Bullpen Could Be A Strength For St. Louis Cardinals In 2012

The St. Louis Cardinals’ bullpen came a long way in 2011, beginning with Ryan Franklin’s blown save on Opening Day and ending with Jason Motte’s final pitch to win Game Seven of the World Series.

The squad battled through major ups and downs throughout the season, and the final roster hardly resembled the Opening Day roster. All of those changes turned out to be a blessing, however, as the team went on to win the World Series.

The Opening Day bullpen that included pitchers such as Miguel Batista, Brian Tallet and Bryan Augenstein eventually turned into a bullpen with Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.

The latter group was instrumental in the Cardinals run to the world championship. Manager Tony La Russa used his bullpen more extensively in the playoffs than any manager in the history of the game, and the relievers came through nearly every time in the playoffs.

Veterans such as Dotel and Arthur Rhodes left during the offseason, but the Cardinals picked up left-handed specialist J.C. Romero Dec. 15 and still have a strong core of young arms that will be ready to defend the championship this year.

Plus, the experience those young pitchers got during the stretch run of the 2011 season is sure to help them in future seasons.

After watching Motte nervously bumble his way through relief appearances at times during the previous two seasons, few people could have imagined him all of a sudden shutting down the best teams in the game during the most important stretch of the season, much less coming through flawlessly in the World Series to beat the Texas Rangers.

Yet, there he was on the mound at Busch Stadium throwing some of the most important pitches of the season.
After years of turnover and uncertainty in the Cardinals bullpen, that group could be one of the best parts of the team in 2012.

The Cardinals lost a lot of firepower in the lineup when first baseman Albert Pujols left in December to sign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, and they only brought in players who were Pujols’ age or older. The chances of both shortstop Rafeal Furcal and outfielder Carlos Beltran staying healthy for the entire season are very low.

That means the Cardinals will have to rely heavily on their pitching staff. The good news is this year’s pitching staff could be the best the Cardinals have had since 2004 when four starters had 15 or more wins, and that team went to the World Series.

Adam Wainwright will return this season to join what should be a strong rotation that includes Chris Carpenter, Jamie Garcia, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook.

However, that rotation can only do so much. The bullpen is also going to have to shut down teams regularly late in games. With a strong rotation, the relievers will likely come into games with a lead, and a bad stretch of relief pitching could quickly demoralize the entire team.

Losing games is one thing, but losing because a reliever blew the game late adds an extra sting.

In any case, Cardinals fans should be as confident in this season’s bullpen as it has been in many years. This group is younger than most of the Cardinals’ bullpens during the La Russa era, and it now has experience that should keep them from getting rattled in tight situations.

After having a bullpen that appeared to be one of the worst in the league less than 12 months ago, the Cardinals could go into 2012 with one of the best bullpens in the game. That is quite a turnaround.

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