For all intents and purposes, the 2013 season has gotten off to a fine start for the St. Louis Cardinals. Their powerhouse offense is already outscoring the rest of the National League and their starting pitchers are coming off a run of epic proportions. Over the week against Milwaukee and Cincinnati, the Cardinals held their opponents scoreless for 39.1 innings straight, with 32 of those innings coming out of the rotation. Starter Adam Wainwright has been the best of all the birds, throwing 22 innings this year while striking out 24 batters and walking none in an otherworldly display of control.
But St. Louis does have one big issue and that’s shutting the door in the 9th inning. For the past couple of seasons the hard-throwing Jason Motte has taken the mound to turn out the lights for the Cardinals but it appears that he’s going to miss the entire 2013 season to have Tommy John surgery. That’s been bad news in the early going as nominal closer Mitchell Boggs has imploded just about every time his name is called, giving up 8 earned runs in just 6.1 innings of work. His latest detonation job came yesterday in Milwaukee as it took Boggs all of two batters before blowing the lead.
Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has been hesitant to abandon Boggs in the 9th inning, pledging his support to the 29-year-old after each blown save. After this last botch job on Sunday Matheny had this to say:
“Mitchell’s been in the eighth and been very good there, so you can see why it would be a natural transition. (We’re) not getting too far ahead of ourselves. See what happens next time we get there. I don’t think you can just throw that it’s a young guy or it’s a veteran. Right now, (Edward) Mujica’s making good pitches and getting the big outs when we need them.”
At some point you have to find somebody to do the job however and Matheny seems to be nearing that point. So who should the Cardinals turn to? Well, I’m of the opinion that the pitcher with the best pure stuff will make the best closer so I’d lean toward Trevor Rosenthal. Rosenthal was untouchable in the postseason a year ago, blistering fastballs by hitters, allowing just 2 hits in 8.2 innings of work. His pitches all have a bit of natural sink on them as well which makes the ball tough to elevate for hitters and that tends to lead to ground outs. He also has a nice little breaking ball that keeps hitters honest, and if he can keep his cool under the October lights, Rosenthal can keep his cool in the 9th inning in May.
Rosenthal has given up a couple of runs this season but that shouldn’t be too much of a concern either. He’s struck out 10 batters in 8 innings of work and he’s allowed just a single walk. As long as his peripherals stay in that neighborhood the shutdown innings will come. It’s also likely that a move to closer could be beneficial for Rosenthal’s arm as well. Matheny has already used the youngster in 7 games this year which may not be the best way to go about things. Rosenthal was brought up as a starting pitcher in the minors which means he pitched in a game once every 5 or 6 days, with a throw day or two in between. Now he’s being asked to throw high leverage innings 3-4 times a week, which could burn his arm out quickly. Moving to closer would lighten the load on Rosenthal’s arm just in the sheer number of appearances since closers see fewer innings of action.
Matheny may also be tempted to make Edward Mujica, a righty with a 1.80 ERA in 5 appearances this year, the closer but I’m not sure if that would work out all that well. Mujica has made over 300 appearances in the big leagues and he’s never been considered the type to work in the 9th inning. He leans heavily on a splitter and fastball combo and while that’s worked for half a season in St. Louis, it’s not going to hold up forever. Mujica had a 4.10 ERA over the course of 6 and a half seasons with 3 different franchises and apart from the extremely rare occasion he didn’t get close to the 9th inning for any of those ball clubs.
Instead, the Cardinals would be best served leaving Mujica to pitch in a similar role to the one he held last year while Trevor Rosenthal takes the 9th. Mujica excelled as the 7th or 8th inning bridge to the closer and he’s a great pitcher to bring in if you need a double play. The Cardinals should also bring Mitchell Boggs back to the 7th or 8th inning as well because that’s the role he’s excelled in during the course of his career. Matheny can then mix in lefties Randy Choate and Mark Rzepcynski in match-up situations, giving him plenty of late game options to toy with. That also leaves the Cardinals with long man extraordinaire Joe Kelly and Fernando Salas on clean-up crew, thus maximizing the Cardinals talent. St. Louis has all of the pieces to make a deep October run, they just need to get them sorted out into the right spots.