JOPLIN, Mo. — Three players, who are all expected to play big roles for the St. Louis Cardinals this season, made a stop at Missouri Southern State University Saturday as part of the Cardinals Caravan.

The players that were part of the autograph and meet-and-greet session included relief pitchers Josh Kinney and Kyle McClellan and third baseman David Freese.

Also present were Cardinal alumni players Kerry Robinson, Tom Pagnozzi and current TV broadcaster Al Hrabosky. The emcee of the event was Cardinals’ radio broadcaster John Rooney.

Like most of the players, Kinney is excited to get started on the season.

Kinney, as some remember, was a key piece to the bullpen in the 2006 World Series, as he pitched in two games against Detroit. On Saturday, he was sporting the World Series championship ring on his right hand.

Since the World Series appearance, Kinney has under gone “Tommy John” surgery to fix a nerve in his pitching arm and just started getting back to full health last season. In limited action, he was 1-0.

He spent much of last year with Triple-A Memphis, appearing in 38 games. He threw in only 11 games in the 2008 season.

“To me this is the start of baseball season really,” said Kinney, who sported cowboy boots and a John Deere hat. “This is the fourth or fifth caravan I have been on. I have enjoyed every one of them. You get to travel around and see a few teammates. And meet some fans. You’d be surprised to see fans from all over the place. I live in Springfield, Mo., so that isn’t that far.  I enjoyed getting out and getting to talk to people. You don’t get to do that much during the season.

“For me, it’s nice. I always dreamed of playing for Cardinals. I went to college in Quincy. Illinois and I was a Cardinal fan my whole life. The opportunity to be out here and live in ‘Cardinal Country,’ I get to see fans all the time. I shake their hands and talk with them and I like that. I don’t think that is something that, if I lived in some other states I wouldn’t see the fans like I would living out here.”

Kinney started playing pro baseball in 2001 with the independent River City Rascals, in St. Charles, Mo. There he caught the eye of the Cardinals, who signed him. He came to Springfield in 2005 and the next season became the first Springfield Cardinal to play for the St. Louis Cardinals.

This spring he will be battling for one of the relief pitching spots out of the bullpen.

“The start of the season is exciting for us,” Kinney said. “There is a lot of buzz about the lineup, who will be doing what and what players we need to add. It’s baseball season, I’m ready to roll.”

McClellan, a native of Florrisant, Mo, is one player who is pretty much assured his spot in the bullpen. The 6-foot-2 right hander has appeared in 134 games the last two years and has a career record of 6-11. He was 4-4 last year with a 3.38 earned run average. He was particularly tough against lefties last year, as they hit only .198 against him.

He allowed only five of his 30 inherited runners to score last year and in 2008, he finished tied for second in MLB with 30 holds.

“Getting out it is always good for us to get out,” McClellan said, a graduate of Hazelwood West High School. “When the first of the year comes around we get to talk baseball and you get around your teammates again. It’s exciting for us to get a chance to see fans outside of St. Louis and let them know we appreciate support down here.”

The 25th round pick in 2002 for the Cardinals, he steadily rose through the ranks of the system. He jumped from Double-A Springfield in 2007 and broke camp with the Cardinals in 2008.

“I think our rotation this year will be strong and our bullpen will be a lot similar to last year from what I understand,” McClellan said. “I think our pitching staff will be pretty strong.”

The final member of the current players – catcher Matt Pagnozzi wasn’t able to attend – was Freese, another St. Louis area native.

Freese is expected to battle Allen Craig and Joe Mather for the starting third base job this year. Last year he got to play in 17 games, but was injured from April 17 to Sept. 27, after undergoing surgery on an injured ankle.

“It was tough obviously I had an ankle injury battled through it and tried to play through. It didn’t work out to well,” said Freese. “In April I had the surgery and got back healthy and I think that helped me prove to them I got something to help them when I got back in September.”

In limited action last year, Freese hit .323 with one home run and 7 RBI. At Busch Stadium, he hit a robust .368.

Taking part in his second Cardinals Caravan, Freese was excited at the reaction.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how many people root for the cardinals especially across Midwest and put smiles on all these faces is neat,” said Freese. “I think we are real excited about getting (Matt) Holliday back. That is a huge plus and for me, personally, hopefully it opens up the third base job. I can do out and do what I can to win the job. Bringing Big Mac (Mark McGwire) in is exciting. I didn’t believe it when I heard it. I haven’t had a chance to meet him yet, but I’m excited to get going with him in the near future.”

Freese, a graduate of Lafayette High School and Meramec Junior College in St. Louis, was a teenager when McGwire was traded to St. Louis in 1997.

“I am real pumped, not only to learn what he knows about the game, but I’m excited to get to know the individual,” Freese said.

In about a month, Freese will trek to Florida when the Cardinals open Spring Training on Feb. 23, where he will begin his quest to replace Troy Glaus as the staring third baseman.

“Obviously there will be a lot of hard work (to earn the job),” said Freese, who was acquired by the Cardinals from San Diego for Jim Edmonds. “I will get there early and stay late and show them I’m dedicated. I want to be consistent and show Tony (La Russa) and the front office I’m working hard. I think 2010 will be a great year, individually and as a team. We got a good group of guys and a great staff and all around a good organization. I think we have a chance to do damage this year.”