Jason Motte injury has all signs of long-term problem

In four years Jason Motte went from a hard-throwing catcher to a pitcher who closed out a World Series championship and became a linchpin in the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen but, as is the case for many closers, now it is his turn to land on the disabled list with arm problems.

MathenyMotte

The Cardinals announced Saturday that Motte has a right elbow strain and will likely start the season on the disabled list. The team has a viable back-up in Mitchell Boggs, but Boggs could end up being the Cardinals closer for most, if not all, of 2013.

Although Motte technically has a sprained elbow, he underwent an MRI on Friday that found a tear in one of the ligaments. That sounds an awful lot like what shortstop Rafael Furcal experienced when he tore an elbow ligament Aug. 30. Furcal didn’t play the rest of the season and will now miss the 2013 season after he finally had Tommy John surgery.

That’s not to say Motte is headed toward Tommy John surgery and will be out for the year, but a tear in an elbow ligament doesn’t usually heal itself, at least not quickly.

But this isn’t doomsday for the Cardinals. They can still compete for a playoff spot or even win a World Series championship without Motte. Other teams have experienced this type of situation with their closer, and whether they got lucky to have a good fill-in closer or they simply had a deep bullpen, they still won a lot of baseball games.

For example, the 2012 World Series champion San Francisco Giants lost their closer, Brian Wilson, at the beginning of the season. But they eventually gave Sergio Romo the job and he finished game after game all the way to a four-game sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

The Cardinals are even a step ahead of the Giants because they have a back-up closer ready before the season starts. The Giants had a closer-by-committee situation early in the season as pitchers such as Santiago Casilla tried to finish games before they settle on Romo.

The Cardinals already have Boggs ready to make a relatively easy transition from eighth-inning setup reliever to closer. Boggs led the Cardinals with 78 appearances in 2012 and had a National League-best 34 holds.

Plus, the team has a loaded bullpen that should be able to fill in any open spots without much trouble. Flamethrowing righthanded reliever Trevor Rosenthal has the stuff to shut down hitters for one inning, and the Cardinals have a bevy of righthanded relievers such as Fernando Salas and Edward Mujica who can continue to work the middle innings.

Motte’s injury also might affect the battle between Shelby Miller and Joe Kelly for the fifth and final spot in the starting rotation. The Cardinals could decide to give the rookie Miller the starting job and put Kelly in the bullpen since he worked eight games for the Cardinals in relief last season.

In any case, the Cardinals certainly won’t get the type of consistency from the closer’s role they had in 2012. Motte had all 42 saves for the Cardinals last season and tied with Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel for the league lead.

That’s a bit much to expect out of Boggs, who hadn’t had an earned-run average below 3.50 until he broke through last year and posted a 2.21 ERA.

But the Cardinals do have a deep enough team to survive an injury to their closer. This isn’t an obituary for their season, but the words to describe Motte’s 2013 season might already be chiseled in stone.

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