ST. LOUIS -- As Aaron Looper made his springtime rounds in preparation for the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, he began to hear a story about a certain shortstop who had been recently converted into a pitcher.
Not just that, but Looper, an area scout for the Cardinals, was hearing that this newbie pitcher was already hitting the mid-90s on the radar gun.
It was too intriguing a tale not to check out.
So Looper traveled to the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference tournament in Wichita, Kan., where he watched Trevor Rosenthal pitch, wrote some notes, and then returned to St. Louis to reconvene with the rest of the organization's scouting department.
The group began to compile its Draft board, listing hundreds of high school and college players in order of perceived ability and upside.
Names went up. But also, stickers went out. Gut stickers, they're called.
The Cardinals allow each of their scouts to take three stickers and affix them next to the names of players that, -- based on gut, not numbers -- they believe will ascend through the Minor League system. The stickers ensure these players do not get lost in the otherwise extensive list.
Rosenthal was hardly high on the Cardinals' Draft board, as he had thrown only 4 2/3 innings for Cowley County (Kan.) Community College before that '09 tournament.
But Looper remembered what he saw and knew how he felt. And so he took one of his three gut stickers and placed it next to the name of a 19-year-old right-hander who, earlier that year, he had deemed as merely a nondescript shortstop.
"I wish I was a good enough scout to tell you that he would throw 100 mph in three years," Looper says now. "But I'm not. I just followed my gut."
Rosenthal, a little more than three years removed from having a gut sticker next to his name, has since ascended to a national stage. Though the Cardinals were eliminated one win shy of the World Series, the team's slate of 13 postseason games provided more than sufficient opportunity for Rosenthal to shine.
He was not only nearly unhittable, allowing two hits and no runs in 8 2/3 postseason innings, but he dazzled with his velocity.
Rosenthal's fastball registered at 100 mph several times. When it wasn't hitting triple digits, it was sitting at 98-99 mph. It all seemed effortless, too, from a 22-year-old who was merely a year removed from low-A ball.
"I mean, I've always just had a stronger arm growing up than all of my peers and teammates," Rosenthal said. "It's been noticeably different the way the ball came out of my hand. I guess as far as the radar gun and realizing what it was registering, it never really was anything I focused on."
But everyone else did.
"I don't know what he does, but I've seen him every day in the weight room -- maybe I should probably start doing what he does," said fellow rookie right-hander Joe Kelly. "Watching this guy pitch is pretty phenomenal. He's hitting 100 [mph] every time he goes out there."
What caught onlookers off-guard, though, was that Rosenthal was a relative unknown. He wasn't a highly-touted Draft pick, falling to the 21st round. He ended 2011 four Minor League levels away from St. Louis, putting him far enough off the map for anyone to assume he'd be in the Majors by midseason in 2012.
And yet, there he was. Not just taking the mound in October, but pitching in critical playoff spots. And thriving, too.
To ask those within the Cardinals system, though, the rapid ascension was hardly a surprise. That undeniable gut feeling that Looper had back in 2009 had long become contagious.
A precipitous -- and fortuitous -- drop
Looper's scouting report on the kid at Cowley County Community College wasn't lengthy, only because his observations were limited. Though Looper attended three games, Rosenthal appeared in only one. He pitched 1 1/3 innings in relief. Looper estimates now that there were about eight other area scouts in the stands that day.
As Looper began his drive from Wichita to Kansas City after his stay, he couldn't help but think about what he had seen from Rosenthal.
"Your instincts tell you he's a good athlete and a projectable kid," Looper recalled. "He went after guys, for the limited experience he had pitching. He threw strikes. He wasn't afraid. I thought, 'Man, somebody is going to take this guy.' I thought that somebody would have probably had a little more history and have a better chance of drafting him sooner."
Looper pegged Rosenthal as a solid 10th-round selection. Yet, on Draft day, the 10th round passed with Rosenthal still on the board. Several more rounds went by, too. Eventually the 21st round began and then-Cardinals scouting director Jeff Luhnow saw Rosenthal's name and the gut sticker and asked Looper for one more endorsement.
Looper, surprised Rosenthal was still available, eagerly gave it. This year, Rosenthal became the first player selected in that round to make his Major League debut.
Rosenthal made 14 Gulf Coast League appearances in the 2009 season and spent 2010 at Rookie League Johnson City (Tenn.). The next season, he moved up to low-A Quad Cities, where he stayed for a full year.
"We realized we had a talent early on, when we sent him to Johnson City," general manager John Mozeliak said. "Then when he went to Quad Cities, we knew exactly what we had because he really took off there. He showed an ability to command the strike zone. He wasn't just a thrower. He had a feel for his off-speed pitches. And then he got stronger.
"I do recall in the Quad Cities championship that he was sitting at 97 [mph] in the eighth inning."
That wasn't in a relief appearance either. Rosenthal had started the contest.
That impression led to an opportunity, one that included an invite to the Cardinals' 2012 Major League Spring Training camp. The radar guns in Florida lit up. Eyes did, as well.
Looking back on camp, manager Mike Matheny said he knew when he sent Rosenthal out that there was a chance that he could break into the Majors before the end of the season.
Matheny's assessment was hardly unique. When the front office convened in March to determine where Rosenthal would be best suited to start the season, there were some, Mozeliak said, arguing that Rosenthal was already ready for the Majors.
"You certainly saw the stuff," Matheny said. "You saw the body makeup that would allow him to get stronger. You saw the work ethic that would lead in that direction. And then you saw the aptitude to learn and the willingness to learn. You put all that together and it's pretty fertile ground for something good to happen."
In the middle of things in October
Rosenthal's days in the Minors were short, as a need in St. Louis prompted the Cards to take a chance and summon the right-hander from Double-A. Rosenthal responded well, endured two brief demotions, and then returned to St. Louis on Aug. 29.
He wouldn't go back down. And he might never go down again.
Rosenthal ended the regular season with seven straight scoreless appearances. He earned a spot on the club's postseason roster and then thrived. He made seven more scoreless appearances, lighting up the radar gun and helping the Cards find sustained middle relief for the first time all year.
"It's definitely been a quick ride, going from winning a championship in low-A last year to trying to get another one here the following year at the top level," Rosenthal said during the National League Championship Series. "I haven't had too much time to go back and reflect on it all yet. Hopefully around Christmastime or something I'll be able to pinch myself and wake up and realize what happened."
Rosenthal's impression excited a fan base that now wonders what role the hard-throwing right-hander might fill next year. The Cardinals have told Rosenthal to arrive at Spring Training expecting to start. If the Cardinals do not have an opening in the rotation, they'll consider him for the bullpen.
There's the chance, too, that Rosenthal could begin the year starting in Triple-A. However, after watching Rosenthal's emergence in 2012, the Cardinals have no questions about Rosenthal's readiness.
"Clearly, when you look at the success that he's had, you know you have a dynamic arm," Mozeliak said. "Whether it's in the rotation or out of the bullpen, we just know he's going to be in St. Louis."