JUPITER, Fla. -- For Cal Eldred, the time for cutting it loose is drawing near.
"Not yet," Eldred said Tuesday at the Cardinals' spring training facility here, but maybe today in batting practice.
"Then after facing your own batters a few times, you pitch against batters on other teams," Eldred said. "It's just a natural progression."
Eldred, a 35-year-old right-hander, is perhaps the most intriguing of several pitchers vying for the final two spots on the Cardinals' rotation.
Matt Morris is the stopper after leading St. Louis with a 17-9 record and 3.42 earned run average in 2002. Woody Williams (9-4, 2.53 ERA) hopes for a season of good health after long stints last season on the disabled list. And newcomer Brett Tomko (10-10, 4.49 ERA at San Diego) is in the No. 3 slot.
That leaves second-year pitcher Jason Simontacchi and a cast of reclamation projects competing for the final two spots -- Garrett Stephenson, Joey Hamilton, Dustin Hermanson.
And then there's Eldred.
"When he's been healthy, he's been a very good major league pitcher with a really good fastball, a good change-up and slider," pitching coach Dave Duncan said.
Health has been the problem. Eldred had Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in 1995 and suffered stress reactions every year from 1998 to 2001. He pitched just six innings in 2001 and sat out all of last season.
After winning 38 games in his first three seasons (1992-94) Eldred has won only 34 games in parts of seven seasons since.
He thought his career was over after being forced to shut down in May 2001. But after a year back home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he felt better and began contemplating a comeback.
"I guess the time off served as my rehab," Eldred said. "I had opportunities to sign with other major league teams but the offers were all about the same. I wasn't in a position to be too picky. This is a great organization and they have a great team here.
"My main goal is to stay healthy and if I can do that, I should be competitive."
Eldred, in camp as a non-roster invitee, is scheduled in the group that pitches batting practice when the position players start workouts Wednesday. Physicals are scheduled in the morning and practice for the entire team begins before noon.