The Cardinals filled two of their several bullpen openings by signing free-agent left-hander Ricardo Rincon to a two-year, $2.9 million contract and then bringing back right-hander Braden Looper, a free agent who signed for three years and $13.5 million.
With right-hander Julian Tavarez defecting to free agency, left-hander Ray King being traded, right-hander Cal Eldred retiring and right-hander Al Reyes undergoing serious elbow surgery, the Cardinals had four bullpen spots open, meaning they still have more work to do.
But Looper, a former No. 1 draft pick of the Cardinals who struck out three hitters in one inning in his first big-league game for the Cardinals on Opening Day in 1998, gives them protection at the closer spot for Jason Isringhausen. And he also gives them a strikeout-type pitcher to bridge for as much as two innings between the starter and closer.
Looper, a member of the 2003 world champion Florida Marlins, had 57 saves in the last two seasons with the New York Mets but fanned just 27 hitters in 59 1/3 innings last season while pitching with some soreness in his shoulder. He has had some cleanup surgery in the offseason but said he would be ready for spring training.
"He's young. He's proven. He's healthy," said Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty, who increased his original offers of one year and two years to keep Looper from going to another team like the Philadelphia Phillies. "We think he'll be an ideal setup man for Izzy -- a guy who, if Izzy is unavailable on certain nights, then can close."
Looper, 31, said, "I'm much more developed as a pitcher (since 1998). I may not be throwing as hard, but I'm a lot better now."
The Cardinals had Looper for only part of the one season the first time around. They included him in the deal to acquire shortstop Edgar Renteria from Florida after the 1998 season.
The 35-year-old Rincon, who worked in 67 games last season for Oakland and allowed just 10 of 46 inherited runners to score, will assume King's late inning role as a left-handed specialist.
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