The two could not have taken more different paths to get to where they are now. Papelbon was Boston's closer all of last season, dominating virtually everytime he was handed the ball until hurting his shoulder on September 1. For his part, Wainwright toiled in relative obscurity (otherwise known as "middle relief") for a club fighting to stay above .500. Still, they were both very effective in 2006.
G IP ER H BB SO WHIP Papelbon 59 68.3 7 40 13 75 0.77 Wainwright 61 75.0 26 64 22 72 1.15
Just as Papelbon's season crumbled, Wainwright's became interesting. Jason Isringhausen, the longtime St. Louis closer, finally shut it down after his September 6th appearance in Washington. He had battled injuries and ineffectiveness all season long. So for the stretch run, as St. Louis was looking to wrap up a Division crown, it was Wainwright who would be seeing St. Louis's higher leverage innings. He performed well enough to earn Tony LaRussa's confidence and would be entrusted as St. Louis's closer for the postseason.
So while Papelbon's future hung in the balance and many wondered if his shoulder would heal in time for him to start the 2007 season, Wainwright emerged as one of the game's fiercest and most dominant relievers. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Wainwright's place in St. Louis baseball lore is secure. Wainwright threw just under 10 innings for St. Louis in the postseason, allowing no runs, just 9 baserunners while striking out 15. He notched four saves.
This season both Wainwright and Papelbon come to Spring Training ready to take on broader responsibilities for their respective clubs. Neither has started regularly before in the Big Leagues, but something tells me both will acquit themselves just fine in their new roles.
Looper has now started four times this spring. His stats are as follows:
IP H R ER BB SO ERA 14 17 5 5 3 6 3.21
St. Louis pitching coach Dave Duncan believes the 32-year-old Looper, who has appeared in 572 contests without a GS, can be an effective starter. Drafted by the Cardinals in the first round with the third overall pick of the 1996 amateur draft, Looper pitched four games for the Redbirds in 1998 before getting traded (along with Armando Almanza and Pablo Ozuna) to the Florida Marlins for Edgar Renteria. He tossed more than 70 games for the Fish every year from 1999-2003, then signed as a free agent with the New York Mets in January 2004. Braden served as the Mets closer for two years before reuniting with Duncan and Tony LaRussa.
Looper has a career ERA of 3.57 and has never had a year where his ERA+ was worse than the league average. The eight-year veteran relies on a hard sinker and a split-fingered fastball to get more than his fair share of grounders. He tends to give up a lot of hits (617 in 607 1/3 career IP) and will need to keep the ball down to succeed in his new role. The cousin of Aaron Looper, who pitched six games for the Seattle Mariners in 2003, would do well to develop a changeup to improve his effectiveness vs. LHB:
AVG OBP SLG OPS HR PA vs. RHB .234 .297 .306 .603 16 1506 vs. LHB .306 .372 .464 .836 30 1107
How Wainwright and Looper fare as starters will go a long way in determing the fate of the defending champs in 2007.