With the unknown status of the full extent of Jason Motte’s injury, the St. Louis Cardinals bullpen will be the next unit that is forced to adjust on the run. However, with their closer on the mend, a brand new set of questions will have to be answered in a short amount of time.
When it was revealed that Motte is suffering from a mild sprain in his elbow on Saturday, it immediately reshuffled the entire bullpen’s responsibility. While the depth of arms on the roster, and within the organization, has been much hallowed, the role of closer is not one that is easily passed along. Motte became the first pitcher in team history to gather every save on the season for the team, and his 42 saves tied for tops in the National League. And despite only being the technical closer for the team for a year and a half, he remains one of the most indispensable parts of a team that has long looked for a definite lock on the end of games.
Finding anybody that can take up a mantle that was absolutely held by another is a tall task. While it makes sense to place a similar styled arm in the role, finding the right makeup to match the arm is a tougher equation. There’s a lot more that goes into ending games than just throwing hard for one inning. It’s a mentality, and often it’s not one that is developed; it is it there or it isn’t. “Jason has it. You could tell even before he took on the role,” said assistant general manager and former All-Star Cardinal closer Ryan Franklin said during the Cardinals Winter Warm Up. “Either you have it or you don’t, and you will find out soon enough along the way.” Little did he know it was a question that the team would have to find an answer for in the near future.
For the time being, Mitchell Boggs will be the answer. After the strides he took a year ago, it is right that he does so. He was the undisputed eighth inning answer last season, and his 34 holds led the National League and he is accustomed to preserving games. Boggs has the attitude and the fire to do so; he has embraced the late-inning role that he has been trusted with. Just one spring removed from having his place on the team questioned, he developed the competitive mentality to continue to compete night in and night out just to stay relevant to the team. The question is not in his arm, next to Trevor Rosenthal, he may have the liveliest arm on the team, but for a team that struggled to win late with some regularity last summer, how he transitions to having his nights moved back one inning could tell the story of how the season goes.
Boggs shift in the mix changes the demand of the rest of the pen as well. The push to replace Boggs in the setup role could prove to be a tougher equation than him replacing Motte. Edward Mujica, who was the defacto setup man for Boggs last fall, will likely become the favorite to be the new setup man, but the role will likely be a time share. Rosenthal, who was the fireman for pitching the club out of tight spots late in the season, will also get the ball in the eighth inning more often. Fernando Salas also receives a more concrete role on the team, with the seventh inning becoming a prime situation to use the former closer in. Joe Kelly will likely see a more variable role in the fashion that Rosenthal and/or Salas had been pegged for out of the pen, if he loses out on the fifth starter slot to Shelby Miller.
The trickledown effect of the loss of Motte for the time being changes what was a definite strength of for the team, a deep and matchup heavy bullpen. With Rosenthal not being able to float as easily between the sixth and eighth innings, it changes how quickly Mike Matheny can let his starters off the hook. And it puts an even higher demand on scoring enough runs early for the offense that the tight game isn’t as often of an occurrence.
Yet the question for Boggs finds it’s way to every other arm in the bullpen equation: can they answer the call to their new demand as easily as their previous one? The answer will have to be found on the run, and if there isn’t one, it won’t be able to be planned for. Whether its the return of Motte, the emergence of Boggs or even who takes the ball in the sixth inning now, with the end of the story changing, nothing else earlier is the same.