The St. Louis Cardinals entered play Sunday with a 46-41 record, just one game behind their record at this point last season. To make a late-season run this year similar to 2011, the Cardinals will need to add some experienced arms in the bullpen.
The Cardinals sent Colby Rasmus to the Toronto Blue Jays on July 27 last year as part of a three-team trade that gave the Cardinals three critical pieces of their championship team: starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, and relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel.
Jackson started some critical games for the Cardinals in the second half of the season, and Rzepcysnki provided needed lefthanded relief to neutralize potent left-handed hitters such as Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard. However, the most important part of that group that is no longer with the team is Dotel.
Dotel, who now pitches for the Detroit Tigers, filled the role Julian Tavarez played for the Cardinals in 2004 National League championship and Braden Looper pitched in relief for the 2006 World Series championship team. Unfortunately, the Cardinals don’t have a pitcher similar to Dotel in their bullpen this year.
The team may have hoped Scott Linebrink would fill that role this year, but he got hurt in Spring Training and the Cardinals released him before he ever threw a pitch in the 2012 regular season. Now they have a group of 20-somethings that are pitching as typical 20-something pitchers without much experience.
Sure, much of that group pitched well during last year’s playoff run, but they also had a veteran leader in Dotel. He not only pitched well with a 3.28 ERA as a Cardinal, but he also provided leadership for the inexperienced bullpen. His absence has left a huge void in this year’s bullpen.
Victor Marte, 31, is the oldest of the group, but he is in his first full season is not ready to lead a group of other pitchers. Jason Motte, 30, has 20 saves this year and finished off the World Series last year, but he still has issues of his own, which include finding a reliable second pitch that he can throw with confidence.
The bullpen’s lack of experience has shown up in the numbers this year, as well. The Cardinals have a 4.49 bullpen ERA, which is 25th in the majors.
Manager Mike Matheny has grasped at straws in Memphis by bringing up Eduardo Sanchez and Sam Freeman, but both have looked overmatched and should stay in Memphis for the rest of the year. If Motte created nail-biting moments last year, just imagine Freeman pitching in an important game late in the year or in the playoffs. Those would be heart-attack inducing innings.
So, as the trading deadline approaches, the Cardinals have been linked to starting pitchers such as Brewers starter Zack Greinke, but they need to look toward pitchers who can throw key innings late in a game rather than the first six or seven innings.
Sure, the starting rotation is fragile with Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia on the disabled list, but Lance Lynn and Joe Kelly provide much more stability in their roles than Fernando Salas or Mitchell Boggs do in their bullpen roles.
Plus, a veteran reliever will likely be a cheaper find than a front-line starter who may or may not test the free agent market in the offseason.
Looking back, the Cardinals would have been wise to pursue Dotel a little more aggressively. Hopefully they get a second chance at a similar pitcher later this month.