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Brian Walton's news and commentary on the St. Louis Cardinals (TM) and their minor league system

TCN blog 2013 top story #10: Seamless closer transition

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).

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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13 Responses to “TCN blog 2013 top story #10: Seamless closer transition”

  1. […] 13. Steady, unsteady rotation middle 12. The Freese-Bourjos trade 11. Young bullpen guns 10. Seamless closer transition 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. […]

  2. blingboy says:

    It is interesting to speculate what the staff/rotation would have looked like had the Motte/Boggs combo not imploded.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I’ve thought a bit about that, too. If nothing else, it serves as a good reminder that perceived depth can be soaked up quickly and how important that depth (and having the time to break it in to the majors) was to the 2013 Cardinals.

      It still amazes me that Rosenthal blew his first five career save opportunities and even today, has just three regular-season saves – for a success rate of 37.5 percent.

  3. crdswmn says:

    I’ve mentioned that particular Card’s blog that I lurk at for sabermetrics discussions but don’t post on because they are all weird and arrogant there. Well, today they have a post and a discussion that takes the cake.

    They are now proposing (at least many of them) that the David Freese trade should be the basis of all future handling of the team. That, in essence, the Cards should trade every player who reaches arbitration for younger, better players. In other words, build a system that eliminates veterans, and has a roster of nothing but young pre arb players acquired through trade or draft.

    No more FA contracts or arbitration. There will be no Wainos or Yadis or Matt Hollidays. Just a team full of Shelby Millers, Trevor Rosenthals, Kolten Wongs, and Oscar Taverases. This is their utopia. Don’t get attached, Cards fans, because it’s 3 years and out. The main post does allow for a few extensions if wanted, but mostly it is all about a veteran free team.

    If I ever become such a baseball fan, I want someone to euthanize me.

    • Brian Walton says:

      Interesting winter discussion fodder when nothing real is happening, but it seems an impractical idea. I will put aside the head scratching that comes from the Freese deal being the model when it was essentially the swapping of one arb-eligible player (Freese) for another arb-eligible player in Bourjos.

      To succeed when adopting this philosophy and field a perennial winner at the major league level (as the Cardinals and their fans expect) would assume the internal player pipeline is consistently strong. That does not happen here or anywhere else, for that matter. As folks know, drafting and player development success ebbs and flows. The Cards are in a particularly good place now, but they weren’t just a few years ago and most likely will be back there again not too far into the future.

      As such, I suspect the Cardinals record would experience much greater variation over time in this proposed new world. Since they usually make the post-season in today’s environment, unless this approach would ensure more October success, how much good would it do?

      It also assumes that the general manager will make successful trades more often than not – again something that is not going to consistently happen over time. For two decades, I cringed when I saw Steve Carlton earning Cy Young Awards and winning most of his 300-plus victories in a Phillies uniform, while the Cards struggled – just as Cubs fans probably hated to see Lou Brock become a Hall of Famer while their team continued to flounder year after year.

      The good news is that the team would not have to struggle with deciding which numbers to retire and when to invite back the Hall of Famers, since there wouldn’t be anyone new to wear the red jackets once the current guys pass away.

      I also sense there could be a 40-man roster challenge. The goal seems to be to turn one major leaguer into multiple minor leaguers who have the highest odds of being successful in their first three years in the bigs. If so, the most desirable acquisitions are going to be those in Double-A or Triple-A. Many of them will be 40-man roster players or close. I suspect there would not be enough 40-man roster space to keep them all.

      I did not read the initial article, but as presented here, the idea seems to imply that keeping player payroll low trumps all. We know that in reality, many factors that have to be balanced in running a successful major league sports franchise.

      For example, this does not take into account the importance of gaining and maintaining fan support. Just like in any business, once customers are lost, it becomes far more difficult and expensive to get them back and even more so to lure customers away from the competition.

      Some fans are lost when favorite players are dealt away. Others lose interest in the years when the team hits a dip in the standings. In the worst case, you have both, otherwise known as the Houston Astros.

      • crdswmn says:

        I think the Freese analogy was meant as a general reference to trading away average players at arbitration and getting younger, better players in return. Bourjos is younger and better (at least defensively), though maybe in this particular case not so much cheaper. The plan allows for keeping superstars, but on much shorter contracts (which really seems an unrealistic idea in this market).

        The post assumes that by the time this crop of youngsters reach arbitration, there will be sufficient younger players available either in the system or by trade from anxious GMs wanting to win now with high priced veteran players, that this plan is self-sustaining.

        Of course, it’s all horse hockey to me.

      • crdswmn says:

        I think it is in part a low payroll thing, but it is also a risk averse thing. Younger players being generally less risky injury wise.

        I am of course putting my own interpretation on this, but that is the way the article reads to me. Veteran players will only be kept if they can be signed to “team friendly contracts”, which in the language of that blog usually means 4 years or less (with 4 years being the extreme case). The Waino and Yadi contracts would be avoided, though in Yadi’s particular case, they acknowledge there was little choice. The Holliday contract seems to be acceptable in his particular case because he has more than earned his salary, but this one is seen as a special case.

      • crdswmn says:

        “The good news is that the team would not have to struggle with deciding which numbers to retire and when to invite back the Hall of Famers, since there wouldn’t be anyone new to wear the red jackets once the current guys pass away.”

        The general consensus at that site is that the HOF is an old and irrelevant institution that they don’t care about.

        • Brian Walton says:

          I was on a more generic point. To some percentage of baseball fans, the history of the game becomes more important eventually. Maybe not in the current moment, but perhaps in later years, when one reminisces about the “good old days” of their youth. I assert that admiration is more prevalently focused on players than a particular year’s team.

          With a transient roster, every great player to don the Cardinals uniform would eventually be known in history as having played the vast majority of his career for (an)other team(s). Even for the players who are not great, but only good, how many peak in their first three seasons?

          Even if a Cardinals observer does not care about Cooperstown, doesn’t he/she respect what Stan Musial or Albert Pujols meant to the team during their respective heydays?

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