. I don't want to go on any longer than that."
The bad news was the Los Angeles Angels' Class AAA affiliate mauling him for three home runs (one by former Jeff Weaver trade bait Terry Evans) and nine runs (seven earned).
Mulder likened the start to a spring training clunker, a fair characterization for someone who began his rehab assignment April 15, seven months after having his rotator cuff shaved. However, the context is different when altering an alignment that rates as one of the early season's most positive surprises.
The odd man out is likely to be either Todd Wellemeyer or Braden Looper. Both love starting after converting to the role last season.
"Sure, it's on my mind," Wellemeyer said. "I can't really think that much about it. All I can do is play the game. But to not think about it is impossible. You have to acknowledge the fact that you can't control your mind. That's different than worrying about it. You have to shut that down."
Looper, originally signed in December 2005 as closer insurance for Jason Isringhausen, feels an even stronger sense of ownership after converting before last season. Looper is 16-12 in the role and, perhaps just as important, in the final season of a three-year, $13.5 million contract.
"It's had a big impact on my career. It's what I want to do," said Looper, whose first 572 major-league appearances came in relief. "I don't know how much time I have left in my career — five years, four or three. I don't know what that is. But I plan on starting. I feel that strongly about it."
The Cardinals must activate Mulder from the disabled list when his rehab assignment expires, shut him down or reassign him to extended spring. La Russa has suggested Mulder could require "10 starts," five more than the assignment can accommodate.
"I haven't really thought about it that much. I don't consider it an issue or a decision because it's not in front of us at this moment," pitching coach Dave Duncan said after Looper improved to 4-1 Wednesday with a win over the Cincinnati Reds. "It's something you deal with when it presents itself. It's not at that stage right now, and standing here I can't honestly say how close it is to reaching that stage."
Mozeliak's trip to Memphis may lend clarity to what remains a vague situation. Do the Cardinals project a pitcher who gave them 16 wins and a 3.64 ERA in 2005 or a compromised arm defenseless for much of the last two seasons?
Said Duncan: "I don't know how close Mulder is to being ready, number one. And I don't know what the health of our starting staff will be at that time."
While La Russa and Duncan can deflect the issue for the time being, those potentially affected are handicapping the field.
"It would definitely be difficult. All five of us are throwing well right now. To lose your spot under those circumstances would be tough for anyone," Wellemeyer said.
Acquired as a waiver claim from the Kansas City Royals last May 15, Wellemeyer became Duncan's pet project. He has evolved from a bottom-feeder's castoff to a factor for a surprising division leader. The Cardinals are 12-5 in his 17 starts since he changed roles. Wellemeyer also ranks as the staff leader in strikeouts with 36 in 37 innings.
Looper carries a 4.77 ERA the last two seasons with 21 quality starts in 36 outings. This season's 3.86 ERA is skewed by a six-run third inning in his lone loss April 20 against the San Francisco Giants.
"I'd by lying if I said it's never crossed my mind. But as long as I can maintain my focus on what I have to do on the day of my start, whether I'm doing it here or somewhere else — then whatever happens, happens," Looper said. "We can't control it anyway. All we can do is pitch our game. As I've said all along, I want to start and I want to start here. If I have to go someplace else, I will. But this is where I want to be. I enjoy what I'm doing. I feel like I'm competing better. I feel like I'm improving."
Said La Russa: "Right now, there are five guys out there who can make a claim. Braden can based on this year, based on last year."
La Russa sells the debate as a challenge to his pitchers rather than justification for role insecurity.
"I just don't think that it's productive where a player or a pitcher says 'I can't do my best because of this kind of uncertainty. I need to be in there every day. I need to know I'm the closer, the eighth-inning guy or a starter.' That's a tip-off that's not somebody you can count on," the manager said. "The pressure is there right now. The more you meet it, the more it's your friend."