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02/24/11 7:15 PM EST

For Cards, fifth starter likely to come from within

JUPITER, Fla. -- Simple humanity dictates that just about everyone in the Cardinals organization still feels sympathy for Adam Wainwright. The realities of baseball, however, mandate that it's already past time to figure out what's next.

While the disappointment over losing Wainwright to elbow surgery will linger, the rest of the league will not wait on the Redbirds to sort out their rotation. Work is already under way to figure out who will take Wainwright's spot.

For now, it's a large group. Manager Tony La Russa figures he's best served by casting a wide net, and then winnowing down the candidates. La Russa referred to a list of "six or seven" names that he has in mind at the moment. And the competition is already under way.

"It's much more unfortunate for Adam," La Russa said. "It's really tough on us, so you can't not be affected, but it's much tougher on him. You just make the adjustment, and one of the key things is how deep you are. If you're not very deep, a hit like this, it could sink you. But we were five starters deep, quality starters deep, and now we have an opportunity for somebody to jump in there."

La Russa and general manager John Mozeliak were both emphatic that for now, the plan is to fill the opening from within the organization. External options do exist -- Kevin Millwood is a free agent, and the Phillies would love to move Joe Blanton -- but the Cardinals believe that the solution is already in Jupiter.

That pool would appear to start with right-hander Kyle McClellan. There would be a certain irony if McClellan won the job this year, the first time in three years that he didn't come to camp expecting to compete for a starting job. Then baseball disaster struck, and suddenly McClellan is competing for the rotation again.

The problem for McClellan has always been that if he moves into the rotation, it would just create another hole, in late-inning relief. However, this year's Cardinals club appears deep in right-handed relief.

"I believe I can do it, so I would hope that it would come internally," McClellan said. "I think if you look at everything the way it is, the void that I would leave, the other guys are more than capable of handling that."

Should McClellan win the job, though, it would open up some kind of spot in the bullpen. La Russa and Mozeliak both said Thursday that finding relief depth to paper over a potential conversion is not a priority right now. They also both said they wouldn't hesitate to move a reliever into the rotation, if that reliever won the job.

But that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a challenge. With less certainty in the rotation, the Cardinals will be calling on the bullpen this year more than they expected. If McClellan is converted, the pressure would increase on bullpen-mates Mitchell Boggs and Jason Motte -- or on the front office to make a deal.

If there is in fact a short list beyond McClellan within the longer list, it may contain right-handers Lance Lynn and P.J. Walters, both of whom started for Triple-A Memphis last year. Walters put up better numbers, but Lynn is a higher Draft pick with better stuff. Meanwhile, Brandon Dickson had a better year at Memphis than either one in 2010.

None of those righties would compromise the bullpen, and that's a major priority for La Russa. Pitching coach Dave Duncan, however, has made it no secret that he prioritizes the rotation above the bullpen, nor that he's a backer of McClellan's.

Beyond the Memphis right-handers, a few more pitchers will at least get a look. Lefty Raul Valdes will start the first Grapefruit League game. Lefty Brian Tallet was signed to be a specialist, but has starting experience and is open to a move if he's asked.

Righties Miguel Batista and Ian Snell, both in camp on Minor League deals, have been starters in the Majors, but both look like long shots. Batista appears secure as the swingman, available to pitch in nearly any relief role, or to make a spot start. Snell is coming off a rough year and will have to show a great deal this spring just to win a roster spot, never mind a rotation job.

Adam Ottavino, a revelation last spring, is coming off shoulder trouble. He will not only have to show effectiveness but convince the club of his durability. Because the opening is for the full year, the club would hate to place a fragile pitcher in the role, only to be going through the same hunt again in a few weeks or months.

For the time being, the Cards don't have to do much winnowing. There are plenty of innings to go around. Starting pitchers typically only work two or three innings in the early part of Spring Training, so multiple candidates can pitch regularly even while the four secure starters get their work. It's only after about 10 games of spring that things start getting a little tighter.

"The squeeze comes after you've gone through the group twice," La Russa said. "When you start really getting [to where] the guys that are on the club have got the innings that day. [Then] we'll see where we are."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.