JUPITER, Fla. (AP) — The battle for the St. Louis Cardinals' closer position wasn't on Chris Perez's mind when he walked off the mound following his first appearance against batters this spring.
"It's too early right now," Perez, a former IMG Academy baseball program player, said on Thursday, as he made his way across the backfields to the Cardinals clubhouse in Jupiter, Fla. Even the first few spring games probably won't tell much, he added.
"The end of March, that's when it is really going to start heating up."
Perez, 23, entered spring as the likely front-runner in a four-way battle with Ryan Franklin, Jason Motte and Josh Kinney for the position.
Perez was the 41st pick in the 2006 draft. He began last season with Triple-A Memphis before being called up in mid-May. He appeared in 41 games, saving seven of them and posting a 3.46 ERA.
Franklin, the veteran of the group, first reached the majors with Seattle in 1999. He led St. Louis with 17 saves in 2008. Motte recorded one save last season. Kinney has yet to record a save at the major league level.
The Cardinals limited Perez to 30 pitches, mixing fastballs, sinkers, curveballs and sliders. He focused on his mechanics and pitch location, noting with a laugh that the last thing a pitcher wants to do is hit a teammate.
Perez said he felt good following the session, though admitted he did tire toward the end of the session.
"He's making good progress," pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "The breaking ball is his project this spring, and he threw some good ones. He's coming along."
Perez was the lone member of the closer's battle to face batters on Thursday. Franklin threw a bullpen session while Motte and Kinney had non-throwing days scheduled.
If none of the four emerge as a clear choice, there is still the possibility the Cardinals could bring in former closer Jason Isringhausen. The Cardinals' all-time saves leader wasn't re-signed following a rocky 2008 season and remains a free agent.
St. Louis General Manager John Mozeliak said earlier this week that the organization considered inviting Isringhausen to camp in a mentor role, but decided against it.
"The message we are trying to send this group of guys we have here is that we think they are capable of doing the job," Mozeliak said.
Perez, for one, isn't concerned about the possibility of an Isringhausen return.
"I'm worried about myself right now," Perez said. "If I take care of my own thing and I do well, it will work out."