ST. LOUIS -- Mark Mulder remains uncertain about a timetable for his return to the Cardinals' starting rotation. He's certain that he already feels better than ever about his chances at eventual effectiveness, though.

Mulder is coming off another surgery on his left shoulder, but he believes this time the troubles that plagued him are finally solved. He is only throwing from 45 feet at this time, so he's well behind his teammates. But he's encouraged by how he feels.

"Even when I played catch [before the last operation] it felt funny," Mulder said Monday at the Cardinals annual Winter Warm-Up. "Just playing catch. Where you're landing is different. I'm playing catch now, and it feels completely normal. I think the whole mechanics thing is kind of blown out of proportion, because if your arm is working right, everything else is fine.

"So many times I was flying open trying to use my body to get my arm up. If your arm gets up, your foot goes down when you throw the ball. It's pretty simple."

Mulder is not expected to be available at the start of the regular season. The club has loosely targeted early May for his return to action, but even that date remains very, very tentative.

"Estimates did good for me last year, huh?" he quipped. "People can put a date on it if they want. My body and my arm will tell me when they're ready."

Shorter leash: Adam Kennedy will be on a tighter rein in 2008 than he was in '07. Kennedy played close to every day for as long as he was healthy in 2007, despite putting up a .219/.282/.290 (average/on-base/slugging) line. Manager Tony La Russa said Monday that if Kennedy struggles in '08, the second baseman won't find himself in the lineup quite as often. The manager also wasn't thrilled with Kennedy's decision to skip the Winter Warm-Up.

"Last year when he struggled, in the first three months of the season, his playing time was extensive when he really wasn't productive," La Russa said. "I really gave him the benefit of the doubt a lot, to the detriment of a guy like Aaron Miles.

"Well, this year, I just don't think we have that margin. And Adam is a key guy in that mix. So I expect him to return to his winning player form. But he needs to make sure he dots all the i's, and not coming to [the Warm-Up] is, I hope, his first and only mistake."

Ank at the top? One suggested name to fill the Cardinals' opening in the leadoff spot is Rick Ankiel, who has the speed commonly associated with hitting at the top of the order but not the approach at the plate. La Russa said that on-base ability would be his top criterion, which strikes Ankiel from the list of likely candidates.

Ankiel himself is equally down on the notion.

"Looking at me, I think that doesn't fit my mold at all," Ankiel said. "I'm not really a take-a-pitch kind of guy. I don't see why they would do that. But you never know. We'll see what happens."

Aldrete on board: La Russa clarified the position that Mike Aldrete will hold on the Cardinals' coaching staff. Aldrete will serve as something of an associate hitting coach for Hal McRae, while also providing video scouting information for the team's hitters.

"I talked to Hal about it, and Hal bought it because he knows he needs the help," La Russa said. "Sometimes you're on the field for batting practice and there are guys hitting in the cage. One of our coaches, not the hitting coach, would do that. So now we've got two hitting coaches. Hal's the hitting coach, and he's going to help.

"Mike will help break down the tape. We'll stay ahead like Marty [Mason, bullpen coach] does. We won't get the last-minute stuff. It's overwhelming for one coach. And he'll throw left-handed BP. We had him in Oakland. Terrific teammate. I'm very excited about our hitters having a better chance this year, and Mike will be a part of it."

A big fan: Plenty of people around the Cardinals were nonplussed when Yadier Molina lost out to Russell Martin in voting for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award this year. That list definitely includes Adam Wainwright, who stuck up for his teammate on Monday afternoon.

"Yadier Molina is the best catcher in the game, period, to me," Wainwright said. "I haven't seen any better ones. The fact that he hasn't won a Gold Glove is a joke to me. And I'm sorry to anybody who voted for the other guy. I know Russell's good, but Yadier Molina is a blessing. He just changes the game in so many ways."

Rule change: La Russa said that he will institute a new timeliness rule in Spring Training. Players will be required to be at the park by a set time before the workout starts, or they will not be permitted to participate in the workout.