JUPITER, Fla. - Kyle McClellan heard the trade rumors last month. And he knows they probably will continue.
"I'm sure it's still going to go on all spring," the right-hander admits. "If you have seven guys for five spots and everybody is healthy, there's still going to be talk. That's just the way it goes."
Faced with a numbers crunch that currently appears to have two extra right-handed relievers than they do spots in the bullpen, the Cardinals reportedly talked with clubs in recent weeks about trading McClellan to alleviate the issue.
McClellan would be the most likely to go in a trade for a number of reasons. He's is slated to make 2.5 million this season, more than any of the other eight relievers currently competing for what will likely be seven spots in the bullpen.
He's also the most versatile, proving last year that he can be both an effective big league starter and late-inning reliever, depending on where a team would have the biggest need.
And McClellan understands that, too.
"That's part of the game, that's part of what happens and I understand," McClellan said. "You look and there's guys that are younger and don't make as much money as I do and if they think they can do the job, just like any other job, they are going to use them and you'll have to find someplace else to go. I understood that coming in."
The St. Louis native and Hazelwood West High School alum had an interesting 2011 to say the least, opening the year in the starting rotation when close friend Adam Wainwright went down with an elbow injury in spring training.
McClellan went 10-8 in 18 outings - 17 of which were starts and one that was essentially a start when he entered in the first inning after a lengthy rain delay - and posted a respectable 4.15 ERA before the club acquired starter Edwin Jackson at the trade deadline and moved the right-hander back to the bullpen.
The former reliever looked right at home in the bullpen, posting a 2.33 ERA in his first 13 appearances as he began to help stabilize what was an inconsistent bullpen for much of the season.
But as the innings began to mount, McClellan's production began to drop. After passing his career high in innings for a season back in June, the unfamiliar workload began to catch up with him in September.
McClellan allowed 10 earned runs in 12 appearances over the final month of the season, appearing in six of the Cardinals' eight losses in September. He gave up five home runs to just six strikeouts and had a 7.71 ERA.
The right-hander maintains he was not injured down the stretch, but instead just out of gas after throwing 141 23 innings - almost exactly the same amount he threw in 2009 and 2010 combined.
Hoping to save his bullets for the season and knowing he was likely ticketed for the bullpen anyway, McClellan decided to wait a few weeks later than usual to report to the Cardinals spring training complex in Jupiter.
He also had a second reason for waiting.
"If we got down here and I got traded to somewhere where the spring training was in Arizona, that's something a lot of people don't think about," McClellan said. "I have my family, my wife and daughter and my dog, and how were we going to get everything from here to Arizona?"
McClellan has proved to be a dangerous weapon when used exclusively out of the bullpen. His ERA dropped nearly a run in each of three full seasons as a reliever since he broke into the big leagues in 2008, all the way down to 2.27 in 68 appearances in 2010.
The right-hander won't turn 28 until June, meaning the best years of his career are likely ahead of him. And for teams in need of a starter or possible swing man, it's no surprise that McClellan would be an attractive candidate.
Rumors got so heavy in recent weeks that McClellan at one point assumed a trade would eventually go down.
"I got texts from a couple media people saying good luck in California," McClellan said. "They thought I got traded to the Angels. I was like, Did I miss something here?'
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the Cardinals had conversations with the Baltimore Orioles about McClellan and that teams including the San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks were among those to express interest.
"There were times where you thought definitely that something might happen," McClellan said. "It was a little roller coaster of emotions up and down but ultimately I learned through the process how to kind of put it behind me and after you get caught up in for a little bit, you just say, I'm done with it, I'm over it, I don't want to think about it. Whatever happens, happens.'"
But nothing has happened yet. McClellan is still in camp with the Cardinals and competing for a spot in the bullpen. He's hoping to throw more changeups to right-handed hitters this year while building on the experience he gained as a starter.
He knows a trade could still come. But he's a Cardinal for now, and that's all he's thinking about.
"There would be a lot of things I'd miss about this organization," McClellan said. "This is the best place for me - bullpen, rotation whatever it is - to be a part of this team and or Mike Matheny.
"But ultimately, at the end of the day, whether it's here or somewhere else, I think I'll have a job in the big leagues and that's most important."