Jason Motte’s spring training elbow injury, which ultimately became season-ending, meant the worst. The St. Louis Cardinals would play all of 2013 without the man they signed to a two-year contract during the off-season to be their closer.
Though the “closer” title was not officially conferred as frequently, the informal mantle was transferred five times in just six months. Much of the shifting was done early on.
Coming out of camp, 2012 set-up man Mitchell Boggs held the job for less than a month. In parallel, rookie Trevor Rosenthal was tried briefly before Edward Mujica stabilized the spot, which he held for much of the summer. Late in the season when Mujica faltered, Rosenthal was ready this time.
Boggs began the season as closer, but did not survive in the role through April. He was sent to the minors twice in May and then traded in July.
Pressed into closing duty as the club’s fourth option, Mujica, a free-agent-to-be, immediately took hold of the position. He converted his first 21 saves before his first miss, on July 4. The 29-year-old made his first National League All-Star Team.
Thought by some to be a contributor to his skid, nine times Mujica pitched more than one inning, including two full innings four times.
Even with his September struggles (two saves, two blown saves) that led to Rosenthal taking over the ninth-inning duties, Mujica saved 37 games in 41 attempts over the course of the season. He walked just five batters all year long and had a 9.2 to one strikeout to walk ratio, both best among NL relievers.
Rosenthal, 23, had begun the spring in a starting battle with Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly and ended the regular season as the closer. In between, the hard-thrower led the team with 74 appearances and his 108 strikeouts were the most by a Cardinals reliever since 1978. His 12.9 Ks per nine innings led the club and 29 holds were second in the league.
Yet, early on, Rosenthal was not ready for the ninth-inning job. He blew his first two save opportunities in April and was not given another chance until August 10, then blew three more. Finally, Rosenthal logged three straight saves in the final week of the schedule before putting on a strong October performance. It was so dominant that it evaporated any lingering doubts about his suitability and readiness for the role.
Specifically, 11 2/3 scoreless post-season frames on just four hits followed. Rosenthal’s fastball cut through the lineups of the Bucs, Dodgers and even the eventual champion Red Sox. The right-hander fanned 18 of 40 batters faced. Two of his three free passes issued were intentional.
As a result, Rosenthal will head into 2014 spring camp with the closing assignment firmly in hand. The Cardinals let Mujica walk as a free agent and he later signed with Boston. In the final season of his current contract, Motte will be given time to work his way back into form following his May Tommy John surgery.
Despite the in-season churn, the 2013 pen logged a 20-19 record with a 3.43 ERA overall. They struck out 448 in 445 1/3 innings. Just 60 of 267 inherited runners scored (22 percent) and they saved 44 of 64 opportunities (69 percent success).